Coronavirus concerns prompt surge in gun, ammunition sales

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Firearms and ammunition often used for self-defense are flying off the shelves of Montana sporting goods and firearm stores, as well as similar retailers across the nation.

“It’s just political and governmental uncertainty, that’s what it’s about,” said Gary Marbut, of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.

Some of Matt Zimmerman’s customers at Butt’s Gun Sales in the Billings Heights are first-time buyers alarmed by the new coronavirus outbreak and looking to protect themselves against possible looters, he said.

“Calmer heads have to prevail,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not like you’re going to shoot your 80-year-old neighbor over toilet paper.”

Marbut said he’s called stores around the state and heard that at some shops up to half of the customers may be first-time buyers.

Montana already has strong gun ownership because of the popularity of hunting, ranking sixth in the nation according to one poll. More than half of households own at least one gun according to another survey. That may explain why current sales seem more targeted at weapons and ammunition for self-defense.

“Ammunition and firearm sales in general have been very strong,” said Ed Beall, co-owner of Capital Sports in Helena. “But we’re mainly selling personal defense type stuff.”

Similar runs on firearms and ammunition have occurred in Michigan, California, Kentucky and Illinois, according to news stories. Such buying sprees come at the same time that stocks of toilet paper, disinfectants and food staples are being sold out.

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“The news has done a good job of getting people excited right now,” Zimmerman said.

It’s personal

In 2014 there was a run on sales of .22 ammunition, a small caliber used for target shooting or varmint hunting. The fact that supplies of .22 shells haven’t diminished in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak “maybe tells us something about the psychology of the people who are buying,” Marbut said, noting that .22 loads aren’t a self-defense round.

Beall said his store was fortunate to have a large stockpile of 9mm ammunition for an upcoming 50th anniversary promotion. Most of that is now gone.

“The manufacturers are shipping orders,” he said, “but the distributor supply line is pretty cleaned out.”

That’s what Zimmerman ran into, an inability to resupply his small store.

MidwayUSA, an online ammunition and arms superstore based in Missouri, posted a note to its customers saying “order volume has increased dramatically” and that quantity limits were placed “on many high demand products to allow as many customers as possible the opportunity to order them.”

Likewise Ammunition Depot posted on its website that it was out of ammunition for several popular calibers “due to unprecedented demand. Truckloads of ammo are coming in everyday, but are selling out very quickly. We expect the current situation to persist for several months.”

“The problem now is the supply chain has been sucked dry,” Zimmerman said.

That means he may have to wait up to 30 days for resupplies of common ammunition like 9mm for handguns and .223 for rifles. He’s also sold all of his double-aught buckshot, large shotgun pellets sometimes used by hunting guides to defend against grizzly bear attacks, or, as Marbut pointed out, for self-defense.


Zimmerman has also been frustrated by long delays getting federal background checks on firearm purchasers. He was put on hold for eight hours during one transaction.

Those checks are done by the FBI, which said information on the increase in background checks would not be available for March until next month. Some news reports said the agency had seen a 300% increase in requests at a time when some staff may have been told to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to one of the agency’s media contacts, “At this time, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Section remains fully operational and will continue to process requests. The NICS Section appreciates the public’s patience during this period of national emergency.”

In Illinois, where the state police do background checks on firearm sales, the agency reported 19,000 inquiries over five days beginning on March 13.

The situation has frustrated Zimmerman because sales were strong for a week but now he’s out of some products, meaning fewer transactions for his store until he gets resupplied.

“I was around when Sandy Hook (mass shooting at an elementary school) happened, and there was not such a massive clearance out of the entire system,” he said.

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