According to the data, there were 274,211 checks performed in the month, nearly double February’s 142,928 checks and the most since the surge in December 2015 of 241,791 checks.
Though not every background check results in a purchase, the NICS number is usually a good indicator of the ebbs and flows of gun sales.
The surge in demand was undoubtedly caused in large part by the coronavirus-induced panic rippling across society, but other factors may have also played a role.
Gun Stores Stay Open
Despite some opposition to the designation, the state of Texas has determined that gun stores are essential businesses and can remain open throughout the ongoing pandemic.
Last week, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion stating that while local jurisdictions could restrict some businesses from operating in the crisis, “such orders may not regulate or restrict the sale of firearms.”
Governor Greg Abbott reinforced this opinion on Tuesday when he issued a statewide order that defined “essential businesses” according to the guidelines published by the Department of Homeland Security, which includes “workers supporting the operation of firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors, and shooting ranges.”
The definition of “essential services” in Abbott’s order supersedes any local order.
Even if gun stores had not been included in the list, some owners would have pushed back against any demands to close.
“Unlike a lot of these businesses, my business is protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” Jon Thomas, owner of Gun Sport, LTD in Odessa, told The Texan. “Because if the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, that means the right of the people to acquire arms shall not be infringed. One goes with the other.”
But while gun stores will remain open, many Texans will still encounter difficulty in purchasing firearms or ammunition simply because of the high demand.
Surge in Demand
Michael Cargill, the owner of Central Texas Gun Works in Austin, told The Texan, “Ammo is gone…it was sold around the country the weekend of March 13.”
With retailers across the nation trying to restock, Cargill said that the quantity of guns and ammunition he receives on a daily basis has been very small — not even a single case of ammo.
Thomas also said that he has seen “lots and lots and lots of ammo sales,” mostly of 9mm, 40 S&W, 5.56, .223, and buckshot loaded shotgun shells.
Asked if he had seen a rush on purchases like this before, Thomas compared it to President Obama’s reelection.
When he won in 2008 and again in 2012, sales on AR-style rifles and high-capacity magazines boomed out of concern that stricter regulations could be coming.
The high number of NICS checks in late 2015 were probably driven by similar concerns, but sales are also typically higher for Black Friday and Christmas shopping.
Now, Thomas says customers are mostly buying self-defense handguns and AR-style rifles.
Both gun store owners said that they’ve seen a good mix of returning customers and first-time gun buyers.
According to Cargill, many of the new gun-buyers have been confused about the process of purchasing a firearm.
“They think that you can buy a gun online and have it shipped to their house, and they’re highly misguided,” said Cargill. “If you buy that online, that gun still has to be shipped to a gun store. They still have to walk to the gun store and do a background check.”
The unprecedented level of NICS checks has caused a lag in the system, and Cargill says that buyers without a license to carry a handgun are being delayed beyond the usual three business days it takes to process — some later than April 15.
Cause for Demand
“People feel insecure. They feel like their government cannot protect them,” said Thomas. “They see society unraveling a little bit around the edges and they feel troubled.”
This unraveling has been seen in a variety of ways across Texas.
In Austin, the police force has already been stretched thin, and now they’ve been tasked with enforcing social distancing measures.
For instance, law enforcement — one person each from the police department, fire department, and code enforcement — showed up to Cargill’s business after an angry caller who didn’t agree that his business was essential threatened to report him to officials for not adhering to the distancing guidelines.
When they arrived, they inspected his store to find that he had been running things responsibly: only three customers are let in at a time and they must stay on floor tape to ensure a distance of six feet from others.
Although the number of 9-1-1 calls have gone down with more people staying inside, the inspection of frivolous claims still wastes precious time.
Under those circumstances, more Texans seem to want to be prepared to defend themselves immediately should the unfortunate need arise.
West Texas faces another unique challenge: the plunge in oil prices.
“As long as the price of oil continues to stay down, a lot of the fracking guys are being laid off left, right, and center,” said Thomas.“We’ve seen it before….when they’re going to leave, they’re going to take something with them. And most times, it’s just taking a piece of property or something. But we do see an uptick in home invasions and things like that.”
Whatever the specific motivations are for each buyer, Texans — and Americans, for that matter — are genuinely concerned about society unraveling around them and are turning to guns as a tool to keep themselves safe.
They’re turning to guns as an “insurance policy,” as Thomas likened it.
“You buy it, pay for it once, and then it’s there for the next 30 or 40 years. You don’t have to do anything with it. You don’t have to pay premiums or nothing. It’s right there.”
“And like an insurance policy,” said Thomas, “you hope you never, ever have to use it.”
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.