RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gun sales in Virginia this year have skyrocketed, breaking a record set in 2016 in just nine months.
Data from the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center, which has tracked mandatory background checks on buyers since 1990, shows estimated firearm sales have spiked in 2020, a year rocked by the global pandemic and protests across the country.
There have been 587,107 background checks in Virginia through September, surpassing the annual record in 2016 of 505,722. Gun sales have risen nationally, with statistics from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System showing an average of more than three million background checks from March through August.
With no database tracking the total number of transactions, background checks provides the best way to measure gun sales in the country. The checks account for sales by federally-licensed gun dealers, not sales at gun shows or any other purchase made, and are done per customer, not per firearm.
“I thought 2016 was the high-water mark, when we had 15.7 million checks. Now, we have 15.4 million, 300,000 checks behind,” said Mark Oliva, the director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “We will certainly surpass that record. It’s a year like no other.”
In March, the month Virginia reported its first coronavirus case, a monthly record in the commonwealth was set after 80,228 checks were done. That record lasted three months, until 81,204 background checks were conducted in June amid protests over racial injustices and civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the death of Breonna Taylor.
Oliva added that decisions from elected officials to release inmates due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic and calls to defund the police have also played a part, saying that “people saw this and took matters into their own hands.”
He told 8News that he expects there will be more than 20 million background checks on buyers in the U.S. by the end of this year.
“Protests quickly morphed into riots and violence and people are reacting to calls to defund the police,” Oliva continued. “This is not just happening in Seattle, Portland or Kenosha, it was happening in Richmond as well.”
The new monthly record also came just before Virginia’s new gun-control laws went into effect, a correlation that Oliva says is clear. He cited the Second Amendment sanctuary movement and the gun-rights rally in January, which led thousands to converge in Richmond, as signs that Virginians are passionate about their guns.
“This shouldn’t be a flashpoint,” Oliva said. “I don’t think it’s going to go away quickly because Virginians are paying attention to this.”
The NSSF, a trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry, surveys retailers on gun sales. Oliva said the survey shows that 40 percent of customers this year never owned a gun before, and that handguns, typically seen as being used for self defense, are the top sellers in 2020. Oliva, a retired Marine, said “today’s gun buyers don’t look like me,” citing spikes in sales among African Americans and women.
“The gun debate was rhetorical, it never meant much, but it’s an existential question now,” he told 8News. “There’s a seismic shift in the gun debate and people are literally investing with their wallets.”
“It was never a year that you could not get ammo, and you could not get guns,” says Karen Ballengee, store owner of Southern Gun World in Chesterfield. She adds she’s sold 2,000 to 3,000 more guns than she did this time last year. Start with the pandemic, and then add-in Richmond riots.
Sales this year at have gone up 700 percent, according to the store owner.
“We had several people come in from Monument Avenue. We had a lot of business owners coming from Richmond. Restaurants, even AC unit people,” she said. “We had Chinese owners because of the pandemic and what they were saying.”
Putting sales in perspective, Ballengee says her store sold 162 guns in December last year. Then, come March—a jump: 485 guns sold.
“The biggest month we had so far this year was June: 584,” Ballengee said. “We have had to limit the ammo to one box per customer that comes in.”
Ballengee says her store has been able to keep up thanks to connections and government contracts, but across-the-board some gun orders are backlogged three to four months.
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