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Wisconsin Gun Sales Spiked when the Pandemic Began, Still High a Year Later

Erin Gottsacker/WXPR

On Wednesday, a mass shooting left eight people dead at a rail yard in San Jose, CA.

The episode follows a weekend of a dozen mass shootings nationwide that left 13 people dead and many more injured.

Sales of firearms tend to spike after mass shootings, but since March of 2020, there hasn’t been a spike so much as a constant increase in firearms sales.

In March of 2020, the number of firearms sold in Wisconsin exploded.

In just one month, sales were up 86 percent.

The surge of interest in buying firearms created long lines outside gun stores, as people waited to purchase a firearm.

Credit Northwoods Shooters Shop Facebook
Guns and ammunition at the Northwoods Shooters Shop.

“We’d open the store in the morning, and you wouldn’t be able to get in,” said Josh Raymond, the owner of The Northwoods Shooters Shop in Eagle River.

But the spike in sales didn’t stop there.

“It hasn’t let up,” Raymond said. “Demand is still extremely high.”

The data back him up.

Since the beginning of 2020, the number of federal firearm background checks – which experts say is a good indication of firearm sales – has risen 30 percent nationwide.

In Wisconsin, sales have increased 88 percent.

The surge is the result of a combination of factors that came together last year to drive both longtime and first-time firearm owners to gun shops.

Credit Erin Gottsacker/WXPR

To start, Timothy Lytton, an expert on the gun industry, said the pandemic made people scared, but for different reasons.

Some worried the government’s power to restrict travel and mandate mask-wearing was too big.

“For some people, the response to anxiety about the growth of government power is to exercise their second amendment right and purchase a personal firearm,” Lytton said. “Many of these people are people who have purchased firearms repeatedly in the past and have fairly large collections. A lot of those people went out and purchased additional firearms.”

However, others had the opposite concern.

They were afraid that a lack of government response and the stress on first responders could lead to anarchy.

“This was also fueled by a lot of the protests and urban unrest over the summer last year,” Lytton said. “This general sense of insecurity encouraged a lot of people to purchase firearms for self-defense. Many of these purchasers were first-time purchasers, people who never owned a firearm before, but thought that now was a time that would be good to get one for self-defense.”

All of this was compounded by economic uncertainty and a changing political landscape.

Credit Erin Gottsacker/WXPR
Anna Lopez holds one of the guns she recently bought.

Anna Lopez is one of the people that bought a gun during the pandemic – two actually.

For her, the purchase was an issue of personal safety.

“There are a lot of people who carry guns,” she explained. “I thought I should understand the safety of a gun. Let’s say I’m in a room with a gun. If somebody’s carrying it and something happens, I don’t know anything about it.”

She said when she bought her gun, a dozen other people were filling out applications to purchase a firearm at the same time.  

She had to wait days for her background check to be completed because the system was overloaded.

It’s another example of the popularity of firearms right now, but what does this mean for the future?

According to Lytton, it’s hard to predict if the popularity will stick around.

“An enormous amount of the sales in the firearms market are among people who already have identical products, they just want more of them,” he said. “And that demand is often driven not so much by people’s need for a fourth or fifth or sixth firearm that is essentially quite similar to the one they already own, but this idea of wanting to use firearms purchases as a way to deal with anxiety or views about what’s going on in a larger political culture.”

Lytton also said there is not clear evidence that the increase in firearm sales will mean a future with more gun violence, but he warns that if first-time gun owners don’t seek out training, there could be uptick in accidental gun deaths.

That’s why Anna Lopez enrolled in a concealed carry class.

She shot her gun for the first time at the class. It was completely booked.

When she uses up her ammunition, she might have trouble finding more.

That’s because ammo sales are at record highs too.

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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