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With fears of a contested election growing, more Americans stock up to ride out the discord

Linda Sturgill, who lives in a rural Virginia town, has stocked her pantry in case of unrest after the election.
Linda Sturgill, who lives in a rural Virginia town, has stocked her pantry in case of unrest after the election.Linda Sturgill

In recent weeks, as the pandemic has surged and fears swirl about the potential for a disputed election, Linda Sturgill has busily prepared for the worst.

She and her husband have stocked up on canned food, propane, candles, jugs of water, and powdered milk. They bought a calf to store in their freezer, special heirloom seeds that last for months, and as much ammunition as they could find, even though the price of bullets has surged.

They’ve also set aside plywood for their windows, though they haven’t boarded them up yet because they don’t want to scare their three young grandchildren who live with them in a rural town in Virginia.

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“Sometimes, you feel like you have to prepare for a potential Armageddon,” said Sturgill, 47, who spent more than a $1,000 on a recent trip to Walmart. “All you have to do is look at Facebook to see all the toxicity out there. It’s scary.”

With President Trump repeatedly stoking right-wing rage and suggesting he won’t accept the results of the election if he loses, many Americans fear the country could be bound for strife and have been taking steps to protect themselves.

A nationwide tracking poll this month found that 58 percent of those surveyed said they’re stocking up on essential goods, up six points from the same poll last month.

Of those people, 56 percent attributed their concerns to a resurgence of COVID-19, 24 percent to chaos associated with the wave of protests against racism, and 20 percent to unrest related to the election, said Jon Last, president of Sports & Leisure Research Group, a New York market research firm that has been surveying about 500 Americans twice a month since the pandemic began.

Even more alarming: 61 percent of those polled said they feared the country was on the verge of civil war.

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“This is the single most frightening poll result I’ve ever been associated with,” said Rich Thau, president of Engagious, another research firm that helped conduct the survey.

When those surveyed were asked whether they were more worried about the state of the nation than they were a month before, nearly two-thirds said they were. When asked how they thought they would feel a month later, 61 percent said they expected to be more stressed.

“In all my years doing research, I’ve never seen a more divided populace than I’ve seen right now,” Last said.

The fears reflected in their poll were echoed by a separate analysis of tens of millions of credit card transactions that identified a spike in sales at supermarkets and big box stores.

In recent weeks, consumers spent 16 percent more on groceries than they did last year during the same period — the highest increase in such purchases since the virus began surging in the United States, according to the analysis by Envestnet | Yodlee, a Chicago-based data analytics company.

“It’s unusual to see such a large increase,” said Bill Parsons, group president of data and analytics at Envestnet. “Spending has risen consistently.”

More people have also been buying weapons.

As of the end of last month, the FBI had conducted 28.8 million background checks of gun buyers through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — more than any other full year on record and 41 percent more than through the same period last year.

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Since March, the stock prices for Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger, the nation’s two largest gun manufacturers, have risen by nearly 160 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

Americans already owned an estimated 393 million guns in 2017, accounting for about 49 percent of all civilian-owned guns in the world, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.

The surge in gun sales has been good business for Tom Weitbrecht, owner of WA Arms in Rockland.

“If I had to make a graph of sales, it would just go up in a straight line,” he said. “The pandemic started everything, but all the other circumstances have continued it.”

The biggest problem now for his customers, he said, is the surge in prices for handguns and ammunition, the result of a spike in demand and plummeting supply.

At the beginning of the year, for example, a SIG Sauer P365 handgun sold for $475; today they’re selling for as much as $1,000, Weitbrecht said. A box of ammunition that sold for about $8 in January now costs $35.

There’s a similar increase in demand for self-defense classes. At a firearms-training school Weitbrecht runs, about 200 people a month are now registering for classes, compared with about 30 a month before the pandemic, he said.

“It’s been crazy,” he said. “I was trying to replenish my inventory, and I couldn’t find a single shotgun in the United States.”

Another obstacle for gun sales has been the challenge of obtaining a license, as many cities and towns have had limited services since March. That has led the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts to file, or plan to file, lawsuits against Lowell, Cambridge, Stoughton, and Weymouth, which they accuse of failing to issue firearms licenses in a timely manner.

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“This is a deprivation of civil rights at a time when there’s a huge influx of people who want to exercise their Second Amendment rights,” said Jim Wallace, the group’s executive director.

Fueling gun sales in recent months have been growing concerns on the right that if Democrats win control of the presidency and Congress, as polls suggest they are likely to do, they could take steps to prevent Americans from buying weapons.

Derrick James publishes blogs and books about “preppers,” whom he describes as those “aware of the larger social fragility who choose to take measures to mitigate those risks.”

As a reflection of their heightened concerns, he recently published a piece on his SHTF Blog titled “13 Ways to Prepare For a Contested Election.”

“Things are going to get nasty,” the post warns. “This is truly the closest that the United States has been to a state of civil war for the past 100+ years.”

The piece recommends readers buy guns, ammunition, and body armor, as well as to stock emergency supplies and plan escape routes.

“I worry about the unintentional consequences of someone showing up to a rally, with their rifles, and the other side doing the same thing,” said James, 43, who lives his wife and four kids in central Maine, and has been filling his pantry with staples.

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Among those wary about the coming weeks is Jason Moran, who worked for years on counterterrorism issues in the Army and has been stocking up to protect his family.

He keeps three guns at his home in Des Moines, and recently bought 1,000 rounds of ammunition, some of which he plans to use as barter if needed. He has hoarded toilet paper and canned goods, and amassed a two-year supply of medicine.

In a second freezer, he has stashed ground turkey and other meats. And just in case, he has a large rubber bladder that he can use in his bathtub to fill with water.

“As we head toward the election, it looks like a powder keg out there,” said Moran, 47, who works in corporate security. “We’re all so entrenched in our views. I don’t see how we get past this. I’m really worried about the health of the republic.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.