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Gun sales spike alongside COVID-19 concerns in Seattle area

caption: FILE: A Seattle gun owner holds his M1 Garand firearm on Friday, February 21, 2020, at his home.
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FILE: A Seattle gun owner holds his M1 Garand firearm on Friday, February 21, 2020, at his home.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Last weekend, the clerks at one Seattle-area gun store could barely keep up with the crowd of customers. They stood in front of half empty walls where shotguns and rifles normally hang, quickly dispensing ammo and paperwork for background checks.

While some in the crowd seemed like they have hung around a gun store before, many of the customers would not appear like any common stereotype of a gun enthusiast -- minoritized people including Asian Americans; members of the LGBTQ community; male and female; young and old. There was at least one man bun.

At one end of the counter, "Doo Wop (That Thing)" by Lauryn Hill plays in the background while a clerk says "enjoy the apocalypse" after each transaction. They comment that they've been rushed with sales for weeks. Another says it hasn't been like this since 9/11.

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This one gun shop is not alone. Firearm sales in the region have sharply spiked, indicating that if there was a point in time when people began to get really nervous about the local COVID-19 outbreak, it could have been the start of March.

That's when folks went for the guns.

"When people are feeling vulnerable, or they are feeling that the times are uncertain and they are feeling fear, there is a tendency to go and buy weapons, and we are definitely seeing that in Bellevue," said Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett.

Firearm stores across Western Washington are experiencing a blitz of sales as people rush to go through the process of purchasing pistols, rifles, and shotguns. It has happened alongside the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic globally and in Washington state.

"The whole uncertainty of this virus and the impact that it's going to have on us locally and on the national level, I believe, is driving people to seek firearm possession," Mylett said.

Police departments, such as Bellevue, run the background checks required for every firearm purchase by residents within their jurisdiction. Chief Mylett says it's hard not to notice the spike.

  • Bellevue Police has seen a 176% increase in the number of checks it has performed since the start of March.
  • Bellevue processed 386 background checks between March 1-16 (to put that in perspective, the average number that Bellevue police has processed over the past seven months was 158 per month*).
  • Bellevue usually processes about 80 applications for concealed permit licenses each month. They've already seen that number in the first week and a half of March.

In greater King County, the sheriff's office is experiencing the same considerable rise in firearm background checks. A spokesperson for the sheriff confirmed that the recent numbers are an increase over normal.

  • Over all of 2019, the King County Sheriff's Office handled 11,499 checks. As of March 13, the office had handled 7,398 for the 2020 count.
  • That equates to an average of 958 monthly background checks over all of 2019, and an average of 2,959 so far in 2020.

New gun ownership

Chief Mylett has seen this gun-rush phenomenon a couple times before in his career, such as after 9/11, or when gun owners feel that new regulations will decrease access. He therefore has a few requests and reminders for all the new gun owners in the region. Starting first with having people call 911 if they see crime or suspicious activity happening.

He reminds people that it is required by law to lock up firearms within a home, and warns people not to carry illegally. He urges people to be trained on the deadly weapons they are possessing.

"I would ask people to ask themselves, why do they feel it is necessary to purchase a firearm?" Mylett said. "If it is fear of crime, my ask of you is to trust your police department, that we are going to protect you. We've been doing that in Bellevue quite well for many decades.

"I have four kids, I have two grandkids, I've been married for 29 years -- I get it," he said. "I understand the uncertainty. I have a 92-year-old father who is in assisted living. And they are in lockdown. I understand how people are feeling.

"But I'm asking people to take a deep breath and realize that we are going to get through this. We will. We will emerge from this a little bit better educated on pandemics and how we can prepare."

KUOW reached out to the Seattle Police Department for the number of background checks it has been running for firearms recently. This article will be updated if/when that information becomes available.

*BPD's firearm background checks over past few months: August 2019 - 182: September 2019 - 160; October 2019 - 144; November 2019 - 118; December 2019 - 205; January 2020 - 150; February 2020 - 149; March 2020 - 386.

The Seattle-area gun store referenced in this article is not being named because the observing reporter did not present himself as a member of the media.

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