Delaware gun sales break records during coronavirus pandemic, stores running out of stock

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

More people have tried to buy guns in Delaware during the coronavirus pandemic than any time before on record, largely to quell fears that a stunted economy and mass unemployment will lead to increased crime and home invasions.

The pandemic so far has proved the contrary. Police in Delaware are arresting and ticketing far fewer people since Gov. John Carney issued the stay-at-home order to limit the spread of the virus. There's no evidence of increased home invasions since residents were ordered to stay home except when necessary, but experts worry that the orders will cause a spike in domestic violence and child abuse.

Still, it's been seven weeks since Carney started halting businesses across the state to protect residents from the fast-spreading disease.

It's caused a lot of anxiety for many Delawareans who feel they need to prepare for anything. Days after Carney declared a state of emergency in mid-March, gun store owners in the state were reporting their busiest days on record. Shelves were cleared of guns and ammunition.

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As a result, Delaware saw a record number of background checks for firearm purchases in March, according to background check data collected by the FBI. Background checks appeared to slow in April, though last month ranked the eighth highest in more than two decades. Some think the increase in buyers will sway public policy and the upcoming elections.

In 2013, Delaware required all gun sales to be subject to federal background checks, with some exceptions such as transfers to immediate family members or law enforcement. Before 2013, a gun sale in the state didn't need a background check unless a licensed dealer was involved.

The surge in Delaware is in line with a national trend. The U.S. saw the highest number of background checks in more than two decades during the week of March 16 to March 22, according to the FBI data. Well over a million background checks were conducted across the country that week.

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One of those recent Delaware buyers was Kyle Myers, 47, of Hockessin, who bought a gun for the first time in late March. He decided to buy a gun both because his friend had recently suffered from a home invasion in the fall, and he expected coronavirus to take a toll on the economy and society.

"I don’t want to say that it was COVID as much as the environment that COVID would create," Myers said, adding that he and his wife have two small children. "We knew people would be home, we knew people would be frustrated, we knew people would probably be without income. And being without income, they would … behave in ways they may not have otherwise behaved."

People line up outside StarQuest Shooters and Survival Supply on Concord Pike in March.

Scott Himelberger, 54, of Newark, had similar fears. In early April, he bought a gun for the first time in decades because he worried about increased crime and home invasions during the pandemic.

"The police are there to protect," Himelberger said. "I respect them and everything, what they do. But they can’t be in a million places at once and my family is irreplaceable. I can’t take that chance anymore."

He’s feeling less anxious than he did a month ago, especially as Delaware is taking steps to slowly reopen the economy.

"I’d rather have it and not use it," Himelberger said about his weapon. "I'd rather it be locked up where it is right now and ready to use if something happens."

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Delaware saw about 8,120 background checks in March, which is higher than any month since 1998, the year the National Instant Criminal Background Check System was launched, according to data collected by the FBI.

In April, the state saw about 5,700 background checks. That's still more than in January and February, which saw less than 4,500 background checks each, but still closer to the monthly average, according to the data. The background check numbers don't show exactly how many guns were sold.

"If someone purchased multiple weapons at the same time, only one check would be conducted," according to Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security spokeswoman Wendy Hudson.

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The increase in demand is straining gun sellers in the First State.

Jim Beatty, a licensed firearms dealer who owns the gun shop Firing Distance, LLC in Bridgeville said he's sure that the FBI data showing that background checks slowed in April is correct, but "it's very misleading." Customers are just as voracious now as they were in March, but distributors are backlogged due to high demand and can take up to a month to fulfill his orders, he said. 

"All the gun stores are the same," Beatty said. "We don’t have anything to sell."

Jim Beatty, a licensed firearms dealer who owns the gun shop Firing Distance, LLC in Bridgeville, says he's facing a supply shortage because of the increased demand for guns during the coronavirus pandemic.

Normally, Beatty's store holds around 130 guns for purchase. On Tuesday, he said he had two. On average, his store sells three guns per day. But in mid-March, once Gov. Carney began shutting down certain businesses due to the virus, his store sold 97 guns in three days, he said.

"It happened so fast that we really didn’t have time to really even think about it," Beatty said. "It’s kind of like the Tasmanian Devil. It comes through and then you turn around and everything’s gone before you realize it."

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Many of sales have been to first-time buyers, he said.

"They’re saying, ‘For the first time in my life, I’m scared that something bad is going to happen to myself or my family and the government’s not going to be there to protect me,'" Beatty said, adding that buyers' anxieties are still high as the pandemic leads to reports of expected meat shortages.

Robert Miller, owner of Miller's Gun Center on U.S. 13 in New Castle County, said the deluge of buyers at his store only started to die down this week. He compared the demand to “toilet paper mentality." But his shop is still having a hard time keeping shelves stocked with ammunition, accessories and popular handguns, he said, adding that he's lost sales because of this.

Miller's Gun Center near New Castle

“The biggest problem is you can’t get, in most cases, what the consumer wants,” he said. “You had a sudden surge of interest. The manufacturers and distributors weren’t prepared.”

Miller said that most of his customers during the pandemic have been first-time buyers, and many of them women and single mothers. Some customers had never expected to buy a gun before the pandemic, just like they had never expected to have to wear a mask when leaving the house, he said.

“People are afraid of the uncertainty of what’s going to happen," Miller said. "People realizing that they’re responsible for themselves."

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Gun control was one of the most contentious topics in Legislative Hall before the pandemic postponed session indefinitely to prevent the spread of the virus in that building. Lawmakers last year were unsuccessful in passing three gun control measures that would have banned certain semi-automatic weapons, capped magazines and required a permit to get a gun. At the start of 2020, those lawmakers said they planned on trying those bills again.

Robert Miller, owner of Miller's Gun Center, was given a cease and desist letter on Thursday and is being forced to close his business due to fears of spreading the coronavirus.

But with state elections scheduled in the fall, in which all House seats and a slew of Senate seats are up for grabs, Beatty and Miller expect this flood of interest in firearms to affect how Delawareans vote, and what they ask of their lawmakers.

Sarah Stowens, the Delaware chapter leader of the pro-gun control group Moms Demand Action, said she doesn't think that will happen.

"There's no question that people are worried about their family's safety right now," she said. "But we also know that there are risks associated with owning a gun and having a gun in your house. ... I don't think this changes how people vote."

Sarah Gamard covers politics and government for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.