Guns

Like many Virginians, John Daggit has become a bit uneasy about the COVID-19 pandemic and what it may portend long-term.

“I’m not in a panic or anything,” said Daggit, a business analyst who lives in South Richmond. “But the idea of having a firearm available, if there were ever a need for it, is a little bit comforting. It’s like a parachute or a fire extinguisher. You never really want to use it, but it’s nice to know that you have it.”

On Sunday, Daggit picked up a 12-gauge M12AK semiautomatic shotgun — modeled after an AK-style assault weapon — from the Green Top Sporting Goods store in Hanover County.

“With all that’s going on in the world, and the COVID-19 specifically, I just thought I want to have it around for protection,” Daggit said Monday in a phone interview. “When you know that many other people out there in the world have them — and you don’t — that makes it very uncomfortable.”

Daggit is far from alone as Virginians grapple with the uncertainties of the coronavirus.

The Virginia Firearms Transaction Center recorded 80,228 transactions in March — a 75% jump over March 2019 and the highest total for any month on record since state police began tracking the data in 1990, according to mandatory criminal background checks on Virginia gun buyers.

The March number surpasses the previous Virginia record of 75,120 transactions in December 2012, which experts said was fueled by fears of increased gun restrictions after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut.

The March record also adds to what has become Virginia’s longest sustained spike in monthly gun sales ever. It began with December’s 73,849 transactions and continued in January and February with 65,839 and 64,070 transactions, respectively.

State firearm dealers say the surging sales can be attributed to the virus scare, along with the lingering effects of increased gun control measures passed by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

“We’re almost doing a small gun show worth of business on a daily basis,” Jerry Cochran, owner of Trader Jerry’s, one of Virginia’s largest federally licensed firearm dealers, said last month.

“On a typical day, we’re doing three times as much business as we normally do,” said Robert Marcus, the principal owner of Bob’s Gun Shop in Norfolk, another of the state’s largest dealers.

Fears that the spread of the virus could lead to lawlessness and a breakdown in public order has driven much of the sales in Virginia and elsewhere across the country.

The FBI says the National Instant Criminal Background Check System conducted 3.7 million screenings in March, the highest number recorded since its inception in 1998. The previous single-month record was 3.3 million in December 2015.

Because there is no national or state database of gun sales, the numbers do not correlate directly to the number of sales, because more than one firearm could be included in a single transaction. But the background checks are regarded as the best available proxy for gauging sales and consumer demand for firearms.

Virginia transactions averaged more than 2,500 a day in March, and twice surpassed 5,000 — on March 20 and March 21 — after Gov. Ralph Northam issued a public health emergency order prohibiting more than 10 patrons in most commercial establishments and giving law enforcement the power to enforce the ban.

The March surge also occurred despite the cancellation of several gun shows across the state due to Northam’s ban on large gatherings of people.

Daggit said there was a line Sunday outside Green Top, which limited the number of customers who could go inside, when he arrived to pick up the shotgun he preordered and purchased online.

“They were trying to expedite the people who were there not to just browse in the store,” Daggit said. “If they knew exactly what they wanted, somebody would go in and get that specific item for them, so they could do the transaction outside. They had registers, they had a laptop out there to run the background check, and they had ammunition [for sale] outside.”

The final transaction took about two hours after Daggit initially waited in line and then in his car, and completed the required criminal background check.

Daggit said it wasn’t his first time buying a gun. He bought a handgun about 14 years ago after he moved to Virginia from Iowa.

“I grew up hunting, so I’m not unfamiliar with weapons,” he said. “I was going to get [a shotgun] anyway,” but the coronavirus scare “probably moved it up a little sooner. So yeah, I would say that would be the motivation for doing it now, versus later.”

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