As coronavirus spreads, Florida is buying way more guns than normal

In the past few days, the number of background checks in Florida has gone through the roof. The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a run on gun shops.
Alan McFadden, 54, of Seminole, looks at guns and shops for ammunition in the gun shop at Bill Jackson's Shop For Adventure Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015.
Alan McFadden, 54, of Seminole, looks at guns and shops for ammunition in the gun shop at Bill Jackson's Shop For Adventure Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. [ TIMES (2015) | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published March 16, 2020|Updated March 16, 2020

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Toilet paper and hand sanitizer aren’t the only things Floridians are stocking up during the coronavirus pandemic.

People across the state are rushing to buy more guns.

At Bill Jackson’s Shop For Adventure in Pinellas Park, salespeople worked through lunch Monday, selling ammunition, handguns and shotguns.

“Just about everybody buying is concerned about security and they don’t know what to expect," said Joseph Newton, a store manager. "Same thing I imagine with people emptying the shelves in the grocery store ... Nobody really knows.”

Florida Department of Law Enforcement data shows that is exactly what’s happening.

Related: UNLOCKED AND LOADED: A Tampa Bay Times special report on Florida' epidemic of stolen guns

Buying a gun in Florida requires undergoing a background check, which screens for criminal convictions, among other red flags. So the number of background checks is a good proxy for tracking firearm sales, although people can buy more than one gun at a time.

In recent days, the number of background checks in Florida has gone through the roof.

Starting Friday, Florida processed more background checks than normal, indicating people are buying guns in much higher numbers than expected this time of year.

Here’s how the Tampa Bay Times calculated that: We compared background checks from this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday to the average number of background checks on those days from March 2012 to 2019.

On an average Friday over that time period, the state ran about 3,300 background checks. This past Friday, the number was nearly 5,800 — 75 percent higher.

Saturday’s total of more than 6,200 checks was 74 percent higher than the average Saturday — and the single busiest March day since 2012, according to the data provided.

Sundays are typically slower. But this past Sunday’s total of more than 2,900 checks was more than double the previous average.

March is not peak buying season, Newton said. In the two decades he’s worked at Bill Jackson’s, he’s come to expect crowds.

But background check records show more are conducted in the fall and winter. Holidays are always busy at the gun shop, according to Newton. Hurricane season can be too, if a storm is projected to pass by Tampa Bay.

Sales also are high during certain political events, spiking during election years and any time Congress prepares to vote on gun legislation.

“Typically whenever customers get concerned, whether its the weather or the political situation or this virus ... they tend to buy," he said. “This virus is a new one for us obviously."

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Another gun shop manager at Bill Jackson’s, Mike Sfakianos, put it this way: “I think everybody is thinking the same thing. They’re not worried about the virus, they’re worried about people panicking.”

Other local shops have also been packed. No one was available to talk at Shooters World in Tampa. In St. Petersburg, a Gun Trader Den employee said they were “absolutely slammed.”

Ammunition is also becoming harder to find.

A store manager at Tampa Arms Company who declined to be identified said customers had cleaned out most of their inventory and their distributors were sold out, too.

Sfakianos is in charge of buying ammunition for Bill Jackson’s, but that’s getting hard to do. He said he’s heard of five or six factories that are shutting down, and wholesalers are on a 6-to-8 week backlog.

“I’ve been through this before for other political reasons," he said. “It’ll all come back (to normal.)

"When people get scared, they just want to feel protected.”

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