Would Aristotle wear a mask?
Gun shops and shooting ranges throughout the region are considered essential businesses and remain open. Retailers reported a huge surge in sales as states urged citizens to stay home.
Fear plays a role in gun ownership, with the majority of gun-owning Americans reporting they own their weapons for “protection.”
As the Washington region experiences the same uptick in sales happening nationally, what are the unintended consequences? Why are firearm retailers considered essential businesses?
Produced by Victoria Chamberlin
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show from WAMU 88.5 where I'm broadcasting from home. Welcome. Later in the broadcast it's the launch of our new series "Kojo for Kids" with a very special guest. But first gun shops and shooting ranges throughout the region are considered essential businesses and remained open during the state of the emergency.
KOJO NNAMDIRetailers reported a huge surge in sales and the number of background checks has dramatically increased as states urged citizens to stay home. Fear often plays a role in gun ownership with the majority of gun owning Americans reporting that they obtained their weapons for personal protection. As the Washington region experiences the same uptake in sales happening on a national scale, what are the untended consequences? And why are firearm retailers considered an essential business? Joining me now is A.C. Valdez. He is WAMU's Senior Editor for Guns and American examining the role of guns in American life across the country. A.C. Valdez was a former producer on this show. A.C., good to talk to you again.
A.C. VALDEZAlways a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIThere are reports, A.C., that firearm sales are surging throughout the country and same is true for the Washington region. What kind of increase are we seeing?
VALDEZWell, so gun sales have generally been trending upwards over the last few years. And they usually rise in an election year. In Virginia, because of the gun regulations that passed in February we know that gun sales were already on the rise. But we are talking at least 65,000 transactions in January and about the same number in February. The numbers are not in yet for March as far as we can tell. But that is an increase of 84 and 63 percent respectively from the same period in 2019.
NNAMDIMany of these sales -- go ahead.
VALDEZI was just going to say we don't know quite as much data about Maryland and D.C. Although we can say that applications in Maryland are up about 12 percent over the same timeframe. In D.C., as probably a lot of people know there aren't really gun stores. So it's really hard to tell. And the one guy who has a firearms dealer's license has stopped approving transfers from out of state.
NNAMDIMany of these sales are first time gun owners. What do we know about what motivated them to purchase a firearm?
VALDEZWell, for a long time we've known that the number one motivation according to PEW polling has been that people are buying these guns for self-protection. That's the term that PEW uses. That's the term that they us in their polling. You know, I got to say I can't really imagine that everybody is a little bit more on edge right now being cooped up all the time. And so that feeling that you need a gun for self-protection is probably a widespread one among first time gun buyers.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Have you stood in line to purchase a firearm in this region? Give us a call 800-433-8850. A.C., what are some of the possible effects of a surge of legally obtained firearms in this region?
VALDEZWell, as far as legally obtained firearms go we do know that more gun availability according to public health research and gun violence research means that there is an increased risk of homicides. Some public health researchers are especially concerned about domestic violence cases and the fact that if you introduce a gun to the equation things are more likely to turn deadly. And then beyond that, you know, with people exhibiting a level of anxiety and possibly depression that may be worsened by staying inside, you know, gun availability is also a heavy risk factor for, you know, a suicide attempt turning fatal.
NNAMDII was about to ask about that, the relationship between gun availability and suicide.
VALDEZYeah. Well, more gun possession simply means that there's more likely to be suicide. I mean, the gun violence researchers have used suicide rates to estimate how many households have at least one gun for a really long time because for decades and I think this is starting in the late 70s when they've asked in surveys, you know, "Does your household have at least one gun?" That rate has correlated very very strongly with the suicide rate. And so what you would probably expect to see is that the suicide rate will also increase along with this gun ownership rate.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Phil Mendelson. He is the Chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia. Chairman Mendelson, thank you for joining us.
PHIL MENDELSONThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post last year arguing that the city has become too complacent when it comes to gun violence. Are you worried that this increase in gun availability will lead to more violence?
MENDELSONWithin the District itself, not as worried as nationally, there are too many guns and the requirements from state to state are too lose. We have fairly strict requirements. A person cannot have a gun, cannot possess a gun in the District without it being registered. And there are requirements for registration. But our requirements are stricter than in Virginia or Maryland, and certainly stricter than a lot of other states. And that creates a nationwide problem with regard to violence. And gun violence is a problem in the District. But they're not from registered guns.
NNAMDIPhil Mendelson, the only legal gun seller in the District as A.C. Valdez was just pointing out has seized operation voluntarily, because for one reason he was overrun with sales. Is the District government concerned about a possible influx of illegal firearms as a result of increased sales in Maryland and Virginia?
MENDELSONThe one federal firearms licensee, FFL, is retiring. I don't believe that he is closing shop, because he got too many requests. He's been around for a long time and is retiring. I just spoke with the chief and the Metropolitan Police Department has taken steps to fill the FFL gap.
NNAMDIOh, he's retiring. Okay.
MENDELSONSo I don't believe that'll be an issue.
NNAMDIOkay. But how about the possibility of illegal firearms, because we know that in the past a lot of illegal firearms coming into the District have been traced to Virginia within an increase in sales in Virginia. Could that mean an increase of illegal firearms coming to the District?
MENDELSONYes, it could. Most of the illegal guns in the District have come from Virginia or Maryland. And in fact, if the federal ATF had complete flexibility they could do a better job at tracing where these guns are coming from and going after the gun shops that are allowing straw purchases. But through congressional legislation the ATF is constricted. Generally speaking, they can only go after guns that have been found to be used in criminal activity. So they can't do the full range of work that we would want. But yes. It is a problem of guns from Maryland and Virginia coming into the District. They don't come through an FFL. They're not coming here legally.
NNAMDIHere is James in Virginia Beach. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESYes. It's just a quick comment I was trying to make. Everybody is rushing to buy guns. And that's great, because I own a gun. But the responsibility that comes with it, people are not talking about that. We all read the nightmare stories about kids finding a gun in the mom's wallet at Walmart, pulls the trigger. Mom is dead. And those incidents go on all over the country.
JAMESAnd then another thing is, you can own all the guns you want. If you go against someone with superior tactics you are fighting a losing battle, because an average gun owner may shoot their gun once a year or maybe twice. If they're going against a hardened criminal maybe a hardened criminal, who probably has an extensive background -- you can have all your guns and that's not going to make a difference. That's just a comment I wanted to make.
NNAMDIJames, are you a gun owner yourself?
JAMESI do. Several of them.
NNAMDIHave you ever had to use it for self-defense?
JAMESI was also in the military, when I was active duty, no.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, thank you very much for your call. Joining us is now Larry Keane, Senior Vice President for Government & Public Affairs and General Counsel for The National Shooting Sports Foundation. Larry Keane, thank you for joining us.
LARRY KEANEThank you for having us.
NNAMDILarry, the Department of Homeland Security's guidance lists firearms sellers and other related businesses like firing ranges as part of the critical infrastructure of the country making them essential. What is the reason for that guidance?
KEANEWell, for a number of reasons. One is that the majority of law enforcement agencies and law enforcement officers in the United States acquire their firearms and ammunition and related items from their local federally licensed firearms retailer, but also for the average person, particularly as we see many first time gun buyers, their ability to purchase a firearm and exercise their Second Amendment right takes place at the counter of a federally licensed firearms retailer.
KEANESo to close gun shops is to undermine public safely, because law enforcement can't access the tools they need to keep us safe. And it denies a constitutional right to Americans who want to purchase a firearm for self-defense as is their right in these uncertain times because as it's been indicated in this discussion people are concerned about their safety and the safety of their families in these very unsettled and unprecedented times.
NNAMDISo you're saying that closure of these business would create a public safety A, because these businesses are where police department gets most of their firearms and B, they would create a public safety risk, because people need firearms to protect themselves.
MENDELSONAnd it would deny law abiding Americans their constitutional right to purchase a firearm from the federally licensed firearms retailer. And it's important to note after a background, which is conducted by the FBI or the states depending on where you're located. So it's necessary in order for you to exercise a constitutional right.
NNAMDIHere's Ben in Bethesda. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENHi. Yeah. I just think it's important to realize why exactly people are buying these guns. COVID-19 has shown us that the system isn't air tight as we think it is. And it might be toilet paper vanishing from shelves, but I think people are really worried that something worse is going to happen. We love watching disaster movies and it captures the imagination. And I think that really, you know, we should be talking more about coronavirus. The number one selling point for the AR15 is "This is the best gun to defend your family in the event of an apocalypse," which sounds sensationalist, but I think it really registers with people.
NNAMDIDo you think, Larry Keane, that people are already thinking of having to live in a post-apocalyptic society?
KEANEI think people are concerned about their safety and they have a God given right to self-defense, which is protected and enshrined by the Second Amendment. And these are law abiding Americans purchasing a firearm from a licensed dealer after a background check so we know that they're law abiding. So I don't think there's anything to fear from law abiding citizens protecting themselves.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. But when we come back, A.C. Valdez, I'll ask you to respond to the same question about post-apocalyptic societies. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing a surge in gun sales during this coronavirus pandemic. A.C. Valdez is WAMU's Senior Editor for Guns and American. A.C., our last caller just talked about people storing guns, because, well, we've seen a whole lot of movies about post-apocalyptic societies in which people have to defend themselves. Has that come up at all in your research?
VALDEZNot as far as the research goes. I mean, what I'm going on as far as people's motivations for buying guns really has a lot to do with, you know, past polling about self-protection being, you know, kind of the primary motivator. And, you know, I can understand how pretty much everybody is feeling a little more anxious given that the current -- that we're all cooped up inside. And there's, you know, a little bit of a post-apocalyptic feeling to everything. But, you know, I hesitate to get a little too dramatic about it.
NNAMDII can understand that. Phil Mendelson is the Chairman of the D.C. Council. D.C. has violence interrupter programs where former inmates mentor community members and intervene before a situation escalates to violent crime. How will a surge in the availability in firearms throughout the region affect these programs with an already strained police department?
MENDELSONWell, I think a surge in the number of guns in the region in the District are not helpful to public safety. But as I said before, generally we're talking about with the sales we're talking about registered firearms. And we don't see a high incidence of criminal activity with registered guns. It's with the unregistered guns. But it is a problem. I did check with the chief of police. Registrations have actually dipped in the last month or so in the District. However, applications for concealed carry have increased slightly. Now concealed carry is somebody who already has a registered gun. So that's gone up a little bit. But the registrations themselves had dropped a little. I think there's a perception out there that guns are help with public safety. I don't agree with that, and the research does not bear that out.
MENDELSONBut, you know, this is a constitutional issue. And folks argue that the Second Amendment gives them a right to have guns. And that's why there's been so much controversy over whether these gun stores are essential. It's really a constitutional argument and I'd say I don't agree with that either, but that's the argument.
NNAMDIHere's Walker in Washington D.C. Walker, your turn.
WALKERYeah, I just wanted to comment. I'm a resident in D.C. I'm actually a long time gun owner. I grew up in Missouri. I have not had my guns in D.C. because the system is orneriest and also my wife is a Democrat who grew up without guns and was not comfortable with them. But six months ago our house was broken into while we were home. The police officers at the time suggested that I get a firearm especially after they knew that I was trained. I hadn't, because it was a discussion with my wife.
WALKERAnd then with COVID coming in -- I actually was a student at Tulane, when Katrina hit. So I do know and saw at firsthand what happens when society breaks down. The councilmember was saying that registration is down while with only one FFL dealer in D.C. that is no longer allowing gun transfers into the city that doesn't surprise me at all.
WALKERAnd when I talked to the police, because I want to do this legally and correctly they informed me that there is approximately a two month backlog for a background check. And again, this isn't a new purchase these are guns that I already legally own, but are kept in Missouri. So basically in essence I can't have guns that I already own here in D.C. because of the system only having the one FFL and the backlog.
NNAMDIHas the coronavirus pandemic caused you to rethink your position in any way?
WALKERYou know, I always had guns primarily for hunting and for sport. After Katrina, I saw what society -- you know, what could happen in society if you lose the police and you lose infrastructure. After having been broken into, yes. When I saw what was going on in China -- and again, this was a month ago. It's not like I tried to do this last week. You know, I wanted to get my legally owned firearms into my own home.
WALKERAnd I'm unable to do that.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Walker. Larry, Democratic lawmakers in Maryland urged Governor Hogan last week to consider ordering gun stores to be closed citing a public safety concern. The House Republican caucus on the other hand sent its own letter citing the Second Amendment. If the governor, in fact, had moved to close gun shops, what sort of backlash might there be?
KEANEWell, I think the gentleman's story makes the point. You have liquor stores that are considered essential businesses. And firearms retailers where you exercise a constitutional right are not that doesn't seem to make any sense to me. And I commend the chairman for pointing out that legally owned and registered firearms aren't the problem. Nobody wants to see criminals getting a firearm. And people do have a legitimate concern about their self-protection of themselves and their families. When you have the state prosecutor in Maryland saying they're not going to prosecute criminals, when you see states emptying or letting convicted felons out of prison during the coronavirus, people are legitimately concerned.
KEANEAnd, you know, firearms ownership has been increasing as A.C. mentioned early on. And all the while crime continues to decline. And accidents involving firearms are at their lowest level since recordkeeping began in 1903. The industry strongly encourages anyone, who owns a firearm to know how to do so safely and responsibly, to store those firearms when not in use separate from the ammunition so that unauthorized individuals like children can't get them. We are communicating that message right now.
KEANEThe industry supplies locking devices with every new firearm shipped from the factory. Firearms retailers provide locking devices with every new handgun sold. And that's primarily what we see going on now particularly these first time buyers. So, you know, I think people have a legitimate reason to be concerned. I'm not saying that there's going to be an apocalypse or that this is, you know, "The Walking Dead" or something like that, but it is not unreasonable for someone like the gentleman explained for why they want to protect themselves and their families and exercise a fundamental constitutional right that can't be denied to them by the government even in a time of emergency.
NNAMDICan there be comprise? In a letter signed by House Democrats in Maryland they suggest that stores must remain open, that they be by appointment only. Do you think that is a reasonable compromise?
KEANEWe are encouraging retailers all across the country even where they are allowed to be open to practice proper CDC guides in social distancing. So limit the number of people that are in the store. Make sure there's six feet spacing between individuals. That's absolutely appropriate and the right thing to do. But it's wrong as has happened in New Jersey for a while and a few other states where retailers were closed. And the right to exercise a constitutional right is denied to them. I mean, no one would suggest that your radio station should be shut down during an emergency, because you're protected under the First Amendment.
KEANEJust as gun stores are protected and commerce is constitutionally protected. And it would be wrong to close stores particularly when people are interested in exercising their fundamental constitutional right. And the background check data as we mentioned -- was mentioned in the beginning of the interview -- you know, in the State of Maryland and Virginia it's doubled in the past month.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time. So I cannot address the comparison between gun stores and radio stations. But, A.C. Valdez, what's the impact of a huge surge in gun sales on the infrastructure of point of sale federal background checks as the government's resources are strained during this pandemic?
VALDEZWell, when you apply for a gun license, you know, after three business days, if the background check has not gone through the gun dealer may go ahead and sell you the gun regardless. However, I know a lot of Democratic senators have written a letter asking that gun dealers not do this given the fact that sales have been up so much that the system is pretty overwhelmed. And they've asked for a whole bunch of other things from the FBI and ATF as well in terms of just making sure that the background checks are more thorough and more secure. Kojo, do you mind if I ask Mr. Keane a question, though?
NNAMDIWe only have less than a minute.
VALDEZOkay. Mr. Keane, I'd like to know how you respond to -- you say illegal guns are not really the problem, but when you look at the public health research about suicides and domestic violence, this can be quite concerning. I wonder how you would respond to that.
NNAMDIYou only have 20 seconds.
KEANEYou noted in the beginning you say that the percentage of households owning firearms is declining while suicides are increasing. So I don't see that it's necessary correlation. People should responsibly own firearms. The industry is working with the suicide prevention community to address suicides with firearms. And people should understand that two-thirds of all gun deaths involve suicides not a criminal misuse of firearms.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Thank you all for joining us. Up next, "Kojo for Kids." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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