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Gun shops see COVID-19 business boom: ‘A very different panic than we have seen in the past’

Illinois State Police declined to speculate on a reason for what the agency described as “an unprecedented number of Firearms Transfer Inquiries,” but the Illinois State Rifle Association pointed squarely at the coronavirus pandemic.

Danny Egan fills out mandatory gun purchase paperwork at Freddie Bear Sports in Tinley Park in 2014.
Danny Egan fills out mandatory gun purchase paperwork at Freddie Bear Sports in Tinley Park in 2014.
Scott Olson/Getty Images file

SPRINGFIELD — Illinoisans tried to buy an unprecedented number of guns in March – nearly twice as many as the month before – and the state’s leading firearm-owners advocacy group says it was fueled by fears of “social unrest” during the coronavirus crisis.

Illinois State Police reported 60,332 inquiries about firearm purchases in March – the largest number in a single month since they began keeping records in 1992. And nearly 87% of those inquiries from gun dealers came in the final two weeks of March, when the state was under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

Illinois State Police declined to speculate on a reason for what the agency described as “an unprecedented number of Firearms Transfer Inquiries,” but the Illinois State Rifle Association pointed squarely at the coronavirus pandemic.

“When there is a chance for social unrest … people want to be able to protect themselves because they really don’t trust the government to protect them,” said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.

The rush to buy firearms began about the middle of the month, before Pritzker issued his order closing all but “essential” businesses but after the governor had already ordered schools, restaurants and bars closed.

A customer shops for a handgun at Freddie Bear Sports on June 16, 2014, in Tinley Park.
A customer shops for a handgun at Freddie Bear Sports on June 16, 2014 in Tinley Park.
Scott Olson/Getty Images file

At Maxon Shooter’s Supplies and Indoor Range in Des Plaines, owner Dan Eldridge said the stampede to buy guns and ammunition began March 13, eventually leading to a line of customers going out the door.

Sales went up three- to five-fold, he said.

While gun stores often see increased sales after mass shootings, when politicians push added restrictions, Eldridge said “this is a very different panic than we have seen in the past.”

Gun store owners said people were mostly buying firearms that are commonly thought of as self-defense weapons, such as handguns and shotguns. But while the stores are still well-stocked with firearms, the panic buying of ammunition has triggered a supply-chain problem.

“We, and every other store, are still well-supplied with guns,” Eldridge said. “Ammunition is almost unobtainable right now.”

Craig Marshall helps a customer shop for ammunition at Freddie Bear Sports in 2014.
Craig Marshall helps a customer shop for ammunition at Freddie Bear Sports in 2014.
Scott Olson/Getty Images file

Mark Glavin, owner of the Fox Valley Shooting Range in Elgin, said he has also noticed a three- to five-fold increase in sales at his store since mid-March, which he attributed to customers’ fear that gun shops, like many other businesses, would be forced to close during the pandemic.

Glavin said March was a record month for firearms sales.

This is only the second time monthly firearm purchase inquiries have exceeded 60,000 since the state police began processing transactions in 1992. The other time was December 2016.

The governor’s stay-at-home order, which took effect March 21, forced businesses deemed non-essential to close. As part of the order, gun stores were listed as an “essential business” along with such others as grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, laundromats and gas stations.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker at a daily briefing in March 2020.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s March 21, 2020 briefing on the coronavirus situation in Illinois.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Many gun-rights advocacy groups in Illinois were surprised to see the Democratic governor, whom they consider pro-gun control, include gun stores in his list of “essential” businesses.

“We wanted to make sure people had the ability to protect themselves if they needed to,” Pritzker said during one of his daily briefings last month when a reporter asked why he listed gun stores as essential businesses.

Before each gun purchase in Illinois, licensed gun dealers have to fill out paperwork, one form per purchase, and submit it to the Illinois State Police for approval. Those “Firearms Transfer Inquiries” lead to the police background checks before the purchases can be approved.

The 60,332 inquiries made in March – up from 44,687 in March of 2019 — indicate the number of times gun dealers needed to fill out that paperwork that comes with each purchase.

Business was so busy at his Des Plaines gun store, Eldridge said he had to close for a day.

“We were running three, five times our normal volume, so much so that we ultimately had to close the store on Friday the 20th, just so we could get caught up with paperwork and organizing the pick-up guns when people’s background checks were approved,” he said.