PROVIDENCE -- Maybe they were expecting the zombie apocalypse.
The novel coronavirus caused a surge of panic-buying of firearms and ammunition in March and April throughout United States -- and especially in Rhode Island.
The Ocean State led the nation in March and was near the top in April of states with the highest percentage increase of background checks of people seeking to buy firearms.
Governor Gina M. Raimondo issued an order, extended until June 5, that extends the amount of time police departments have to complete background checks on potential buyers from seven days to 30.
There were so many people applying for Rhode Island’s “blue cards” -- the safety certificates that allow them to buy handguns -- that the state processed nearly as many in four months as it did all last year.
Gun shop owners saw a run on ammunition that depleted their stores and massive sales of handguns, shotguns, and rifles. They saw people new to gun ownership, some of whom John Francis of Competition Shooting Supplies in Pawtucket described as “liberal progressives” who told him they wouldn’t have considered buying a gun six months earlier.
The news about the pandemic changed their mind, Francis said.
“A lot of folks were listening to the governor and what potentially could happen and that hospitals would be overwhelmed -- then it’s not a far cry from civil unrest,” Francis said. “People are panicking when they hear these potential scenarios.”
As the governor ordered a state of emergency in mid-March, Francis had lines of customers outside and down the street, waiting to get into his store. He had to ration ammunition and ended up running out, as distributors couldn’t keep up with demand. He still has stacks of sales paperwork from April.
“I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Francis added.
That was the case across the nation. Retailers in the U.S. sold more than 2.5 million firearms in March, a year-over-year increase of 85 percent, and 1.79 million in April, an increase of 71.3 percent, according to estimates from industry research firm Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting.
The soaring number of background checks conducted by the FBI indicate interest in buying a firearm, but does not represent the number of firearms that were sold. Rhode Island and many other states run background checks before selling firearms to customers.
Still, the FBI reported more than 3.7 million background checks in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in March and 2.9 million in April. That’s nearly 1 million more than were performed in March 2019, an increase of 42%, and more than a half-million more than April 2019, roughly 25 percent higher.
In Rhode Island, background checks were up nearly 134 percent in March and 83.3 percent in April. Rhode Island had the highest increase in the nation in March and exceeded all of the states in April except for Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia.
The state Department of Environmental Management, which had typically handled a little more than 400 “blue card” applications a month, suddenly had more than double and triple that amount. There were 1,407 “blue card” applications in March and 1,060 in April. In comparison, last year there was a total of 3,702, according to DEM spokeswoman Gail Mastrati.
With such a high volume of gun purchases, Frank Saccoccio, president of the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition, said he spoke with the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association about giving the police more time to do background checks on buyers.
Saccoccio said they proposed 10 days. Raimondo instead extended the time to 30 days.
Sid Wordell, president of the Rhode Island Chiefs Association, said that police departments had largely been able to complete the background checks within seven to 10 days. A few went past 20 days, because the applicants had issues that needed further investigation, he said.
Saccoccio and the NRA accused Raimondo of extending background checks as a way to curb gun sales. But the Democratic governor didn’t try to shut the stores down, unlike Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, who ordered the state’s gun stores closed in March along with other nonessential businesses.
A federal judge struck down Baker’s decision last week, saying it infringed on the Second Amendment. Gun stores in Massachusetts were flooded with customers.
Saccoccio said he wasn’t surprised by the demand. “When there’s a pandemic, people realize the police and EMS are not going to get to you [in time],” he said. "And what are you going to do, believe the anti-gun rhetoric of having nothing?”
Linda Finn, the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, called that a scare tactic.
“Nothing plays out the way the gun lobby says it does -- that people are going to be banging down your door to get food,” Finn said.
Instead, she said, studies show that unsecured firearms in the home increase the risk to family members, by suicide, accidental discharge, and domestic violence. “It’s not going to make you safer," she said.
Meanwhile, at his Pawtucket store, Francis said sales have slowed significantly. Why? “There’s not much left to buy.”