David Long, owner of Unicorn’s Armory in Croydon, has sold firearms and ammunition for 15 years, but 2020 has been unique.
The day after protests over the police killing of George Floyd broke out in late May in Philadelphia, he saw a huge demand at his Bucks County business for what were already scant supplies.
“They came from all around,” Long said Friday. “There was a little bit of a shortage, but they have since wiped me out of every firearm and bit of ammunition I had. I have since been able to get some more. But I’m not selling any more ammunition. I just don’t have an excess of ammo for people who are constantly calling for more.”
Gun store owners in the Philadelphia region are reporting shortages of firearms and ammunition caused initially by problems in the global supply chain that started due to COVID-19. As manufacturers were having trouble producing and shipping, demand began increasing, especially from novice buyers fearing unrest in U.S. cities, calls to defund police, and nervousness about the upcoming presidential election.
Data from Pennsylvania’s Instant Check System, which is used by county sheriffs, chiefs of police, and licensed firearms dealers to determine whether someone can legally purchase or carry a firearm, show a sharp year-over-year increase in requests.
In 2019, 217,444 checks were completed in the second quarter of the year. In 2020, 314,319 checks were completed in that same period — a 45% increase.
Owners fear that some buyers don’t know how to handle guns, and could be dangerous to themselves and others. Some business owners have even turned prospective buyers away for that reason.
Store owners like Long say initial shortages this year could be linked both to high demand and also to worldwide pandemic lockdowns forcing the closure not only of copper and lead mines, but also factories that make firearms and ammunition. Manufacturers are ramping up now, but there’s still a backlog of orders that could keep supplies low until later this year or early next year, Long said.
A manager of a gun store in the Philadelphia suburbs, who asked that his name not be used because of a bad experience after being identified in another article, said people have been buying “anything that can go bang” often without understanding the firearms they are dealing with. Demand has been up for handguns, rifles, and shotguns.
The manager refused to sell to one customer, an elderly woman, whom he told to go home and think about the purchase for a few weeks. He found the experience “terrifying” both because he was afraid she did not know how to use the gun, and because she was fearful of using it, and could easily have it taken from her. The gun, he said, would then be circulating “out on the street.”
Andrew Proctor, co-owner of Legacy Indoor Range & Armory in Cinnaminson, Burlington County, said he’s had similar experiences.
“There is a countrywide shortage on guns and also ammunition,” he said. “And you also have a lot of first-time gun owners unfortunately purchasing in fear and purchasing as much ammo as possible.... It’s because of what they see as instability in the country right now.”
Proctor said he prefers customers who, if they aren’t already knowledgeable, are willing to put in time to learn how to handle their guns correctly, and that includes time on a range.
“The biggest fear we have with people is that they aren’t going to go out and practice,” Proctor said. “But you need the muscle memory. If you’re not ready, ultimately that gun could be used against you. And that’s the last thing we want to happen. We have morals, my partner and I. We want people to buy for a legitimate purpose. We’d rather not have the sale than have somebody buy a gun that’s not appropriate for them.”
He pointed to New Jersey laws that require a much longer waiting time for first-time purchasers than other states such as Pennsylvania. In New Jersey, applicants must apply at their local police department, get fingerprinted, and consent to a mental health background check before a permit is issued. The process can take 30 to 45 days, Proctor said.
“We had people that just didn’t understand there were all those procedures,” Proctor said of first-time buyers in New Jersey.
In Pennsylvania, first-time purchasers don’t need a permit. An instant background check allows a sale to be completed within a day.
Proctor said the first wave of buying came within two months of the state’s coronavirus shutdown in March, and more waves kept coming.