December 4, 2020

A Divided Nation Agrees on One Thing: Many People Want a Gun

CHANTILLY, Va.— Like many Americans, two women a thousand miles apart are each anxious about the uncertain state of the nation. Their reasons are altogether different. But they have found common ground, and a sense of certainty, in a recent purchase: a gun.

Ann-Marie Saccurato traced her purchase to the night she was eating dinner at a sidewalk restaurant not long ago in Delray Beach, Fla., when a Black Lives Matter march passed and her mind began to wander.

It takes only one person to incite a riot when emotions are high, she remembers thinking. What if the police are overpowered and can’t control the crowd?

Ashley Johnson, in Austin, Texas, worries about the images she’s seen in past weeks of armed militias showing up to rallies and making plans to kidnap governors. The outcome of the election, she thinks, will be devastating for some people regardless of the winner.

“Maybe I’m just looking at the news too much, but there are hints of civil war depending on who wins,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s a lot to process.”

In America, spikes in gun purchases are often driven by fear. But in past years that anxiety has centered on concerns that politicians will pass stricter gun controls. Mass shootings often prompt more gun sales for that reason, as do elections of liberal Democrats.

Many gun buyers now are saying they are motivated by a new destabilizing sense that is pushing even people who had considered themselves anti-gun to buy weapons for the first time — and people who already have them to buy more.

The nation is on track in 2020 to stockpile at record rates, according to groups that track background checks from F.B.I. data. Across the country, Americans bought 15.1 million guns in the seven months this year from March through September, a 91 percent leap from the same period in 2019, according to seasonally adjusted firearms sales estimates from The Trace, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on gun issues. The F.B.I. has also processed more background checks for gun purchases in just the first nine months of 2020 than it has for any previous full year, F.B.I. data show.

F.B.I. data shows sales spiked earlier this year as virus fears spread. And sharp increases in sales are seemingly occurring everywhere: The states with the lowest jump in sales in September, for example, were Alaska and North Dakota, each up about one-third compared with September 2019. States with the largest gains included Michigan, up 198 percent over September 2019, and New Jersey, up 180 percent, according to estimates by The Trace.

It’s difficult to know exactly who is buying guns at any certain time in America. Gun shop owners, gun rights groups and gun lobbying groups said they were now selling more weapons than usual to Black shoppers, and to women in particular, and more weapons to first-time gun owners generally.

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“The year 2020 has been just one long advertisement for why someone may want to have a firearm to defend themselves,” said Douglas Jefferson, the vice president for the National African American Gun Association, which has seen the biggest increase in membership this year since the group was formed in 2015.

The influx of new guns in American homes is troubling at a time when many people are under incredible stress over jobs and spikes in coronavirus cases, said Kris Brown, who is president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and who noted that suicide and domestic violence are on the rise.

On the issue of gun control, the divide has long been partisan. Concealed-carry laws, bans on high-capacity magazines, and allowing teachers to carry guns at school have split many Republicans from Democrats. A Pew Research Center survey in 2017 found that Republicans and independents who lean Republican were more than twice as likely as Democrats and independents who lean Democratic to own a gun.

But when it comes to gun ownership there’s something uniquely American that cuts across party affiliation and social boundaries — leaving liberals and conservatives jostling for ammunition because they want to brace for whatever comes next.

ImageBert Davis went to a gun show after his local shop was sold out of ammunition.
Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York Times

“This is a giant room of ‘you never know,’” said Bert Davis, looking around at people streaming inside a convention hall in Virginia to peruse weaponry earlier this month at the Nation’s Gun Show, one of the biggest events of its kind.

Mr. Davis was surrounded by tables displaying AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, bunny-shaped brass knuckles, pistols etched with American flags and the face of President Trump, booklets with titles like “Be Ready for Anything.”

A human resources worker for the city of Richmond, Va., Mr. Davis had come to the show with his sister Toni Jackson, who had been having difficulty finding 9-millimeter ammunition at local gun shops; they were all sold out.

At the show, gleaming golden rounds were on sale by the thousands.

“Everybody is arming themselves against their neighbor,” Ms. Jackson said, looking out at the diverse lot of fellow shoppers, some pushing strollers and wheelchairs, one in a Black Lives Matter mask, one in a in Keep America Great mask, and a line for background checks that snaked along the room. “This feeds the separatism of the country.”

Ms. Jackson bought her first gun about three years ago, a small .380 caliber handgun, because her property management job required her to handle large amounts of cash. Recently she put a down payment on a more powerful 9-millimeter pistol that she thinks will offer better protection.

“What’s going on in the country right now, I’m afraid to be out by myself as a Black woman,” Ms. Jackson said, describing unrest in her city of Richmond and beyond. “There are a lot of people not necessarily excited that Confederate monuments have been taken down.”

Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York Times

Other shoppers said they bought a weapon because they were scared that calls to defund the police would be heeded. Some said they were scared of the police. Some were scared that Joseph R. Biden Jr. would become president. Others were scared of four more years of President Trump.

Don Woodson was overseeing the Trojan Arms and Tactical table of dozens of 9-millimeter black, pink and Tiffany turquoise semiautomatic guns. He estimated 70 percent of his sales at the show were to new gun owners, many of whom told him that they are afraid of rioters.

“People who never ever would have had guns before,” he said. “Now, they’re looking for security.”

Two aisles away was Larry Burns, wearing a Keep America Great mask and a Trump 2020 T-shirt. He said he would take action if he saw protesters getting out of control.

“If they start hurting people, I’m going to hurt back,” said Mr. Burns, who owns two shotguns. “I’ve lived my life. I’ll sacrifice for my grandkids.”

The uncertainty in the aisles at the gun show is what Charrie DeRosa hears at her private range in Palm Beach County, Fla.

“Every person who comes in says I don’t know what’s happening in the world,” said Ms. DeRosa, who offers gun safety training. “People are just nervous and they’re looking for some kind of security. ”

It’s a feeling that was weighing on Ms. Saccurato’s mind when she was eating dinner and the Black Lives Matter march passed by.

She had seen news reports of violence breaking out in cities as protesters gathered. She understood why people were marching and thought George Floyd’s death was horrific. But the violence that followed, the damage, the rage at police officers, she said, “was even more disgusting.” Ms. Saccurato, 43, who trains athletes for a living, is white and has friends in law enforcement. They are good people, she said, and they are not getting the respect they deserve.

“They’re being put in situations where they can’t handle things as efficiently and effectively as they want,” Ms. Saccurato said. “And if that’s happening to them, where does that put me?”

Watching the marchers that evening, she decided it was time to get a license and buy a gun. Her new weapon: a Sig Sauer p365-XL 9 millimeter pistol.

Ms. Johnson did not grow up in a house with guns. About a year ago she moved to Austin, which she considered a bold step for someone who had never lived apart from her family in North Carolina.

Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

In spring when the virus started spreading, she found herself alone in a relatively new city while everyone else holed up with families. And as a buyer for a grocery store, she was on the back end of the havoc that all the panic buying wrought on the supply chain.

“I saw it firsthand,” she said.

After Mr. Floyd was killed by the police in May, Ms. Johnson decided to take part in protests that were sweeping the nation. The single march she attended this summer was in broad daylight, but she was anxious.

“I wholeheartedly understand wanting to protect your business,” she said, of the people who condemn property damage at protests. “As a Black person I’m like, a broken window versus a life?”

Not long after, a friend invited her to a shooting range for a gun safety class. She was nervous holding a gun for the first time. Take control, the instructor told her. Don’t let anyone rush you. She fired. She returned several times to the range.

Then she watched the first presidential debate, and heard Mr. Trump refuse to disavow white supremacists.

“I just thought if he loses this election, something is going to go down and I just need to be protected,” she said.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, in between a grocery run to fill up her new crockpot and watching football on TV, Ms. Johnson passed by the gun shop and bought a Ruger SR22 semiautomatic pistol.