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Protests drive surge in Florida gun sales months after coronavirus-driven spike

In the week after George Floyd’s death, Florida processed more than twice the number of background checks than it did in the same week in 2019.

The number of Floridians who sought background checks so they could buy guns surged in the days and weeks after protests started following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25.

In the seven days following Floyd’s death, the state processed 30,657 background checks, more than twice the number processed over the same time last year. The surge peaked June 2, when the state processed 10,318 background checks in one day.

At Mad Dog Armory in Largo, owner Jillian Biltz said the store was just starting to get more inventory after they sold out in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the past two or three weeks, the store has been selling out again.

“Once the protests started happening and then people just started getting nervous it seemed,” Biltz said. “We’ve gotten a lot of new customers.”

On Thursday, Biltz, 45, said she put a sign on the door telling customers the store would be closed for an hour during lunch. She said it’s a chance for her employees to grab a bite, but it also gives them time to restock the shelves.

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

Background check data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows how gun-buying has skyrocketed in Florida, first in March, then in late May and early June.

A week after Floyd’s death, June 1, the state processed 8,597 background checks that day, more than four times higher than the first Monday in June last year.

From the day after Floyd’s death, May 26, to June 14, the latest data was available, the state processed 117,669 background checks. After the June 2 peak, background checks processed daily dropped to 2,620 by June 14, but were still almost twice the number processed the Sunday before Floyd’s death.

A man who answered the phone at Patriot Gun and Pawn in Seminole on Thursday said they were “swamped,” and an employee at R&R Sports in Tampa said they were too busy to talk Friday morning.

At Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park, store manager Mike Sfakianos said the store’s inventory of guns is down to a third of what it usually is. He said the store has been buying lunch for the crew every day because employees haven’t had time to take a break.

People coming in to buy guns have been mostly new customers, Sfakianos said. Some have told him that typically, they’d be against buying guns. Sfakianos said he thinks some people are starting to see the value of their Second Amendment rights.

“If all these certain states are looking to abolish the police or defund the police — and now the police are even walking out because they’re not being backed up — what are you going to do?” he said. “You’re going to have to protect yourself.”

Sfakianos, 44, said he’s been working at Bill Jackson’s for at least 15 years. He said he’s seen surges in sales, what he calls “panic buys,” when debate is kicked up around restricting guns or banning assault-style rifles, but the volume of this “panic buy” is greater than any he has seen.

Previous spikes have been related to politics, but he said the surges this year have had more to do with fear of what’s happening in the world.

“With a deadly pandemic coming around that’s spreading real fast and easily, that’s causing a lockdown and a complete economy shutdown which could potentially lead to anarchy and disaster,” Sfakianos said. “And now as we’re just getting back on our feet with that, these riots and stuff start happening, and then they’re happening right in our backyard sometimes. So yeah, it’s different, way different.”

Jillian Biltz, of Seminole, places a Sig Sauer MCX556 rifle on a display wall on Friday, June 19, 2020, at the Mad Dog Armory guns and ammo store in Largo. Gun sales in Florida are surging once again, this time due to protests against police brutality continuing in Florida and around the country. Local gun stores are swamped with customers. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]