Delaware gun sales break record for 2nd time during pandemic after police protests

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

More people tried to buy guns in Delaware in June than any month before on record, reportedly due to fears for individual safety amid widespread protests against racism and police brutality.

Gun sales have been surging since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to empty shelves at local gun stores. But after seeing a record number of background checks for firearm purchases in March, Delaware hit another gun sale record in June, according to background check data collected by the FBI.

The protests in Delaware have largely been peaceful, but recent gun buyers — and gun shop owners — say the surge is due to protests that turned violent and led to looting at the start of last month.

"I'm sure it's due to the rioting," said Robert Miller, owner of Miller's Gun Center on U.S. 13 in New Castle. He said many buyers are even more concerned than they were at the start of the pandemic about protecting their family and property because they're scared police wouldn't respond quickly enough if they're in danger.

Robert Miller, owner of Miller's Gun Center

"It's younger couples. It's older couples. It's single moms," Miller said. "They know that law enforcement, if things really get bad, will be stretched and they will not be able to respond to all the calls."

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Larry Hudson, a manager at First State Firearms and Accessories on South Du Pont Highway in New Castle, said he saw a surge at his gun shop in June for the same reason.

"You're hearing a lot of people say 'Defund the police,'" Hudson said. "Right then and there, people are like, 'All right, I need something to protect myself.'"

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In March, about 8,120 background checks were conducted in Delaware — the highest since 1998, when the FBI started tracking the data. After the surge appeared to slow down in April and May, the record was broken again in June when a little more than 8,200 background checks were conducted in the state.

First State Firearms & Accessories' Larry Hudson (left) and Lane Carey have seen their shelves empty fast.

The second spike in June has so far bled into July, according to Miller and Hudson. But as a result, the firearm industry supply chain breakdown has gotten worse since the spring, when shelves were cleared due to high demand.

"We're struggling to find stuff," Miller said. "You get five of something, you sell five of them in a day or two."

Robert Miller, owner of Miller's Gun Center, says he's struggled to keep his shelves stocked since the pandemic.

Across the country, gun owners are taking measures into their own hands amid the protests. In late June, a viral video made headlines showing a white man and woman pointing a semiautomatic rifle and pistol at a crowd of protesters walking past their home in an upscale St. Louis neighborhood.

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Some gun owners are getting the blessing of their local officials. In late June, Fox 13 News reported that Florida's Clay County sheriff pledged to deputize "every lawful gun owner" in his jurisdiction if the county got overwhelmed by violent protests. Further south in that state, the Polk County sheriff at the start of June recommended that residents shoot looters who break into their homes when criticizing violence during the protests, according to Fox 13 News.

Wilmington resident Lindsey Epps-Tucker, 49, was one of the several thousand people in Delaware to purchase a gun in June. He said he bought the gun in part because he moved from a third-floor apartment to a bottom-floor apartment with less security at the entrance.

But the recent protests on police brutality were what pushed him to actually go to the gun store, where he ultimately ended up buying his first weapon in early June. He's since been taking classes on how to use it.

Wilmington resident Lindsey Epps-Tucker bought his first firearm following protests in his city that turned violent at the start of June.

"Seeing the violence that followed some of these protests kind of pushed me towards, like, yeah, I’m going to get a gun," Epps-Tucker said. “If the protests hadn’t happened, I don’t think it would have (come) to the forefront of my mind to get one."

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Some new gun buyers say they had other reasons to get a gun last month despite the protests.

Magnolia resident Kim Petters, 39, said she decided to buy her first gun after she was threatened last month. She said the threat didn't happen at a protest, and she's more concerned about a general, growing political divide.

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"Because I see so many extremists all over the country and within Delaware, there’s so much uncertainty," Petters said. "There’s so much anger and hatred just flying around everywhere. And it’s truly made me feel unsafe."

Kim Petters (center) and her husband (right) learn self-defense techniques with an instructor in Greenwood.

Petters, a mother of four, said she feels safer now that she has a weapon and has signed up for training on how to use it for self-protection.

"These things aren’t just happening on the news," Petters said. "They can happen to you. And I can’t allow myself to ever be in a situation again where I’m not able to defend myself where the other person is armed and I’m not."

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Ellendale resident Norman Jones, 36, also sought his first gun in June but said the protests didn't fuel the purchase because police tend to be present at those demonstrations. Like many new gun owners since the start of March, Jones is most worried about break-ins and armed robberies near where he lives. He said he never felt the "urgency" to get a gun until the pandemic.

“I just always felt that, if I felt unsafe, that I would just take myself out of that situation," he said. "So I ... never really thought until the environment that we’re all living in today that I would actually need one."

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

The U.S. saw its 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. Now, the first week of June is ranked the second-highest week on record for background checks — also over a million — across the country. The whole month of June saw higher sales across the country than in March, according to the data.

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Delaware's background check numbers don't show exactly how many guns were sold. If someone in Delaware buys multiple guns at one time, the seller would do only one check, according to the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

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.

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics 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.