Fear fuels gun sales as Biden vows crackdown
An estimated 21 million guns have been sold in 2020, up 73% from 2019.
This story is part of "America in Transition," a weekly series of in-depth reports on key parts of Donald Trump's legacy, Joe Biden's plans for change and what's at stake for all Americans. Airing Tuesday nights on ABC News Live Prime 7pm ET.
As the novel coronavirus ravages the nation's economy, firearms dealers are reporting a banner year of business as repeat customers are building up home arsenals and first-time buyers seek to enhance their personal security.
"When COVID initially hit the streets in the United States of America, business really started to take off," said Brandon Wexler, owner of Wex Gunworks in Delray Beach, Florida. "Almost, as far as an analogy, [like] prepping for a hurricane in South Florida."
An estimated 21 million guns have been sold so far in 2020, up 73% over the same period last year, according to an analysis of FBI background check data by The Trace, an independent investigative news site.
The run on guns reflects what experts call a perfect storm of fear-inducing conditions: the pandemic, economic recession, civil unrest and a divisive presidential election.
"I've never owned a gun. I've never wanted a gun. I've never had a gun in my home," said Florida mother of three Trish Beaudet, who recently purchased her first handgun.
"It really bothers me when I watched things on the news, when you talk about the riots, and the looting, and the violence that's happening," Beaudet said. "Pulling a gun is the last thing I ever want to do, but I want to know that if I need to protect myself, my family, my, you know, my children, that I can do that."
Erin Hart, a recently divorced African American mother of two and a self-described Democrat, said social and political polarization in her community have shaken her sense of safety.
"My nightmare scenario would be being at home alone, middle of the night, and just myself and, you know, the boys, and, and someone coming in to harm us," Hart said. "When things start to hit a little closer home it kind of makes you sit up and think about it."
The presidential transition also is a huge factor, experts said, as Democratic President-elect Joe Biden has vowed sweeping new restrictions on guns.
"It is generally true that when we have a president coming from the Democratic Party that we see higher firearms demand, and associated sales are primarily stimulated by the fear that there may be federal legislation pushed through," said Jurgen Brauer, chief economist at Small Arms Analytics, a nonpartisan research group.
Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center, called the dynamic a textbook case of "panic."
"I also believe that the gun industry, and the NRA, and to some extent even the [Trump] administration, are stoking people's fear," Thomas said.
Biden, who declared gun manufacturers "the enemy" during his 2020 campaign, plans a gun safety crackdown on day one of his administration.
He said he will ask Congress to repeal liability protections for gunmakers and close loopholes for background checks, according to his campaign. He also wants to ban production of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, require registration for existing assault weapons, limit individual gun purchases to one per month and end all online sales.
All proposals will require legislative action, which will be a tough sell in a narrowly divided Congress.
"I don't know what these laws will be passed, but that's got people [thinking] to 'buy my gun now or I'm not going to be able to get it again,'" said Robert Boyce, a retired NYPD chief of detectives and an ABC News contributor.
Months of racial unrest nationwide have influenced new buyers, with some citing a perception that local law enforcement may respond more timidly to potential crimes.
"After this whole George Floyd incident, the crime rate in Minneapolis has skyrocketed," Minneapolis resident Dawn Le told ABC News in an interview in September. "And now they're wondering, you know, why the police can't get there quick enough because there is no police, you know? But yet they want to defund the police."
This month, the Minneapolis City Council cut $8 million from its police budget. Several other major U.S. cities have pulled back spending on police, but most have maintained or increased police budgets for next year, according to an analysis by Bloomberg CityLab.
"The arrow has gone too far the other way on this. So we have to come back to basics and be smart about this," Boyce said.
The perception, however accurate, of police having fewer resources is fueling gun sales, industry experts told ABC News.
"People, again, are taking a look at what's around them, taking stock of their own security and their safety needs, and they're realizing that their elected officials are abandoning them," said Mark Oliva of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group.
As gun sales surge, so have gun deaths.
Through early December, 1,600 more lives have been lost this year than last year, according to data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive. Over the last four years, bullets have killed at least 155,000 Americans.
Four of the nation's 10 deadliest mass shootings have taken place since 2016 -- 59 killed in Las Vegas in October 2017, 26 in Sutherland, Texas, in November 2017, 23 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019, and 17 killed at a Parkland, Florida, high school in February 2018.
"It shouldn't be that normal -- that culture should not be normalized," said Bria Smith, a student leader with March for Our Lives, the movement calling for action on gun violence in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
Hundreds of thousands of young people descended on Washington in 2018 in an extraordinary call for action on guns, and President Donald Trump promised to lead an effort with Congress to respond.
"We don't want guns in the hands of the wrong people. I think that the Republicans are going to be great and lead the charge, along with the Democrats," Trump said in August 2019.
Those promises remain unfulfilled. Trump, like his predecessor, Barack Obama, was unwilling or unable to break the gridlock in Congress, which hasn't passed a major gun safety bill in decades.
"It's like this weird romanticizing of gun culture in our country," said Smith, now a college student in Milwaukee.
"I mean, we had our president willingly say on a public debate stage to the [Proud Boys to 'stand by and stand back,'" she said. "When you look at the bigger picture, it's making sure that you have an administration that cares for you set in place first."
With sales soaring, many gun safety advocates have said the most urgent need now is ensuring safer use of existing guns and providing better police training.
"We're starting to really rebrand our mission. Before, it was to eradicate all gun violence across the country, across the globe. But right now, I think it's just taking construction to reimagine," Smith said.
Thomas said her hope is that new gun owners will get safety training.
"That they learn how to properly use and store weapons if they choose to keep them in their home because of those risks," Thomas said. "This is an unprecedented moment in this country."
At Wex Gunworks, safety training classes are a top priority, which several of the newest graduates say is a smart idea for all Americans.
"It's extremely important. I don't want to be in a position where I unnecessarily hurt somebody by my negligence," said Beaudet.
"I think that even if you don't own a gun that it is imperative that you take the safety course in handling one," added Hart. "You never know when you could be put in a position or a situation where you would come across one."
And, despite the divide over Biden's gun proposals in the pro-gun community, Beaudet, Hart and Wexler all agreed that stronger background checks are something everyone should support.
"As far as the president-elect, you know, these background checks are the most important thing there is," Wexler added. "Everyone gets a background check, and there's no ifs, ands or buts."