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Guns and viruses: Why Michigan gun and ammo sales are exploding

George Israel didn’t know what to make of it when he pulled up to his Brown Bear Sporting Goods in Macomb County last Friday: seven or eight vehicles parked out front waiting for him.

On a chill morning in early March, he might have expected one or two, perhaps waiting to use his indoor gun range. It would mark a week that peaked with 20-30 customers filling his small showroom several times over in Chesterfield Township.

“By Monday, I was cleaned out,” Israel said. “In four days, I sold a 30-day supply of guns and ammunition and was left with a lot of big empty slots.”

For Brown Bear and hundreds of gun shops across Michigan and beyond, the coronavirus outbreak has sparked the biggest rush on guns and ammo since (and because) Barack Obama was president, several store owners told Bridge Magazine. 

Ammunition website reported a 222 percent increase in transactions in the past three weeks and a revenue jump of more than 300 percent, which it too attributes to the virus gaining traction. A report in Newsweek, said FBI background checks soared 300 percent Monday over the same day in 2019. 

Which begs the question, why? 

The answer is complicated.

Israel, for the record, said he doesn’t ask customers that question. But he speculates that many have been thinking for a while about getting a gun for personal and property protection and coronavirus-fed fears pushed them to the brink.

Take viral videos of shoppers globally hoarding food, hand sanitizer and toilet paper, mix in terrifying reports of hemorrhaging financial markets, and add the potential of a U.S. death toll exceeding 2 million, and some folks can get a tad uneasy. 

“Is it preparedness or paranoia? Is it fear or is it protection?” asked Terry Johnson, a Detroit lawyer and vice president of Firearms Legal Protection, which offers legal insurance plans to people who use a firearm to protect themselves or others and face legal consequences.

Action Impact Firearms in Southfield, which specializes in handguns, personal protection weapons and classes for new gun owners, has sold up to 150 guns a day, owner Bill Kucyk told Detroit television station WXYZ-TV

The outbreak, which had surged past 100 people infected with the virus by Tuesday in Michigan, was top of mind. “The coronavirus is taking over everything,” customer Tamiko Jackson told the station. 

“And we all need to be safe with stores closing. It’s time to be prepared.”

On SIGforum, an Internet site for owners of SIG pistols, one topic was the bull market on ammo sales.  

“Ammo,” one person wrote, “the New Toilet Paper!”

Self-defense, except for venison      

Kyle Brookhouse, hunting department manager at Frank’s Great Outdoors, a 30,000-square-foot megastore in Linwood in Bay County, said the business has  sold at least 120 guns in the past week, fairly equally divided between handguns — mostly 9 mm — and self-protection rifles and shotguns.

“We’re totally out of the self-defense shotguns,” he said of the short-barreled pump action weapons.

At Williams Gun Sight Co. in Davison, which bills itself as “Michigan’s Largest Firearms Dealer,” business was so brisk that multiple calls to the company phone went to this recording: “Due to recent events, our call volume is extremely high. Our retail inventory is changing rapidly.”

“I had a lot of the people who were afraid that if we start running out of food, they’ll have to do what they have to do,” he told Bridge. “Take a deer, whether it’s in deer season or not.” (It is not.) - Dan Doherty, owner Jack's Sport Shop in Kalkaska

Self-defense is the theme for many recent gun and ammo buyers. The first customer Thursday at Jack’s Sport Shop in Kalkaska, walked out with $140 in ammunition. But store owner Dan Doherty said customers are not just worried about protection. 

“I had a lot of the people who were afraid that if we start running out of food, they’ll have to do what they have to do,” he told Bridge. “Take a deer, whether it’s in deer season or not.” (It is not.)

That’s not something Lt. Jim Gorno, who supervises Department of Natural Resources conservation officers in northern Michigan, said he wanted to hear.

“It’s an unfortunate sentiment,” said Gorno, based in Gaylord. “This is way too early in the game to talk about anything like that. If that happened now, they’d be arrested and prosecuted.”

Several sellers stressed that high-level sales of guns and ammo leave them hoping that customers also take the time to learn gun safety. Buying a gun is worthless — dangerous even — for those who fail to take the time to practice often and treat it like the deadly weapon it is.     

That may not be as easy these days. Michigan’s new restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 have led to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources closing all outdoor shooting ranges at state parks and recreation areas.

But Michigan Shooting Centers, which operates ranges at the Bald Mountain and Island Lake recreation areas, announced that its gun store in Lake Orion at Bald Mountain will remain open. Though it will limit the number of customers at one time to comply with COVID-19 concerns.

In Traverse City, the 101-year-old Hampel’s Gun Co. lays claim to the title of “longest, continuously-operated, family-owned gun shop in America.”

Sales representative Tony Giammarva said in the past week the shop has sent more than 120 people home happy with new handguns or self-protection rifles and shotguns. He said it’s probably the busiest two weeks the store has ever seen. No one has mentioned poaching deer.

Purchasing a gun is relatively uncomplicated, Giammarva said: You have to be 21, be a Michigan resident for at least 60 days, have a valid Michigan driver’s license or state ID and undergo a background check. 

Those checks, several shops said this week, are taking up to 45 minutes — up from about 15 minutes just two weeks ago.

“The current media has got things stirred up with coronavirus but we always see some spikes around tax time, election time and Christmas,” he said.


The best sales pitch since Obama 

Many of those interviewed for this article said former President Obama was the best gun and ammo salesman of all time — meaning his attempts to tighten gun restrictions triggered more business among gun enthusiasts.

Coronavirus may now have distinction — and not just because of its potential for illness, death and financial despair. 

Another factor in the almost overnight spike in gun and ammunition sales may have been overheated reports in some media that Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen of Champaign, Illinois, banned sales of guns and alcohol as part of an emergency order last week relating to the coronavirus.

Articles in the Washington Examiner and other publications lit up the Internet and spawned a plea by the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm to “Please call City Council members and ask them not to grant the mayor the power to suspend your Second Amendment rights when they’re needed most during an emergency.” 

Israel, of Brown Bear, said customers came into his store after the news report and told him that if one governor or mayor could infringe on their right to buy arms, other states could follow. 

“Some of them wanted to get a gun before any restrictions might come down in Michigan,” he told Bridge. “We’ve been brought up that it’s our right to own a firearm and we intend to keep that right.”

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