There's been a months-long rush on firearms in Humboldt County as consumers — from first-time buyers to lifelong enthusiasts — are driven to local gun shops by anxieties over the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial justice protests that gripped the nation (as well as the backlash against them) and, more recently, Election Day and the civil unrest that may follow.
"Going back three to four weeks, the market is really brisk," says Greg Rice, who owns Bucksport Sporting Goods in Eureka with his brother Alan. "It's been over the top. Inventory is the biggest problem right now."
Throughout Humboldt County, gun shop owners — most of whom declined to speak on the record, with some declining to speak to the Journal at all — report that sales ratcheted up at the onset of the pandemic and simply haven't let up, with some like Rice saying they've spiked anew in recent weeks. And this matches a national trend, which has seen a record-setting year for gun sales in the United States.
According to a story in the Guardian, Americans have already bought a record-setting 17 million new guns in 2020. By August, the U.S. had exceeded last year's total and by September — through just eight months of the year — it had exceeded the highest annual total ever, Jurgen Brauer, the chief economist at Small Arms Analytics, told the Guardian. And it's not just guns flying off the shelves. Local shop owners say they simply can't keep ammunition in stock.
"Right now, finding any type of handgun ammo, it's been very difficult," says Pacific Outfitters owner Aaron Ostrom. "When we get it in, it's gone in hours."
Over the past two decades, the driving force behind surges in gun sales has generally been the fear that new restrictions will limit access to firearms. Gun shop owners say they're used to seeing sales spike in the aftermath of a mass shooting, when consumers fear lawmakers might outlaw a specific type of rifle, accessory or ammunition. Similarly, when a pro gun-control presidential candidate has been elected — or seems poised to be — there's frequently a run on firearms.
That was the case when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, and again when Hillary Clinton led in the polls heading into Election Day of 2016. Ostrom says sales between Obama's election and inauguration were simply massive.
"That was the biggest gun rush I'd seen," he says. "This definitely beats that."
To hear Ostrom and others tell it, it's been somewhat of a perfect storm. First, the pandemic hit, prompting runs on grocery stores and the types of hording behaviors that saw shelves stripped of products from toilet paper to beans. Then the virus shut down factories, disrupting firearm and ammunition supply chains, making some products unavailable, which — similar to the toilet paper phenomenon — created market uncertainty, which led to increased demand. Then there was the rioting during some of the protests that gripped the nation after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis that dominated cable news cycles, as well as ensuing calls to defund the police. Then there was perhaps the most contentious presidential election in generations, pitting a sitting president who has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the process, prompting widespread concerns over civil unrest after Election Day, against an establishment Democrat some fear will support gun control legislation.
"Normally, we have one, maybe two things happening at once that can create a gun rush," Ostrom says. "Now, we've got like 10."
And that's pushing buyers of all types into gun shops locally, from lifetime gun owners looking to add to their arsenals to first-time buyers.
"I'm seeing a very good percentage of folks who have had no interest in firearms who now, all of a sudden, are realizing that maybe they need to be a bit more proactive about protecting their families," Rice says. "People are concerned when they see what's going on on the television, what's going on in these inner cities. That concerns people. They worry if there's going to be enough law enforcement."
Others at local gun shops, including Ostrom, agree they have seen a large spike in first-time buyers.
"That's been massive," Ostrom says. "So many people who have never even held a gun or shot a gun but now are looking at seriously purchasing one. We've seen a lot of that."
Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal says the county has also seen a sharp increase in concealed weapons permit applications this year. Through the first 10 months of 2019, Honsal says his office processed 670 permits compared to 768 over the same span this year, with the rate increasing in recent weeks. But Honsal says the recent increase might not be due to election concerns but because he granted permit holders extensions during COVID-19 because required firearms safety courses were not available for some months and those extensions expired in October.
But the sheriff says his office is also seeing a lot of new names, noting that it has issued 281 new permits so far this year compared to 208 in all of 2019.
According to the Humboldt County Community Health Assessment, Humboldt County's firearm death rate is twice that of California and about 33 percent higher than the national average. The United States, meanwhile, regularly has one of the highest firearm death rates in the world. A Journal analysis in 2016 ("Strapped," July 21, 2016) also found that Humboldt County had one of the higher rates of reported firearm thefts in the state, and police seizure rates of illegal firearms that far outpaced Chicago, Baltimore and Oakland.
Ostrom teaches firearms safety classes, both for beginners and people looking to get concealed weapons permits.
"Our classes have been booked up three or four months in advance," he says. "In those classes, there sure has been a lot of talk about mobs and riots and what to do in those situations."
Ostrom says he encourages everyone — but especially first-time gun owners — to take safety classes and to make sure they're storing their firearms safely. To that end, he says Pacific Outfitters, through a partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services, also gives out lockable boxes that people can keep prescription drugs or firearms in. The boxes are free of charge, Ostrom says, and anyone can come in and get one if they fill out a brief, four-question survey with no private information. (Rice says he also encourages new gun owners to take safety courses.)
While Rice says business remains brisk — high-end hunting rifles, handguns and "AR-style guns" are most popular right now, he says — supply chain issues are equally persistent, which is possibly ramping up demand. Rice chuckles, noting things are so crazy right now that he's drastically cut back Bucksport's daily hours and closed an extra day each week, finding no reason to stay open with empty shelves.
And, he adds, the demand hasn't just been local. Pointing to handguns, Rice said while there's a small local inventory, stores in the Bay Area and other urban centers can't keep them in stock, so he regularly gets calls from outside the area asking about his inventory. Rice says he's sold one guy in the East Bay numerous handguns but state law only allows him to sell him one at a time, with a 30-day waiting period between purchases.
"He's been driving back up every 30 days," Rice says. "He's done it like four times. ... This business is just a little on the wild side right now."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.