KERNERSVILLE — The two women browsed the collection of pistols inside the glass cases at Idol’s Gun Rack on a busy Thursday afternoon.
They were first-time buyers, deciding they wanted a gun for home protection. Whether they knew it or not, they were part of a national trend, as Americans have flocked to gun stores amid uncertainty wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
Chris Idol, the store’s owner, patiently explained the process. Without a purchase permit from the sheriff’s department, they couldn’t buy a handgun. There’s a background check involved, and even if everything went smoothly, it could be anywhere from three to 14 days of waiting.
They chose a shotgun instead, a Stoeger coach gun, old-school technology straight out of a movie Western, capable of two shots at a time, two side-by-side barrels, two triggers.
Even then there was a wait. Forms to fill out and then a phone call to the ATF’s National Instant Check System, a criminal background check required for long gun purchases.
Idol fitted a trigger lock on the shotgun before they left.
Around them, the shop was full. More customers for Idol and three clerks in a busy, busy week.
“It’s been like this since last Thursday,” Idol said. “Most of my normal customers, when they’ve come in, they say hello then just turn around and leave because it’s so busy. It’s 90 percent just panic. That’s all. I don’t know why, but it is what it is.”
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Nationwide data on the boom in gun sales won’t be available until next month, but long lines and empty shelves provide plenty of anecdotal evidence of the spike caused by COVID-19.
Background checks are up considerably over last year, the Associated Press reports. Data from the FBI shows 5.5 million background checks were conducted in January and February combined.
Gun sales typically rise in an election year. But the January and February background-check figures are nearly 350,000 more than 2016. And that’s before the coronavirus spike.
“We’ve seen a lot of first-time gun buyers,” Idol said, “and they’re buying stuff strictly to protect their homes. They’re never going to carry it out anywhere or hunt. I’m doing a whole lot more call-in NICS-checks than normal. Most people who buy regularly have a concealed-carry permit, and they can purchase on it, and the background check has already been done.
“To be honest, it worries me. So many people are getting guns who have never had them before. That’s why I went to all that trouble to find that trigger lock for those women. You need to be safe.”
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This is always a busy time of year at Calibers Indoor Gun Range on Downwind Road in Greensboro.
Calibers doesn’t sell guns, said Colin Farrell, who was working the counter at the range. But the range does teach N.C. Concealed-Carry Handgun Permit classes, typically two sections of 25 students each.
“We usually have to cap the classes anyway, but they’ve capped out a heck of a lot faster this year,” Farrell said. “We’re probably going to end up having more 25-person classes than just sticking with the dates we already have.”
It’s an all-day class, with a separate shooting session on a second day to qualify for the certificate. That’s just the starting point. Next comes the application to the local sheriff’s department, which includes a background check, fingerprints and medical release.
“It’s a long process,” Farrell said. “It can take a good five months for the whole start-to-finish process.”
Calibers does sell ammunition. And like most local stores, from the big-box retailers to Idol’s in Kernersville, it’s rationing sales.
“We’re selling out of ammo crazy quick,” Farrell said. “We’ve had to put restrictions on the amount of ammo people can buy. We won’t sell more than two boxes at a time. Otherwise, people would come and clean us out. … If you look around at local stores, there’s a lot of empty shelves.”
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At ProShots, an indoor range and gun store in Rural Hall, manager and instructor Richard Talbert said ammunition sales have been limited.
“The most popular is what you’d expect: 9mm, .38 caliber, .45 caliber and .223 caliber for those modern sporting rifles,” Talbert said. “We’ve restricted it to one box per caliber per customer per day. We could’ve sold all of it the first five minutes, but we want to share so that everybody can at least get some ammunition they need.”
ProShots has been in business for 10 years, Talbert said, and the site was a different gun shop before then.
He’s never seen anything quite like the past week.
“First it was toilet paper, right?” Talbert said. “There’s been a huge spike for us. I don’t know that we were surprised, per se, but it was an oddity. How do you go from, ‘We need bread and water and milk and toilet paper,’ and all that to, ‘Now we need ammunition and guns.’ … People who aren’t already prepared for crisis, suddenly they feel a sense of urgency that they need to be able to protect their families. Those late adopters are the ones who show up and say, ‘I need a shotgun; I want a pistol.’
“We’ve seen a lot of first-time buyers. We’ve sold a lot of classes. For us, our responsibility, if we’re selling someone a firearm, we want to sell them the knowledge of how to be safe with that firearm. … Most people in that instance are thinking personal safety, but they’re not thinking, ‘I don’t know how to use this tool, and I don’t know the legalities.’ That’s an opportunity for us to teach.”
ProShots posts a list of classes, starting with an intro to firearms for beginners up through advanced defensive and tactical sessions for experienced shooters.
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Back in Kernersville, Idol looks around his depleted stockroom beyond the doors with the “Employees Only” sign.
The Gun Rack has been around for 19 years, and Idol bought the business three years ago.
“We haven’t had a week like this before,” he said. “Christmastime gets close, but nothing like this. This has been, well, hard to describe. I’ll say this: All of my wholesale supply houses closed at noon today. Because they’re so behind on shipping, they can’t take more orders until they catch up.”
He’s grateful for the business. But the panic and fear he’s seen since last Thursday troubles him.
“If you’ve never bought a handgun before, you can’t just come in, pick one out and take it home,” Idol said. “And I’m glad they can’t. But if they could? I’d have done closed up, because it would be empty in here.
“And it’s amazing how many people don’t know that. They’ll come in, point to something in the case and say, ‘I want that pistol right there.’ OK, where’s your permit? They’re surprised when I tell them they can’t get it without a permit. You can’t just buy a gun. Luckily, you just can’t buy a gun. Know what I mean?”