Dan Hartman is seeing lots of new faces in his Carroll County gun store this year.
He attributes the increase to the uncertainty people feel about COVID-19, frequent protests in major cities and the prospect of President-elect Joe Biden, a gun control advocate, in the White House.
“I don’t know if that’s something you necessarily have to worry about in your home, but people are scared,” said Hartman, who owns Maryland Elite Firearms in Finksburg.
Maryland has seen a more than 76% spike in FBI firearm background checks initiated in the first 11 months of 2020 versus all of 2019. This number doesn’t represent the number of gun sales, but is indicative of firearm demand. Nationally, background checks are up about 49% during the same time frame.
What Hartman is seeing is part of a broader trend. Across the country, gun sales are at all-time highs, according to estimates from research consulting group Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting. But Maryland’s growth has been particularly pronounced, as it has been higher than all but six states: Michigan, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Utah and Rhode Island, in that order, according to a Baltimore Sun data analysis.
The run on guns in Maryland and nationwide may have implications ranging from supply shortages to increased violence and deaths by suicide, experts say.
A University of California, Davis Violence Prevention Program study of the first three months of the pandemic in the United States found that the increase in gun purchases was tied to a statistically significant increase in firearm violence.
Gun sales traditionally spike due to two factors, said Timothy Lytton, a professor at Georgia State University, whose research focuses on gun violence. The first is when a Democrat might win the White House, he said, as happened during the 2016 presidential campaign when Hillary Clinton was the front-runner.
Mass shootings also cause a spike in gun sales, Lytton said, as people think stricter regulations may follow.
Hartman said he has seen everyone from military veterans who haven’t fired a weapon in 40 years to first-timers who never thought they’d buy a gun. Many don’t know about Maryland’s handgun restrictions.
While the majority of nationwide protests related to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement have been peaceful, Hartman said his customers are worried about the instances of looting and violence they have seen in the media.
“They’re afraid of people breaking into their houses and people burning and looting,” Hartman said. “Election results have increased firearm sales — not just with Trump supporters.”
A Westminster woman who offered only her first name Debbie because she knows people who lost business because of their support for President Donald Trump recently purchased a pistol-caliber carbine — a short-barreled rifle that shoots pistol ammunition — from Hartman’s shop. A business owner, she travels a lot and sometimes brings her guns with her.
“There’s a lot more crime going on right now,” she said. “And all the unrest that’s going on, you don’t know when it’s going to come to your neighborhood.”
Biden’s election will further reverse what Lytton called the “Trump slump” — a decline in gun sales since Trump’s 2016 election. He now thinks the opposite will be true.
“Concern over the prospect of new restrictions on the sale and ownership of firearms in the incoming Biden administration may well add to the already record number to gun purchases this year, especially among those who already own firearms,” Lytton said.
COVID-19 also threw a wrench in the “Trump slump,” as some feared governments were being too heavy-handed with restrictions intended to slow the virus’ spread.
“People who generally favor gun rights are also people who favor gun rights in large measure because they’re worried about government tyranny,” Lytton said. “Public health measures that involve locking down businesses and keeping people from traveling fueled those types of anxieties, so firearms owners went out to purchase more weapons.”
A second group of people has bought weapons, particularly handguns, in response to a perceived breakdown in civil order, in light of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Lytton said. These people are largely first-time gun owners, he said; a National Shooting Sports Foundation survey of 175 member firearm retailers found that owners said an average of 40% of their customers between January and April fell in that category.
Many of these first-time gun owners felt that the police wouldn’t be there to protect them when they need them, said Mark Pennak, president of gun rights group Maryland Shall Issue.
“The short of it is that people are afraid. That is a very powerful reason,” Pennak said.
But perception can diverge from reality.
More than 93% of all demonstrations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement between May and August were nonviolent, according to a study from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. In Maryland, more than 98% of demonstrations recorded by the project between George Floyd’s death in May and Nov. 7 have been nonviolent, according to project spokesman Sam Jones.
There’s no reason Lytton can think of as to why Maryland wouldn’t be going along with the national trend of increased gun sales, Lytton said.
“The closer you are in to Baltimore, the more liberal voters get, and the more their association with firearms is about urban violence. The farther out you get and the more rural you get, the more people are worried about government tyranny and centralized control of personal liberties,” Lytton said. “You have both urban and rural narratives that are fueling firearms purchases.”
Shannon Frattaroli, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the public health community fears a rise in deaths by suicide due to more guns being purchased. With elevated levels of unemployment and increasing isolation during the pandemic, suicide risk factors have increased, she said.
“There’s a sense of hopelessness and uncertainty about the future. We really need to be concerned about suicide risk and with the increase in gun sales,” Frattaroli said. “It feels like a really dangerous situation we’re in right now.”
Although people may think guns make them safer in times of uncertainty, more guns generally means more violence, said Liz Banach, executive director of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence.
“If you’re really worried about your safety, get a security system or a dog,” Banach said. “A gun is much more likely to put you or your family at risk.”
Pennak calls concerns about increased gun violence “fear-mongering.”
With the uptick in first-time gun owners, Banach fears gun newbies might not have the training or experience to handle the firearms safely.
Brian Wolf, chief marketing officer of Guntry, an indoor shooting and training facility in Owings Mills, said the facility has seen its training classes sell out.
“We’re selling out those classes because we here making a huge push for education,” Wolf said.
With firearms selling fast, gun dealers are working hard to restock, but manufacturers haven’t been able to keep up, especially with COVID-19 impacting supply chains. The demand has created firearm shortages in Canada, as the number of American guns sold outside the United States has been restricted to help keep pace with domestic demand, Lytton said.
And the trend is likely to continue, experts say, given Biden’s victory.
President Barack Obama “was the best gun salesman in the history of the United States, and I think Biden will be likewise. People will buy in anticipation of the regulations,” Pennak said. “Gun owners will likely not trust the new administration.”
Baltimore Sun photographer Amy Davis contributed to this article.