Will first-time gun buyers sway political support for the Second Amendment?
The year 2020 has brought with it unrest and uncertainty – from the coronavirus pandemic to the wave of nationwide protests and riots that have resulted in a push not only to enact police reform but to defund and abolish entire departments.
Amidst these developments, gun store shelves are being wiped bare, and more than two-and-a-half million Americans are estimated to have made the purchase of a firearm for the very first time in their lives.
Data from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) has found that at least 40% of their sales have come from first-time buyers. Typically, this group accounts for about 25% of buyers.
The glut of new owners has ignited a debate as to whether it will solidify a more pro-gun voting bloc and whether it will bring about more of a “middle ground” in the debate over gun legislation.
“The huge surge in millions of new gun owners will no doubt have a huge impact on politics in years to come. Long-term, it doesn’t bode well for politicians that don’t support a strong Second Amendment,” conjectured Phil Watson, a gun rights advocate and founder of Washington Public Relations. “Many new gun buyers were surprised they couldn’t walk out of the store with a gun without filling out paperwork and going through background checks. This likely doesn’t bode well for public support of harsher gun laws, as new buyers are discovering the truth for themselves behind a lot of deceptive political rhetoric.”
Rob Pincus, director of Personal Defense Network and Vice President of Second Amendment Organization, said that from his purview, the vast majority of new purchasers are “coming from what is left of the moderate middle in the U.S.”
“New gun owners are almost exclusively buying guns for defense. They are buying guns, but they are fine with background checks and other restrictions,” he explained. “They aren’t really changing their political position, just their personal choice to own a gun. A smaller number of people are shifting their understanding of gun rights in a more fundamental way. I believe many of the first group will evolve their positions as well, as they become part of the gun-owning community.”
Some gun rights defenders stress that the issue of firearms ownership hasn’t always been so politically discordant.
“Modern gun laws became a political flashpoint in the late 1960s through the current day with the passage of several new state and federal gun laws. The dividing lines became more clear in the 1990s with a controversial ban on the production of semi-automatic rifles,” Watson said.
On the flip side, some political strategists maintain that while there may now be millions more U.S. citizens in possession of a firearm than a year ago, most of the new owners – especially those from the middle to left-leaning political spectrum – still stand by the need for practical gun control measures.
“Statistics also show more Americans are in favor of stricter background checks for gun owners,” explained Scott Sobel, senior vice president for Crisis and Litigation Communications at the global PR agency in Washington, DC. “Even if there are more new gun owners, that doesn’t mean they necessarily are dyed-in-the-wool gun supporters, more of us are terrified of our increasingly chaotic society and feel they have no choice but to own a firearm, even though in reality that firearm will never be used either as protection or for sport. Disagreements over gun control continue to happen with every new violent gun act that takes place.”
Yet, according to Derrick Morgan, director of the Black Gun Owners Association, it’s not clear what long-term effect the unraveling of recent months will have on lawmakers’ ability to further control the gun industry and whether first-time sales will continue to swell in communties of color.
“We will see if it will have an impact on politics as it did in the late ’60s in California when the Black Panthers for self-defense openly carry rifles in protest,” he said. “African Americans seek out organizations like ours, where they feel their voices will be heard.”
And with the presidential election only three months away, gun sales could still tip the scale further.
“The right to bear arms is a fundamental constitutional right. The left’s agenda to confiscate guns only pushes Americans to be more active and vocal in support of their rights,” said Chele Farley, Republican candidate of New York’s 18th Congressional District. “With everything that has happened over the last five months, we can’t lose sight of Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for president. His primary agenda was gun confiscation. Joe Biden said when O’Rourke endorsed him that he would appoint him gun czar.”
According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s fact-checking arm, however, Biden has no plans for “gun confiscation” nor has he said he’d appoint O’Rourke as “gun czar.”
Retailers and analysts underscore that first-time purchasers have come from Black, Hispanic and Asian communities – those who were less likely to entertain gun ownership until this year – further amplifying discussions about whether they could sway the political discussions on the Second Amendment.
“We have seen such an overwhelming increase in membership mainly from women and novice gun owners looking to acquire training that we offer through our partnership with certified instructors,” noted Morgan, who runs the Black gun owners organization. “Right around the time of the COVID-19 quarantine and protesting, our servers crashed with overwhelming amounts of new members and people wanting to access services, joining gun clubs, and looking for training. People who would’ve not otherwise considered owning a gun began to see the importance of becoming their own first responder.”
Mychael Waller Sr., of MJ’s Firearms just outside Chicago, Ill., – one of the youngest certified firearms dealer and instructors at only 26 – said he is working nonstop to serve his clients, who “come from all walks of life” and are “very open about this subject at the moment.”
“We have experienced approximately 75% of the recent purchases to be first-time gun owners,” he asserted. “(We) are currently working on making much more training and education available to all, in hopes to encourage new gun owners to understand the importance of gun safety.”
Others within the Asian American community have also pointed to a sales surge in recent months.
“I myself have been assaulted and know several others who have been,” Julian Chan, a Chinese American entertainment attorney living in Beverly Hills, California conjectured. “It’s hard to quantify exactly how many of us have bought for the first time, but I would say it is substantial. People that would normally be afraid of guns are now somewhat afraid not to have a gun.”
Then there is the faction of female purchasers, who many retailers claim are buying firearms in far higher percentages than average.
Jessica Keffer – marketing manager for The Sportsman’s Shop in East Earl, Pennsylvania – said women now make up half the clientele, and many have expressed that “purchasing a firearm was not something they previously considered.”
“They are buying out of fear. They are buying for home defense and self-protection,” she noted. “They no longer have the confidence they once did and feel they have to take matters into their own hands.”
Jerah Hutchins, a Dallas-based firearms instructor and owner of weapons training enterprise Clearing the Chamber, concurred that the societal shift in gun ownership throughout 2020 “is nearly unprecedented.”
“Gun control laws trickling down in states like Virginia coupled with gun bills (HR5717) on the house floors in Texas and other states that want to enact more bans, restrictions, and additional taxes is the perfect recipe for gun sales to people who have been on the fence,” she said. “Layer in a pandemic and rioting with ineffective leadership? That gets them off the fence and into their nearest gun store.”
Chris Cheng, 40, – the Season 4 winner of History Channel’s “Top Shot” who came out as gay years ago in an effort to challenge stereotypes surrounding firearms and the LGBTQ community – also underscored the precipitous interest among his peers this year has been significant.
“What has been particularly interesting to see is that many of my friends and acquaintances in ‘liberal anti-gun’ parts of the Bay Area have been considering and purchasing their first firearms,” he explained. “For them, a distrust of President Trump, combined with fears of law enforcement being defunded, has created a unique dynamic where gun ownership seems like a rational choice in a chaotic environment.”
Indeed, many have said the new gun-owning roster of 2020 includes those who previously would never have considered it.
“When citizens see images of social breakdown and violence on television or out their windows, it changes them,” added Tom Kubiniec, CEO of gun safety and storage company, SecureIt Tactical. “Those who have supported strict gun control or confiscation have argued that only the government can provide safety and security. That argument appears to have collapsed.”