RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Firearm sales have surged across the country in 2020, reaching historic highs in a year undoubtedly shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Despite the economic uncertainty for many, data clearly shows that Virginians have been buying guns at unprecedented levels this year.
The Virginia Firearms Transaction Center has kept mandatory background check records, seen as the best method to gauge firearm transactions with no database tracking total purchases, on buyers in the commonwealth since 1990.
In the first 11 months of the year, 716,563 background checks for firearm sales were conducted in Virginia. The previous annual record of 505,722, set in 2016, was eclipsed by the end of September 2020.
“I’ve been in the gun industry 40 years and I’ve never seen this before,” Mark Tosh, president of Town Gun Shop Inc., told 8News. “Nothing comes close.”
Tosh explained that a major concern for stores like Town Gun Shop Inc., which has its headquarters in Collinsville and a store in Chesterfield County, is how the huge demand has caused a shortage of ammunition.
This new record for Virginia doesn’t even include the December holiday season, a month with the most conducted background checks in seven of the last nine years.
Even when those numbers become available, total gun sales in Virginia and in the U.S. can’t be truly determined as background checks account for sales by federally-licensed gun dealers, not sales at gun shows or any other purchase made, and are done per customer, not per firearm. While the commonwealth has seen a huge spike in sales, it is definitely not alone.
“Virginia is following a national trend we are seeing,” Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said in an interview. “It’s not unique.”
The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System has initiated an average of 3.2 million federal background checks per month in 2020. For some perspective, you have to go back to December 2015 (3.3 million) to find a monthly figure at such a level.
The monthly record of 3.7 million federal background checks was set in March, the same month that a national emergency was declared and states began imposing virus restrictions. That record lasted until June, when 3.9 million checks were done as protests took place across the country over police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and shooting death of Breonna Taylor.
A similar spike was seen in Virginia during these months as well, with a record monthly high of 80,228 background checks in March being surpassed in June when 81,204 were conducted.
June’s record total also came just before Virginia’s new gun-control laws went into effect, a correlation that Oliva said is obvious. He noted the enthusiasm for the Second Amendment sanctuary movement in Virginia and a massive rally in January, which led thousands to converge in Richmond in support of gun rights.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed multiple gun control measures passed during the General Assembly session before the pandemic hit, including bills requiring background checks on all firearm sales, establishing a red flag law in Virginia and reinstating the state’s one-handgun-a-month policy.
The NSSF, a trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry, surveys retailers on gun sales. In this year’s survey, about 40 percent of customers are first-time buyers and handguns are the top sellers, according to Oliva.
Tosh said that while customers don’t come out and say it, he can recognize when a customer is coming in for their first gun and that he has noticed an increase this year.
Oliva added that he believes the association’s data shows what’s driving people to go to the gun shop.
“People are concerned for their safety so they are purchasing firearms. We know that by what types of firearms they buy,” Oliva said. “They are buying handguns, those are not the kind of guns for hunting. It’s for personal defense.”
While he said self-defense is a key factor, Oliva believes gun-control measures passed in the state legislature earlier this year motivated buyers the most.
“These are people who didn’t have a position before, but they have now chosen their position,” he continued. “Literally invested with their money.”