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Ohio gun sales skyrocket during coronavirus pandemic

Miami Armory employee Josh Self on Tuesday, April 14, shows a hand gun to a customer at the store. Since the coronavirus has invaded Ohio gun sales have been at an historic high. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Miami Armory employee Josh Self on Tuesday, April 14, shows a hand gun to a customer at the store. Since the coronavirus has invaded Ohio gun sales have been at an historic high. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Federal background checks for firearm sales and permits skyrocketed in Ohio last month to the second highest level on record, fueled by panic buying as COVID-19 fears spread.

Local gun sellers say they had some of their busiest days ever, even topping Black Friday sales, as many first-time customers flooded their stores to buy weapons and ammo.

"In 43 years in business, Monday, March 16, was unlike anything I've ever seen," said Evan English, owner of Olde English Outfitters in Tipp City.

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Local residents are worried about personal safety and protecting their homes at an uncertain and volatile time, and many are worried about personal liberty and government restrictions, gun sellers say.

“We have never in (our) lifetime seen this type of government restrictions on the U.S. population — so this could be driving additional concern for families as criminals are known to take advantage of chaotic environments,” said Joe Eaton, with the Buckeye Firearms Association.

But gun control advocates say the surge in firearm sales makes communities less safe, because during the pandemic there is increased risk of suicide, domestic violence and unintentional shootings.

Advocates also argue that gun stores are not essential businesses and they are putting customers at infection risk by remaining open when they don't need to be.

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Last month, the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System recorded 114,086 background checks from Ohio, which was the second highest statewide tally since 1998.

In more than two decades, only December 2015 had a higher number of background checks originating out of Ohio, 119,900. That followed a terrorist attack in Paris and a deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which led to increased calls for new gun-control measures.

Background checks in the state last month were 61% higher than in March 2019.

Black Friday of 2019 was the Miami Armory’s single-best transactional day in company history, said Dave Becker, the owner of the store located near the Dayton Mall.

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But on March 16, after the governor ordered the closure of schools, bars and restaurants, sales exceeded Black Friday’s total by tens of thousands of dollars, Becker said.

About one-quarter of the Miami Armory's foot traffic has beennormal customers who want to stock up on ammo, buy accessories and sign up for classes, Becker said.

The rest are new customers, many of whom likely are first-time firearms buyers, he said.

During the pandemic, people likely are fearful of rioting, looting, theft and other dangers that could arise from desperate conditions, Becker said.

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Another major source of concern is that government will crack down during this crisis and infringe on people’s rights, he said.

Miami Armory continues to see elevated foot traffic. In a six-day work week, there might be two normal days and four with high levels of sales, Becker said.

“I see the panic buying continuing, but it will simmer down a little bit if Gov. DeWine can open up the state or give us a hope date about when we can all go back to work,” he said.

However, Becker said, even if that happens, the upcoming election also may buoy gun sales, because the possibility of a Democratic president and Congress may raise concerns about potential new gun restrictions.

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Unrest, financial uncertainty and fear of government overreach causes people to think about their personal security, said English, with Olde English Outfitters.

Many people, in the back of their minds, have long considered getting a gun, he said, but crises create a sense of urgency that compels people to finally spring for a purchase.

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Olde English Outfitters saw sales spike in mid-March, and the majority were first-time customers, English said.

But the store closed to the public for a couple of weeks after the state issued a stay-at-home order to ensure staff and customers were safe, English said.

The business, which underwent a deep cleaning, continued serving clients whose transactions were already in process.

The store reopened on April 7 for appointments only to control and limit the number of customers, with employee and customer safety in mind, English said.

The store right now is expected to remain appointment only until May 2, but the situation is regularly re-assessed, he said.

Historic increases in gun sales across the nation are happening at a time when many Americans are confined to their homes and there is increased risk of unintentional shootings, domestic-violence shootings and suicide by firearm, John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety said earlier this month.

Everytown, which supports “common sense” gun laws, says the surge in background checks could mean that law enforcement is being overwhelmed and will not have adequate time to complete each check.

The group says that could result in firearms being transferred to some people who later on are found to be prohibited from obtaining the weapons.

Most background checks are completed within minutes, but about 10% take longer than three business days, and when that happens, federally licensed gun sellers can choose to transfer the guns to the customer, Everytown said.