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As Gun Sales Continue to Surge, State Sees Record Number of Background Checks

by and on October 11, 2020 1:22 PM

“Who would have expected a run on guns, ammo and toilet paper,” said J&E Guns clerk John Walters about the shopping habits of Americans over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the run on toilet paper seems to have slowed down some, Walters said sales at the gun shop in Bellefonte have remained high over the past six months, leaving ammo and certain guns in short supply.

“You kind of have the perfect storm of a pandemic and presidential election involving two very diametrically-opposed opinions, especially concerning the Second Amendment, that is scaring the living daylights out of people,” said Walters.

That, along with production and supply chain disruptions caused by the shutdown of businesses, has guns — particularly handguns and assault-style rifles like the AR-15 — and ammunition in high demand, he said.

On the other hand, as hunting season begins, long rifles and their ammunition remain in good supply.

Walters said he works with sales representatives and J&E Guns remains stocked with some handguns and restocks as much as possible. But he said he has never seen anything like the demand for guns over the past six months.

“And this is industry-wide,” said Walters. “It is odd — a sign of the times.”

Tom Engle, owner of Hunters Warehouse in Bellefonte, said there has been a huge influx of customers looking for pistols, assault-style rifles and, he said, oddly enough, shotguns.

“In nearly 40 years in this business, I have never seen the demand for shotguns like this,” said Engle. “And it is a lot of first-time gun buyers, maybe because shotguns don’t take a lot of skill (to use).”

Engle said he has seen every type of demographic in his store looking for self-protection.

“Everybody wants a gun today,” he said.

Engle too saw an increase of customers when the pandemic hit, but said things got back to normal around mid-May. Then, the nationwide protests started to occur in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minnesota while in police custody, and that “kicked off a second wave of buyers that was maybe stronger than the first.”

Now, he feels the upcoming presidential election is driving a third wave of gun and ammo buyers.

Numbers from the state back that up, as the Pennsylvania State Police recently announced that the third quarter of 2020 was the busiest in the history of the Pennsylvania Instant Check System.

Established in 1998, PICS is used by county sheriffs, chiefs of police of cities of the first class and licensed firearms dealers in Pennsylvania to determine an individual’s legal ability to acquire a license to carry firearms or obtain a firearm through a purchase or transfer. In the third quarter of 2020, PICS completed a record 406,151 background checks. The highest total previously was 369,807 in the first quarter of 2013. In 2019, 225,214 background checks were conducted in the third quarter.

“We began to see an increase of PICS activity in the first quarter, as Pennsylvania and the rest of the country began learning about the COVID-19 pandemic, and that trend has continued,” said Capt. Mark Shaver, director of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Records and Identification.

At J&E Guns, Walters said that early in the pandemic, customers would have to wait up to two or three hours for a background check to be completed, but that is down to a 15- to 20-minute wait time now. Before the pandemic, the wait time was just a few minutes, he said.

The last time Walters can remember such a demand on guns and ammo was after legislators tried to enact new gun-control legislation in the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adult staff members. Walters said that demand was short-lived, while this has gone on for months.

Walters believes that supply will eventually catch up to demand, and manufacturers are producing new inventory at capacity. But he doesn’t see the customers’ demand for guns and ammo slowing down anytime soon.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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