scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Rhode Islanders keep stocking up on guns

From concern about coronavirus hoarding to worries about civil unrest, residents and out-of-staters are arming themselves at a record rate

A Smith & Wesson pistol on display at Heritage Gun & Coin in West Warwick.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- David DeLoia can see the effect of this tumultuous year in his own gun shop.

There are the emptying shelves, the struggle to keep up with demands for ammunition and firearms, the “deer in the headlight” looks on the faces of new customers asking about buying their first guns. And they tell him their reasons.

“First, it was Covid. Now, it’s civil unrest. Now, it’s antifa. Now, you’re gonna defund the cops -- that’s a brainstorm,” said DeLoia, the owner of Heritage Gun & Coin, standing near a shelf all but cleaned out of handguns. “The issues haven’t changed. It’s not so much [about] the toilet paper. People are worried about getting their throat slashed. People don’t want their businesses looted.”


Background checks for firearms and applications to buy handguns in Rhode Island soared to new heights last month, in a tumultuous year that began with the coronavirus pandemic and a flailing economy, and now civil unrest over racial injustice and demands to rethink police budgets.

The gun-buying surge began in March, as the pandemic hit and states including Rhode Island began shutting down their economy. People were buying firearms and ammunition like they were hoarding toilet paper. Rhode Island led the nation with the biggest percentage increase in background checks that month.

And then came June -- a month of protests and violence across the nation, erupting in reaction to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. In Rhode Island and throughout the United States, people held protests and called for defunding or abolishing the police.

And gun dealers saw the response from customers.

Would-be gun buyers lined up outside D&L Shooting Supplies in Warwick.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In the first six months of 2020, Rhode Island had nearly as many background checks for firearms as it does in a full year.


By June, blue card applications -- the firearms safety card required before purchasing handguns in Rhode Island -- were up 53 percent compared with all of 2019, according to numbers from the state Department of Environmental Management. The number of people applying for blue cards last month had tripled since May, from 561 to 1,774 in June. Altogether, DEM has received 5,676 applications for blue cards in the first six months of 2020, compared to 3,702 all of last year.

There’s no way of knowing how many firearms were sold or who is buying them; Rhode Island law doesn’t allow a state registry of firearms.

But gun dealers and the gun industry say they are seeing new customers who are seeking self-protection during a year of turmoil.

Nationally, retailers sold more than 2.38 million firearms in June, an increase of 145.3 percent from June 2019, according to estimates from industry research firm Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting. Likely sales of handguns increased 177.5 percent year-over-year, and long guns increased 114 percent, according to the research firm.

“The first week of June saw especially high background check volumes, presumably related to the aftermath of the killing of Mr. George Floyd,” said the firm’s chief economist, Jurgen Brauer.

The FBI reported more than 3.9 million background checks in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in June, the highest per month since the system was created in November 1998. That shattered the last monthly record, in March, when there were 3.7 million checks nationwide.


The number of background checks indicate interest in buying a firearm, but does not represent the number of firearms that were sold. Rhode Island is one of many states that require background checks before selling firearms to customers.

The FBI conducted 5,332 background checks for Rhode Island last month, a 231 percent increase from June 2019.

Rhode Island is easily on track to have the most firearm background checks this year than any previous years. In the first six months of 2020, Rhode Island had a total of 24,019 background checks for gun sales. That’s nearly as many as all of last year -- and nearly 10,000 more than a decade ago.

In March, as she called for a state of emergency, Governor Gina M. Raimondo extended the time period from seven to 10 days for police to complete a background check for firearms buyers. The Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association had requested the extension, as their departments scrambled to deal with the impact of COVID-19.

Raimondo’s executive order is set to expire in Aug. 3, and Sid Wordell, the association’s executive director, said they don’t plan to ask for its renewal. The police are completing the background checks within about 12 days, he said.

Even with the demand. “It’s sort of the same thing as COVID, but it’s a different topic,” Wordell said. “The public has this Armageddon scenario that’s going to happen, and they don’t want to rely on government.”

Frank Saccoccio, president of the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition, said they’d fielded inquiries from “several hundred” new firearms owners who want to take classes. Many, he said, are giving the same reasons for buying their first guns.


“They don’t like the state of affairs,” Saccoccio said. “They don’t like that the ‘left’ is actively trying to disarm them and saying they want to limit the police force and the police budget. And they’re business owners who say, am I going to get looted?”

They don’t agree on much, but gun-control advocates and gun-rights enthusiast can agree on this: Fear is driving the surge of gun sales.

“There’s so much stoking of fear,” said Linda Finn, the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence. “People don’t have jobs, people are scared, and there’s so much uncertainty in our country and our state.”

The protests in Rhode Island and nationwide have been largely peaceful, Finn said. She accused the gun lobby of rhetoric “driving the fear, that the black and brown people are going to come into your town and rob and rape you.”

The result has led to a frenzy of more people buying guns, which Finn fears will correlate to more shootings and deaths. “The facts are gun ownership in the home increases the risk of you being shot, or suicide,” she said.

She was frustrated on Thursday to learn that the General Assembly wasn’t going to hear the bulk of the gun-control legislation that was still pending this session. The governor had signed one bill, legislation outlawing “ghost guns.” Other bills, including banning carrying long guns in public and enhancing penalties against people who don’t safely store their firearms, will die.


As far as DeLoia was concerned, the last few months made something clear. “The gun debate,” he said, “is over.”

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at Follow her @AmandaMilkovits.