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In the midst of protests, politics and a pandemic, guns are hot, including in Tampa Bay

And according to a survey of firearm retailers, first-time buyers are a big part of the 2020 spike.

SEMINOLE — Ryan Laun lives with his wife and two children in a neighborhood he considers safe. He has police officers for neighbors.

But in late March, as the coronavirus pandemic was changing the way we live, the family decided to get a gun. The unsettled state of the world clinched it.

“There was nothing left in grocery stores,” said Laun, 37, who works for an insurance company. “It was just an eerie, uncertain time.”

Months later, with police-related protests and civil unrest across the country, he is even more certain about the purchase.

“I’m not a doomsday prepper. I’m just a normal, go-to-work, 9-to-5 person,” he said. Owning a gun “gives us that added comfort.”

He’s not alone.

While the government doesn’t track gun sales, FBI statistics show that 3.9 million firearm background checks were initiated in June compared to 2.3 million in June 2019. (Those numbers, while indicative, don’t represent the specific number of guns sold.)

According to a May survey of gun retailers by the industry trade association National Shooting Sports Foundation, 40 percent of customers in the first four months of 2020 were first-time buyers.

This month, the industry group estimated nearly five million new gun owners so far this year.

“And that’s staggering,” said Dave Workman, spokesman for the Second Amendment Foundation and editor-in-chief of TheGunMag.com.

Ryan G. Thomas, owner of Tampa Carry and Carry University, where they teach beginner, advanced and Florida concealed carry gun courses, said some days they have gotten more than a thousand calls, which was unprecedented. Students have said they never thought they would own a gun, he said.

“People don’t believe it’s going to get any better anytime soon,” Thomas said. “Most people believe this is the new normal for at least the next couple years, because society is just basically out of control.”

Ryan G. Thomas, owner of Tampa Carry and Carry University, says there's been a spike in first-time gun owners. [ Courtesy of Ryan G. Thomas ]

Those who deal in guns and in gun policy say the spike was sparked by uncertainty and fear during a health crisis unprecedented in our lifetime. Another factor: civil unrest over police shootings of Black people. Some buyers have expressed concerns about a breakdown of social order and the potential for lawlessness, including worries they won’t be able to get police protection.

Dr. Joe Pierre, professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and author of Psych Unseen: Brain, Behavior, and Belief, says that beyond the minority of gun owners who buy them for hunting and recreation, most get guns for self-defense and to protect against “real, exaggerated or imagined threats.”

This year gave us two “somewhat novel sources of fear,” the pandemic and political unrest.

Workman of the Second Amendment Foundation says the upcoming national elections are an added factor. Some gun owners worry a leadership change could mean stricter gun laws, “so they started buying even more guns.” He noted sales also increased after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

“When people are worried about what tomorrow may bring, whether it’s a natural disaster or terrorism, you see a lot of people going to gun stores,” he said. “And a lot of people are doing it for the very first time in their lives.”

The increase concerns gun safety advocates.

Kelly Drane, research director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says a gun is more likely to harm someone within the household and increases the risk of suicide and domestic violence. She noted we are already in times of a sagging economy and social isolation.

This week, the Tampa Bay Times asked readers online if they recently purchased a gun or thought about it.

“I am considering buying a small handgun along with handling lessons by an authorized person or group,” a reader wrote.

“No!!! Why on earth would anyone need a gun in a pandemic? To protect a supply of hand sanitizer? Florida!” wrote another.

“Got conceal/carry permit too, practicing for worse case!” said another.

“Never once did I consider it necessary to own or buy a gun,” a reader wrote. “With all the unrest and turmoil it now is something I think about.”

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