| The Columbus Dispatch
Just as toilet paper and Clorox wipes were flying off the shelves in March, so were guns.
The United States experienced more than 110 million gun sales in 2020, up from less than 100 million in 2019, according to Small Arms Analytics.
Ohio and Franklin County residents are no exception to the increase. Joe Reamsnyder, store manager of firearms store Velocity Works in Westerville, said 2020 was the “perfect storm” for interest in firearms.
“We’re in a — I don’t want to say unprecedented, but maybe pretty close — demand for anything firearms related,” Reamsnyder said.
Reamsnyder said his store hasn’t been able to keep ammunition on the shelves, and the number of first-time gun buyers surged in the last calendar year. The most common firearms he sells are semi-automatic pistols, semi-automatic rifles and shotguns for home protection, he said.
Pandemic, protests and presidential politics
Sales spikes corresponded with three events, Reamsnyder said: mid-March when the shutdown due to the pandemic began, the protests in late May and June following the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, and the presidential election.
Ohio does not require guns to be licensed, permitted or registered — aside from concealed carry weapons. And although background checks are not required by the state, sales of firearms do require federal background checks through the FBI. The number of background checks for guns in the state of Ohio have increased since 2007, according to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Background checks are an underestimation for sales though, as 1 in 5 guns are sold without a check, said Kris Brown, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
After the COVID-19 pandemic began, the United States saw a spike in gun sales, with more than 17 million background checks performed nationwide. In Ohio, more than 114,000 background checks were conducted in March, when the pandemic began — 44,000 more than in March 2019.
In November 2008, when Barack Obama was elected, 53,256 background checks were performed in Ohio, and after his 2012 reelection, background checks in December climbed to 102,531.
The month following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, background checks in Ohio jumped after a lull to over 88,000. The climb continued post-election in December 2020, with over 94,000 checks before increasing to 98,651 in January 2021.
Reamsnyder said his store saw an increase in sales after President Joe Biden’s election — an anticipated spike as people worried about further gun control measures that could be imposed by a Democratic president. He said his store saw a shortage of ammunition and firearms after Obama’s reelection and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, but the past year has been different.
“2020 is the craziest year we’ve ever seen, by far,” Reamsnyder said.
Buyers across all demographics
Rob Sexton, legislative director of the Buckeye Firearms Association, said all kinds of people are becoming gun owners this year.
“There are a lot of first-time gun purchasers over the last year, a whole lot of them, and they spread across all demographics — record pace of women buying guns for the first time, record pace of minorities buying guns,” Sexton said.
Sexton said there is also increased interest in gun classes and firearm training in addition to sales and licenses — all of which results from people feeling less safe in 2020.
In 2019, Franklin County issued the most concealed carry weapon licenses in the state, with more than 4,700, according to data kept by the Ohio Attorney General’s office. In the third quarter of 2020 alone, the county issued over 2,800 licenses — nearly 2,000 more licenses than in the third quarter of 2019.
Reamsnyder, who teaches concealed carry courses in small groups once a month, said the amount of interest in his classes has skyrocketed, and applications for licenses at the sheriff’s offices are booked “months out.”
“In the past several months, the amount of phone calls I’ve gotten from people wanting to take the class, I could probably teach it every single day if I really wanted to,” Reamsnyder said.
Sexton said that COVID-19 restrictions in the spring of 2020 also led to some hold-up in enrollment in classes and license obtainment.
“The combination of the two — less availability by the sheriffs and more first time CHL applicants — caused there to be a big backlog,” Sexton said.
More guns, more safety concerns
Brown said there is concern about more concealed carry weapons because it means more guns in public places.
“If guns made us more safe, especially in the public square, we’d be the safest country on Earth. We have more than any other country, but it creates huge risk,” Brown said.
Brown said the national rise in background checks is correlated to an estimated 2.5 million more guns sold in 2020 than in the previous year, with an estimated 800,000 sold in Ohio.
The increase in gun purchases is cause for concern in terms of gun-related deaths because guns as a safety device should be “a last resort,” Brown said, but the increased ownership of firearms also raises concerns over self-harm.
“With the combination of the pandemic and insecurity and social isolation, we’re very concerned about suicide rising, and a lot of indicators show us that it is on the rise,” Brown said.
The sales weren’t limited to the year 2020 either — Brown said an estimated 80,000 guns were sold in Ohio alone in January, a 90% increase over the previous year, an estimate that factors in sales without background checks.
Andre Vatke, 49, of New Albany, has been a gun owner since the early 1990s and grew up in a rural setting. Vatke, who currently owns 10 firearms, said people shouldn’t fear the increase in the number of guns, as many people bought them as a kind of security blanket.
“The real issue is that people who don’t know the law and who don’t know what their liabilities are, and where we have no consequences for bad, for irresponsible ownership — that’s where the issues really I think mainly arise,” Vatke said.
Vatke said he is concerned that a new gun owner doesn’t need to demonstrate knowledge of the firearm before walking out of the store with it, whereas people seeking hunting licenses must complete classes and a test. Safe and realistic ownership should be prioritized, he said.
“All my firearms are in a safe in the basement. If you broke into my house, I’m gonna have to ask you if you want a cup of coffee, hobble down there and grab a gun — it’s just not really accessible,” Vatke said.
Looking back on the beginning of the pandemic and the year that followed, Reamsnyder said people might have been looking for something tangible in the unknown.
“There was so much uncertainty, that would be my best guess, just with the uncertainty that was going on,” Reamsnyder said. “They’re like, “I don’t know when I’ll be allowed to go out in public and buy a gun again, and maybe it’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while, and now’s the time to do it.’”