Exclusive: FBI Sees Record Background Checks for Gun Sales Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, Up 300 Percent in Single Day

Guns
Already, February marks the third-highest month for background checks since the system was established in 1998. The second-highest month occurred in December. Scott Olson/Getty

Gun sales have skyrocketed in recent weeks as panic over the spread of COVID-19 worsens.

Mark Oliva, the director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the firearms industry's trade group, said the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) informed his organization that the number of background checks processed on March 16 soared by 300 percent over the same day in 2019.

Federal background checks—which are performed by the FBI and are required when transactions occur through licensed dealers—are seen as a general proxy for gun sales.

Oliva added that, since February 23, the NSSF was told that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has been running roughly double the number of checks it was over the same period in 2019.

Already, February marks the third-highest month for background checks since NICS was established in 1998. The second-highest month occurred in December.

Year over year, February represents a 36 percent increase in federal background checks.

"The FBI is taking appropriate measures to ensure the safety of their employees while remaining committed to ensuring national security and pursuing violations of federal law," the FBI told Newsweek in a statement. "At this time, the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Section remains fully operational and will continue to process requests. The NICS Section appreciates the public's patience during this period of national emergency."

The FBI is expected to publish its official statistics for March—when governors nationwide began to implement lockdown orders and President Donald Trump declared a national emergency—in early April.

A run on gun stores during times of crisis is not a new phenomenon—the National Rifle Association said that there is an "uptick in firearm and ammunition sales whenever people feel threatened"—but dealers told Newsweek that there was something unique about the current pandemonium.

"I've been in the business for 10 years and I've never seen it like this," Mark Healy, the owner of a self-titled dealership in Tempe, Arizona, said. "Not even after the shooting at Sandy Hook when they were talking about taking guns away."

The National Rifle Association has urged its members to remain laser-focused on efforts to curb firearm access during periods of emergency, when government powers are generally at their most expansive.

After the mayor of Champaign, Illinois, unsuspectingly posted a copy of the municipal code that formed the basis for her emergency powers, gun-rights supporters seized on a portion of the code alluding to firearm restrictions and inundated her with defiant messages.

Guns
A man walks with a stroller as people stand in line outside the Martin B. Retting, Inc. guns store on March 15, 2020 in Culver City, California. The spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) has prompted some Americans to line up for supplies in a variety of stores. Mario Tama/Getty

The city was forced to issue a clarification on its Facebook page, informing residents that "there is currently no firearm ban and no intent to seize property or close businesses."

Latoya Cantrell, the mayor of New Orleans, declared a state of emergency in the city on March 11. In her proclamation, she referenced a portion of the Louisiana Revised Statutes which confer upon her the ability to limit the sale of "alcoholic beverages, firearms, explosives and combustibles."

Once more, gun-rights groups were unsettled. In a subsequent emergency order, Cantrell referred to the same statute but cut off the sentence with ellipses after the term "alcoholic beverages."

New Orleans is no stranger to public crises, and gun dealers reported seeing signs of the unease.

"I believe on Monday we sold about 108 guns, when we probably average about five to ten guns per day," Ryan Staehle, the manager at Shoot Wise, located across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, told Newsweek. "I would say around 70 percent of these customers are first-time gun owners, which has never happened like this before. This is a different animal."

Some federally licensed dealers have stopped answering the phones entirely, unable to handle the volume of queries. Staehle said the websites for his store's suppliers "have been crashing."

The Trace was first to report on the impact of the novel coronavirus throughout the gun industry. Gun dealers explicitly linked the increase in sales to either the virus itself or panic caused by seeing shelves empty at a rapid pace.

Healy said that the boom first started around four or five days ago, and then "kicked off like a lightning bolt."

"They come in and mention the coronavirus," he said. "I've had people come in and they're just panicked and they want to get something."

Healy turns away so-called "preppers" and individuals he believes are not adequately trained in the handling and use of firearms. He said he has "passed out literally hundreds of cards" to people for firearms training.

Oliva, the trade-group spokesperson, echoed that view.

"I think people are concerned that law enforcement agencies are making announcements that they're not going to make arrests for nonviolent crimes," he said. "I think there are very real concerns about the uncertainty and that makes people want to take stock of their ability to protect themselves and their families."