Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in March 2020, Rhode Island and other states saw a significant increase in background checks to buy firearms. Fear of the coronavirus, civil unrest over the summer, and a contentious presidential election in the fall spiked the demand, according to firearms experts.
By the end of 2020, Rhode Island had more than doubled the number of background checks on people seeking to buy guns. The littlest state closed out the year with the second-highest percentage increase of background checks in the nation. And, after the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, and the inauguration of President Biden, demand rose again.
In Rhode Island, gun store owners say they are still struggling to keep up. Gun stores and the gun industry said they saw a wave of first-time gun buyers seeking weapons for personal protection.
“There was definitely a huge increase in women, and right now we have a ton of first-timers who are trying to learn,” said Conner Davis, at Sakonnet River Outfitters in Tiverton, R.I., which has a gun shop and an indoor range. “A lot are very scared of what’s going on in the country, with the pandemic and civil unrest.”
Nationally, retailers sold nearly 23 million firearms in 2020, up from the previous record of 16.6 million in 2016, according to estimates from industry research firm Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System conducted a record 39.7 million background checks for gun purchases in 2020, which was a 40 percent rise over 2019.
Of those, Rhode Island had 51,369 background checks last year, more than double the 24,338 checks performed in 2019. There were 9,188 background checks this January and February, already setting a record.
The background checks indicate someone’s interest in buying a firearm, but not how many guns were sold. In Rhode Island, there is no limit to the number of guns someone can purchase at a time.
Rhode Island law also doesn’t allow a state registry of firearms, so there is no way of knowing how many guns were sold and whether the buyers live in state or out of state.
However, the demand for “blue cards” — the firearms safety cards required of anyone buying a handgun for the first time in Rhode Island — were another barometer.
Last year, the state Department of Environmental Management handled 12,485 applications for blue cards — up from 3,702 in 2019 — with demand remaining high this year. There were a total of 1,726 applications just in January and February of this year, according to DEM.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, Conn., said surveys of its retailer members found that first-time buyers made up 40 percent of their sales. For the first six months, they saw an increase in Black men and women buying firearms, said Mark Oliva, public affairs director for the gun industry group.
Frank Saccoccio, president of the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition, said local gun dealers have also told him about seeing a big increase in first-time buyers. “Women are the fastest growing segment,” Saccoccio said. “Every time we set up a ladies night or ladies training class, they fill up.”
Linda Finn, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, questioned how many people actually ended up buying firearms. “I do worry that new gun owners believe the gun lobby when they say that having a gun makes you safer, when all evidence shows that having a gun in your home increases the likelihood of you or a family member being injured or killed,” Finn said.
There was also a rise in gun violence and deaths in Rhode Island last year. Gun deaths rose from 15 to 28 last year, not including suicides. And, police have been chasing dozens of legally bought firearms that were allegedly sold by traffickers last year.
Sid Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said that the uptick in crime was not attributable to legally owned firearms.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee began considering several bills on firearms Friday, including the ban of magazines over 10 rounds, banning guns on school grounds, and banning assault weapons, supported by the Coalition Against Gun Violence.
“I haven’t seen any polling which would indicate that the percentage of Americans who support constitutionally protected laws to have background checks for every gun sale, to stop selling assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and to keep guns out of our schools will be affected,” Finn said.
David DeLoia, owner of Heritage Gun and Coin in West Warwick, R.I., said that the potential for gun-control legislation would end up driving sales by people buying up certain firearms, like the AR-15, that they believe could be banned.
“Always in the midst of legislation, we have more demand,” he said.
That was something that gun advocates hadn’t worried about under the previous president, DeLoia said. The “Trump Slump,” he added, was over.