The COVID-19 pandemic will long be remembered not only for the health impact, but for massive economic disruption characterized by job losses, panic buying, hoarding and price gouging.
The shooting sports industry has not been immune to these impacts.
Many shooting ranges have been closed. Competitive shooting events across the country have been canceled or rescheduled. With international air travel shut down and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics postponed until 2021, there's been a tremendous impact on many competitive shooters. The NRA Annual Meetings in Nashville were cancelled.
The firearms training segment has also been stymied in locations under shelter-in-place orders or where gatherings of more than a few people are banned. Gunsite Academy in Arizona remains open, but has implemented social distancing measures and taken other steps to mitigate the risk of virus transmission.
Retailers are coping with long lines of customers and diminished inventory while trying to follow social distancing mandates and, in some locations, have been forced to close entirely. Manufacturers are scrambling to protect their workers while simultaneously trying to meet a surge in demand for ammunition and firearms that some say is unprecedented in scope.
Some states, such as Utah and Tennessee, recorded increases well above 600 percent for the last four weeks compared to the same time last year. Arizona and Maryland had increases of more than 400 percent, while Hawaii, Colorado, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Kentucky and Nevada were all above 300 percent.
“I believe many expected the firearms and ammunition markets to heat up and increase over the summer, as we closed in on the election, but no one could have predicted this sharp of a demand in such a short period of time,” Kenyon Gleason, NASGW president, said. “While inventories were healthy, it doesn’t take long with this high of demand to rapidly diminish availability of products.”
Numerous ammunition and firearms manufacturers were contacted to assess impacts from the coronavirus pandemic, and the responses indicate that the industry is now sailing in uncharted waters.
Hornady spokesman Neal Emery described the demand spike as the biggest and most rapid the company has ever seen, saying that it is beyond the scope of what anyone could plan for.
“We’re making and shipping as much as we can,” he said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by other ammo makers, which are focused on implementing precautionary health and safety measures while working at full production to ship ammo to retailers as quickly as possible. At this point, demand continues to outpace supply.
Leaders of several companies took to social media to reassure customers.
“Our workforce is dedicated to making sure that our customers get the ammunition that they want,” Jason Vanderbrink, president of Federal Ammunition, said in an online video. Employees, he said, are working around the clock to fulfill orders.
“Please stick with us. We will catch up to this demand, but rest assured we are taking employee safety number one,” he said.
Jason Hornady, vice president of Hornady, posted a video addressing the topic of price gouging.
“Recently it’s come to our attention that some retailers have dramatically increased their prices,” he said. “We’re here to let you know that we have nothing to do with the price gouging that we are seeing in certain places. The prices haven’t changed, and we’ll never change them because some sort of an event like those going on now are occurring.”
Background Checks on the Rise
Along with ammunition, there has been a nationwide spike in gun sales, especially among first-time buyers, fueled by coronavirus-related fears.
The FBI reports that the week ending March 1 saw the third-highest number of NICS firearm background checks on record. That was before the full impact of the coronavirus became clear in the U.S., and those numbers are likely to go up. Updated figures had not yet been released by the FBI at press time, but some individual states are reporting record increases.
Florida reported a 400 percent jump in gun-sale background checks on March 20 over the same day last year. In Wisconsin, for the week beginning March 16, background checks were running at five times the daily average for March of last year.
In one recent week in Colorado, background checks were double the number reported for the same week last year. Officials in North Carolina are seeing record numbers of pistol purchase permit applications. The story is much the same across the nation with the exception of those states where gun shops have been forced to close.
“We are seeing self-defense as the mover,” says Darren Cole of Blue Heron Communications. “Self-defense rifles, shotguns and handguns are in high demand. Likewise, for the ammo, 9 mm, .40 S&W, .45 Auto, .308 Win. and .223 Rem. are moving off shelves like toilet paper.”
“Many of these purchases are being made by first-time firearm owners, which points to a bright spot down the road when this pandemic clears up. Those folks are going to buy more firearms in the future, that is a guarantee.”
“We have also heard from retailers nationwide that in cases of delays, NICS is providing firearm transfer dates of well over the federally-mandated three business days,” NSSF said in an alert to members. “We frequently hear that the date being given is April 15, although some have been reported to extend beyond the 30 days that the check is valid for.”
Like ammo makers, gun makers like Mossberg have seen a significant spike in orders.
“As we are a privately-owned company, we don’t release sales numbers, but I can state that we cannot build enough guns currently to fulfill those orders,” Mossberg spokesperson Linda Powell said. “This rush feels similar to past responses to crisis, though it has ramped up at a more rapid pace.”
She said tactical and personal defense firearms are most in demand, notably the 590 Shockwave, 590M Mag-Fed and standard 590/590A1 shotguns.
“We have shifted the majority of production to building those shotguns to meet the demand along with our MMR, MVP and Patriot security rifles. I would note that part of the reason for greater demand for shotguns over handguns is that many first-time purchasers are not aware of the permit requirements for handguns.”
A scarcity of handgun ammunition may also be driving the sale of shotguns, she said.
Manufacturers & Retailers Adjust
Some manufacturers have been forced to take a different approach. After Remington’s Ilion, NY, manufacturing plant was forced to shut down, the company offered to make the facility available for producing respirators and hospital supplies.
After being forced to lay off part of its workforce because of the crisis, Otis Technology, which makes gun cleaning and maintenance products, teamed with another company to manufacture hand sanitizer.
Holster maker Versacarry has pulled its engineers away from work on gun-related products to produce protective face shields and masks for the medical community.
For firearms retailers, the immediate future hinges upon a state or local government determination of whether they are deemed to be essential or non-essential businesses. A March 28 DHS guidance from President Trump listed firearms and ammunitions retailers as "critical infrastructure." The updated DHS guidance came as states like New Jersey completely halted firearm transfers.
Mark Abramson, owner of Los Ranchos Gun Shop in Albuquerque, NM, said his sales exploded in early March with customers ranging from seasoned enthusiasts to people looking to purchase their first firearm.
“We imposed restrictions on the number of guests we would admit at any time, mindful of space needs for the health and safety of our team and guests,” he said. “Our guests accepted these restrictions and everything went smoothly.”
He was forced to close his shop on March 23 after the Governor’s executive order, at which point he decided to regroup, take inventory and have the shop professionally cleaned in anticipation of reopening.
“The order was quite ambiguous, but we felt that our work with security and police gave us leeway to remain open to the public,” he said.
The next morning, he arrived at the shop to find a State Police officer parked in front of his store. Abramson said the officer advised him the police had received reports that the shop was open for business and thus had violated the Governor’s order.
He explained the shop’s role in serving commercial security accounts and law enforcement, but his business was deemed essential for that role only. He said he was allowed to complete pending sales and online sales and transfers.
“We were forced to lay off staff,” he said, adding that the State Police have driven past his store several times to ensure that he is complying.