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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Mike Holley opened his small business, Gunslingers Gun Store, in Taos less than a month before the COVID-19 pandemic struck New Mexico.
While that timing might have devastated others – with pandemic restrictions wreaking havoc on businesses across several industries – Holley has not had difficulty attracting customers.
Despite having to close his store for a few weeks, Holley said he now finds himself struggling to keep his shelves stocked with guns and ammunition as demand has remained steadily high over the past few months.
“We’re busy all day, every day,” Holley said. “It’s impossible sometimes to try to replenish our inventory.”
His situation is not unique.
Gun stores across New Mexico have seen record-breaking sales since the start of the pandemic. March saw the highest monthly total of background checks on record, with 24,571 total checks, according to data from the FBI.
The number of background checks have remained high throughout the subsequent months. Currently, the state is on pace to have more than 205,000 total background checks, easily the largest total since the FBI started tracking the data in the late 1990s.
The increase is also happening across the nation. Kentucky has the most background checks per one million residents, at nearly 530,000, while Hawaii has the lowest, with 10,072.
That nationwide demand is evident to Holley, as well. He said he frequently gets calls from customers as far away as Dallas and Denver, asking if he still has ammunition. Background checks, which typically take 15 minutes, can take three days due to backlogs in the system.
As a result, while common restrictions on such items as toilet paper and eggs in stores have largely been lifted, Holley restricts his customers to two boxes of ammunition per purchase.
“If not, the first guy that walks in the door will buy it all,” he said.
Holley, like many others, said he believes the combination of a worldwide pandemic, nationwide unrest and a looming, heated election has left many feeling less safe. As a result, they are turning to firearms to feel more secure.
He said it’s very common to see elderly couples come in the store and purchase multiple guns at once.
“They pick out a handgun, they pick out a long gun and a shotgun,” he said. “In 30 years of law enforcement, I never dreamed that this person would own an (assault rifle), but they walk in here asking for it.”
Gun store owners say many of their customers are first-time buyers. This has left many concerned about the training people have when purchasing a weapon for the first time.
State Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, said she supports people legally purchasing firearms, but hopes they receive proper training on handling and storing them first.
“It’s really important that adults who purchase guns store them safely, and don’t leave them loaded and lying around the house,” she said, adding most gun owners abide by those rules.
She said the rise in gun purchases is also concerning given the rise in suicides since the pandemic started. The total numbers are still unknown, but many health officials and politicians have noted there’s been a definite increase in successful suicides.
“We have one of the highest rates in the country for suicide and for veterans committing suicide with firearms,” Garratt said. “We have to really be cognizant of the people around us and what they’re going through … and safe storage is a big part of that.”
Garratt co-sponsored a red flag gun bill in the state Legislature that passed earlier this year. The bill allows law enforcement to confiscate firearms from someone if they’re deemed a threat to themselves or others, and has been the subject of intense criticism since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed it into law.
Lujan Grisham initially included gun stores in the coronavirus lockdown, saying they were not considered an essential business. Firearm stores and ranges were eventually allowed to open soon after the National Rifle Association and others filed a lawsuit against the state. It’s unclear the impact the lawsuit had on that decision.
State Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said he has no issues with people purchasing firearms legally. Rehm, a retired law enforcement officer, said he did not know the potential dangers of someone buying a firearm with no training or experience.
“There’s probably people that have bought guns that put them on a shelf and they’re never even going to take them out,” he said, adding that gun owners should still receive training.
It’s a risk that some gun store owners recognize. Holley said he used to charge extra for training sessions, but now he includes them every time someone buys a gun from his store.
“We teach them how to hold and shoot without actually taking them to the range,” he said.
It’s unclear how gun sales will turn out in the last few months of the year. Winter months typically see the highest sales and a heated election season might boost that total.
A shortage of firearms has seen some guns sell well above the retail price. Holley said he has one customer who buys a handgun once a week, with the intention of later selling them for a profit down the line.
“I’ve never been in a business like this where there are so many different opinions and reasons for why people are purchasing guns right now,” Holley said.