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

Jack Fellows, left, discusses ammunition with Will Paine, 41, of Traverse City, who was stocking up at Hampel’s gun shop. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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.”

Brown Bear Sporting Goods in Chesterfield Township has been flooded with customers over the past week, much of it attributed to the spread of the coronavirus. (Bridge photo by Michael Revalds) 

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.

Hampel’s gun shop in Traverse City has been in business for 101 years. It’s been an unprecedented week for gun and ammo business. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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!”

Jack Fellows, a longtime counter man at Hampel’s gun shop in Traverse City, said Wednesday the store was out of .223 and 9mm ammunition. Tuesday was the store’s highest volume sales day in the store’s history.  (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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.”

Limiting infection from the coronavirus is top of mind in businesses across Michigan, including at Brown Bear Sporting Goods. (Bridge photo by Michael Revalds)

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.

George Israel of Brown Bear Sporting Goods in Macomb County said he sold a month’s worth of guns and ammo over four days.  (Bridge photo by Michael Revalds)

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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Kevin Grand
Thu, 03/19/2020 - 6:49pm

Molon labe.

middle of the mit
Fri, 04/03/2020 - 12:06am

Could you tell me who is trying take them from you?

Thu, 03/19/2020 - 8:21pm

This surge is being driven by a vague fear or sense of a potential societal breakdown. A second fear is that governments will use an emergency as excuse to implement other restrictions and seems to be especially pushing large ammo purchases. A big percentage of buyers are new firearms owners and women with little to no firearms experience. Hunting firearms are not being purchased to any big extent so that is nonsense other than doubling as a self defense weapon.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 7:23am

Hmmmm, I wonder where people ever got that idea of potential societal breakdown from???

It's not as if the mayor of Champaign was the only person to come up with the asinine idea that the government can just come and take a lawful product from its citizens out of a misplaced and irrational sense of fear. The mayor of New Orleans (different from Katrina) and the governor of New York also floated that terrible suggestion.

Again, Molon Labe.

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 12:13pm

Let no crisis go to waste!

Thu, 03/19/2020 - 8:58pm

Hampel's sales representative Tony Giammarva: “The current media has got things stirred up with coronavirus." That's right, COVID-19 is the media's fault. It's also a hoax, fake news, and a conspiracy by Democrats to stage a coup. Anything but a disease which has been confirmed as having infected ~243,000 people and killed ~10,000 worldwide as of March 19th.

Mon, 03/23/2020 - 1:07pm

I would not buy a gun from hampels nothing but crooks!!!

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 4:01am

What do you expect when "Detroit Police officers are being encouraged to relax on some misdemeanor arrests. That’s what Detroit Police Chief James Craig is telling his department." is the story lede? This after the media and public leaders spent 2017 reframing the 1967 riots in Detroit as an insurrection.

People in this state actually pay attention to their leaders and the news media.

Jeffrey Kless
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 8:57am

It's obvious that we are in a mental health pandemic. These people must get control of their amygdala, see their psychiatrist or get a brain scan

R. James
Thu, 03/26/2020 - 6:13pm

This comment is highly offensive and disrespectful. Keep your nasty, unkind words to yourself.

R. James
Thu, 03/26/2020 - 6:18pm

I SINCERELY APOLOGIZE for my last comment. I thought I was commenting on another article. I think it is quite ridiculous that people are buying guns like they are. Again I SINCERELY APOLOGIZE.

C. Mitchell
Fri, 03/27/2020 - 11:01pm

I wonder if you are still reading things wrong because this guy commented on a racist comment.

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 9:56am

Yes, I remember a PBS documentary about the 67 riots. There was a u of m professor who explained they weren't a riot at all but a justified "uprising" of a desperate, oppressed people that was totally justified. It had actual participants and witnesses who were interviewed about what transpired. Every time someone used the word "riots" she interjected and corrected them with "uprising". It was disgusting! It was just pure totally biased liberal propaganda. It showed just how leftist pbs and u of m are. I had been a long time pbs donor but will never donate or support them or u of m in any way ever again.

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 9:20am

People we do not live in a TV show of zombies. Are you all preparing for a war on your neighbors, friends and family? We do not live in Iran or Iraq, at least I would like to think we are better than turning on our neighbors, friends and family.

John Q. Public
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 2:57pm

Think that if you want; we're not. When push comes to shove, people will turn on each other in a heartbeat. Even you aren't exempt from the survival instinct. A warm shelter and full stomach masks a wide variety of human pathologies.

Craig Reynolds
Sat, 03/21/2020 - 12:44am

And over some thousands of years, warm shelters and full bellies have finally gotten us to a pinnacle of civilization where almost anyone can trade a fistful of dollars or the swipe of a credit card for a most modern and efficient weapon for murder. Or self-defense, or whatever the authorities or the jury finally determine. Amazing that the species got this far. Or maybe it's not so far at all.

john chastain
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 9:33am

People hoarding guns and ammo so they can “protect” themselves from the hoards and caravans of the unwashed brown people. More likely so they can raid their neighbors supply of toilet paper, paper towels, ramen and bottled water. There’s nothing like a crisis to bring the best out in some people and reinforce the worst in others. Funny how those already inclined to see the “other” as a threat go to their local shrine and take part in the worship and consumption of objects of “security”. You get a black president, go buy a gun or two. You get a pandemic, go buy a gun or two or three....... Don’t worry you’re guns are safe, perhaps you can eat them when you run out of ramen eh. Some of us are trying to support and heal our communities, you’re just concerned you can’t shoot enough of them if you don’t have 15 guns instead of 5 or enough ammunition for the zombie apocalypse. I wonder what Jesus would say? Oh I imagine that in the strange world of evangelical Christianity and gun worship he’s just another white guy hoarding weapons and railings against minorities. Hope you feel safe soon, at least the recession won’t hurt the guns and ammunition industry.

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 12:25pm

Your bigotry and elitism is all to typical of leftists today. The fact is most of the buyers are new gun owners, many being minorities and women (those you denigrate already have them!)

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 2:42pm

Thank you

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 10:54pm

Law abiding citizens don't buy guns to hurt others we but guns and ammo to protect our family and neighbors from idiots regardless of skin color. Why does any and everything have to be about race?

Sat, 03/21/2020 - 10:42am

What a unbelievably arrogant, self-righteous and opportunistic post. I'm glad you got your anger out on paper John. You sound like someone who really would be unsafe with a gun.

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 9:50am

Selling guns is just putting gasoline on the fire. If COVID 19 doesn't kill you, your neighbor or relative will. If COVID 19 doesn't kill you, the bovine tuberculosis from the deer you eat will because we've destroyed our environment and the climate.

Pandemics will be a new way of life. We have to adapt and change our ways. We are all deeply interconnected. Be kind, stay safe, love one another. Help those in need. You don't know if YOU will be that person in need. Stop the rugged individualism BS and the America first BS. We are all God's children. God will kill us all until we learn that lesson and start thinking of others.

Take time to thank a healthcare worker, a teacher, a first-responder, stay home, stop the spread of the virus, the ignorance, the lies, the misinformation, the disinformation. Michigan should be on lockdown like California. The whole country should be on lockdown.

If you only care about the economy, you're like the Pharaoh Ramses II in ancient Egypt who failed to heed Moses and lost his own son. None of us is immune from the consequences. This doesn't just affect the elderly and we will all be personally affected in someway losing loved ones and friends, many great people that the world still NEEDS.

If that doesn't motivate you, keep in mind that there will be a shortage of ventilators to treat everyone, possibly including yourself. You won't be able to comfort loved ones when they are hospitalized, there won't be funerals, bodies will be cremated, and discarded en masse, like trash, a situation for those dying and those who care about them.

If you still think this is "seasonal flu", "we lose thousands of lives every year", "we don't ban cars" and other such BS. This pandemic will be ten times worse. Look at Italy before you continue to spread that crap. They aren't just singing on balconies in Italy. They are in the thick of a war.

Coming together and thinking of others are the only solutions.

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 12:44pm

People don't come together anymore it's obvious just look at churches and service organizations! And we as citizens are responsible for nothing!!! We have the government to care for us all! If something is missed just protest and cry until they pass a new law! I can sympathize with much you say but why has this happened over the last 40 years?

You'd be Surprised
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 9:14pm

Just follow the golden rule, treat others the way you want to be treated. Start with the premise that all people are good, rather than all people are bad. Start by loving and understanding people in your own family. Give without expecting anything in return. Hold EVERYONE accountable, not just people from some political party you hate or someone with different skin pigmentation. Practice forgiveness, you know, all that radical Christian stuff that Jesus preached. Nobody wants anyone's gun or to take anyone's freedom. We all want to eradicate a dangerous virus. We need to work together, everyone contributing what they can. What do people have that's so valuable, a TV? Is that worth killing someone for? We need a wartime president like FDR, someone who cares for Americans, ALL Americans, not just the rich, not a divider in chief. We need leadership, but if we don't get it, thankfully the governors of all the individual states will fill the gaps, even if that's not the most efficient way. I'm against all the senators who engaged in insider trading, three republicans and one democrat. All of them should lose there positions AND go to jail. That said, I do still believe in good government and that We the People ARE that government. Accountability means pledging loyalty to the USA, NOT RUSSIA. Trump and Moscow Mitch are traitors. They too should be held accountable.

middle of the mit
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 9:17pm

Matt, I don't think you will even understand what I am about to tell you, but here is hoping for the best!

You whine and complain that people, apparently even in Churches, no longer come together. YOUR words. Then you tell us citizens that WE are responsible for NOTHING.

We have Government to take care of us All! If something is missed make a law!

Do you hear yourself?

Because conservatives tell us that Churches, charities and families will provide these services without the Big Bad Government. Yet?
You tell us they can't do it. Why? I don't know!

Why can't Churches and Charities do it? And why don't families STEP UP?

These are the questions YOU NEED TO ANSWER! Don't pose a solution that already exists that is unwilling or unable to fulfill what you want done. That is not a solution. That is nothing

Why has this happened over the last 40 years?

Mammonism and individualism. This country LIVES OFF Of MONEY And they LOVE individualism. Sorry. Truly, I am sorry. I didn't make the quantitative reasons that America went that way, but you are part of the problem. And until people like you stop your worship of Mammon and individualism, it won't end.

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 10:02am

I believe it is all projection.
Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is buying guns and ammunition so they could loot and steal may constantly accuse other people of wanting to loot and steal. It incorporates blame-shifting.

Bob Shishka
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 10:13am

"Fear" is the most powerful motivator there is, second to "greed". Media & politicians understand this about human beings all too well, and stoke those fires deliberately. This isn't complicated stuff. We were once considered to be the land of the free & home of the brave? Not so much these days...which saddens me. Makes sense though.....fearful people are easier to manipulate. You can convince them to give up all their civil liberties & freedoms just by knowing WHICH buttons to push. Button #1 .....FEAR!

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 1:19pm

I don't think the gun problem is fixable in the U.S.
In terms of deadliness, any gun with a quickly replaceable magazine is a potential weapon of mass destruction, which includes most handguns on the market, most semi automatics and even some pump shotguns. Banning military style weapons would only be scratching the surface of weapons that can be used for mass killing.
Expanding background checks, red flag temporary confiscation and better mental health care might mitigate the problem some, but that doesn't get to the heart of the problem: too many guns and too many guns capable of mass destruction.
Annual deaths by flu or by traffic accidents are roughly about the same as deaths from gunshot wounds. With enough restrictions, all these causes of death can be mitigated, but that's likely not going to happen in the U.S., certainly not in my lifetime. Politicians, particularly Democrats, need to understand that some problems just can't be fixed by politicians.

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 7:10pm

FYI EB, every gun is a "military style" weapon designed for killing as many people possible! Just depends when you look at it. So called assualt weapons are used in a very small percentage, less than 1%, of homicides! And yes someday will be considered a quaint antique.

John S.
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 2:03pm

What could be better than new handgun owners at home, untrained in firearms, fiddling around with their new guns and ammunition? Maybe they're out of work, discouraged, and drinking a bit too much, and fall asleep. Well, the kids are home too. Maybe they're with their friends playing video games. They get bored. It's a lot more fun to play with my Dad's gun. What could go wrong? In any case, these new handgun owners will be able to defend any threat to their last roll of toilet paper.

Susan D
Sat, 03/21/2020 - 8:13am

Please, if you must own a gun, use it responsibly. Guns won't kill "the virus". If people start shooting each other over their stuff then they too become "the virus"!

Joe smith
Mon, 03/23/2020 - 1:01pm

Hampers sucks, don’t buy from them. They are crooked people!!!!

Barb Meinecke
Sat, 03/28/2020 - 11:02pm

I hope no one would kill someone just to protect their toilet paper.

Sun, 04/12/2020 - 1:07pm

The longer we allow many shoppers into grocery stores the longer MiCHIGANDERS COVID-19 VIRUS CASES AND DEATHS WILL CONTINUE..
C O N T R O L T R U M P.......