MIAMI -- Gun shop owners have never seen such a surge in sales -- not after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, not in reaction to mass shootings, not even when Category 5 hurricanes threatened to flatten South Florida.
Fear and uncertainty about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic are motivating people to buy guns and ammunition as they seek protection from possible doomsday disintegration into lawlessness, with home invasions, looting, runs on banks, and fights over food, medicine, hospital beds and shelter across the land.
"Our sales are up 80 percent, with a huge increase in first-time buyers who are worried about martial law, economic collapse, unemployment, shortages, delinquents roaming the streets," said Alex Elenberg, manager of Charlie's Armory on West Flagler Street. "If you can't defend your house and your family, what good are you?"
The United States is the home of the world's largest gun-owning population per capita, where 40% of Americans say they own a gun or live in a household with guns. Even so, concern about the accelerating spread of COVID-19 is causing a spike in sales, according to sellers and data from gun-tracking agencies, such as the FBI's National Instant Crime Background Check System, which saw a doubling of checks on applicant buyers last week.
In Florida, the number of background checks posted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which closely correlates with the number of gun sales statewide, has risen to unprecedented levels, up nearly 500% on Friday alone, with 13,192 checks recorded compared to 2,646 on the same date last year.
From St. Patrick's Day on March 17 through Saturday, 56,677 checks were recorded compared to 11,842 during the same five-day period in 2019. While the volume of checks in the FDLE's Firearm Purchase Program decreased 16% in 2019, it's up 38% in 2020, with a week to go in March.
"I think it's a little too knee-jerk on the part of consumers, just like the toilet paper hoarding," said Jorge Corbato, owner of Nebulous Ordnance Defense in Miami. "Do you really believe this virus is apocalyptic?"
Guns provide tangible comfort in a time of desperation, Corbato said. It's like people are arming themselves against helplessness.
"Look, to me, a gun is a tool like a fire extinguisher. I'd rather have it than not," he said. "It gives you a sense of security if the world goes south, sideways, or very bad."
Corbato, a sportsman and former member of the U.S. Rifle Team, runs a small business with regular customers. For novices coming in over the past week, he has recommended Glock handguns, which he describes as "reliable, in the $500 range," or, better yet for home protection, a shotgun like the Remington 870, for $300.