Whether it’s toilet paper, bleach, silver, ammo or all of the above, people around the country have been flocking to stores and buying what they believe will see them through the COVID-19 pandemic safely.
As other national events have triggered in the past, the uncertainty of what the societal and economic realities of a prolonged pandemic might look like have sent Americans to gun stores in large numbers in recent weeks. Trade publications and retailers say there’s been a heightened interest in physical precious metals as well.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the number of federal background checks conducted on March 16 was 300 percent higher than it was a year earlier. The U.S. Mint also recently reported silver coin sales for March are already four-times the monthly average from 2019.
Jeff Stone, owner of Stone Arms LLC in Mobile, said there’s also been a rush to buy firearms, but while it has increased business for the time being, he said the current surge in sales is unlike anything he’s seen before, and it has come with its own unique set of complications for federally licensed firearms dealers.
“When [Barack] Obama was president, there were always runs on guns any time there was a shooting incident in the news, but those people were generally buying everything and anything … and buying expensive stuff,” Stone told Lagniappe. “Now, we’re seeing people buying inexpensive, mostly handguns and a bunch of ammo. We’re actually running out of ammo, and that happened almost immediately.”
Stone said some of the customers are different, as well. Like other sellers, he’s seen several first-time gun buyers — including some who’ve told him they “don’t like guns” but felt the need to arm themselves to protect their family and property because of potential ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said many are finding out firsthand that buying a gun “isn’t as easy as CNN told them it would be.”
Increased sales around the country are also causing backlogs in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which are delaying transactions, often for days. Stone said the system has been jamming at a certain point every day, for weeks. He and his staff have actually been coming in at night to process some background checks when more stores are closed and there’s less stress on NICS nationally.
The same is true at other stores, too. Stone said, based on his conversations with other local gun sellers, there are most likely “thousands of people in Mobile” waiting for guns to be released by retailers once the amount of time required by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act has passed.
In addition to the backlog in the NICS system, Stone said the same uncertainty driving many to buy guns also makes it hard to plan ahead for what business might look like. For now, the state and federal government have maintained that gun stores are “essential” and will remain open despite other retailers being closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, but Stone said things have been changing quickly.
“If a distributor calls me today and says, ‘I have a pallet of everything you want — ammo and guns. It’s $50,000 and we’ll ship it out to you in 10 days.’ Will I be able to be open in 10 days?” he asked. “Will people start getting freaked out and breaking into gun stores in 10 days? I think there’s a possibility.”
In the meantime, Stone said he’s doing what he can to limit the potential for COVID-19 spreading among his customers by limiting unnecessary foot traffic and contact with surfaces in the store. He said browsing in his store is done for the time being — people aren’t holding guns unless they’re buying them.
However, he said the spike in business he’s seeing is also giving him less time to help customers who aren’t familiar with how to purchase, load, use and clean a weapon they want to purchase.
“I had a guy come in, a first-time buyer, who wanted me to teach him everything I knew about guns and gun safety, and I just honestly can’t do that right now,” he said. “We’re way past that. Normally, I’d be happy to do that, but this is a completely unique situation from anything we’ve experienced before.”
Across town at Mobile Bay Coins and Fine Jewelry, owner Angelo Semifero says he’s rarely ever seen silver bullion move like it has over the past two weeks. He said some of the panic surrounding COVID-19 and its impact on the economy has caused a run on physical gold and silver products.
“A lot of people are very worried about what’s going to happen to their cash,” Semifero said. “We’ve probably heard every crazy story you can imagine, but at the end of the day, people want something tangible that they know has value, and throughout history, gold and silver have always had value.”
Semifero also emphasized that COVID-19 has caused a bit of a disconnect between the market for precious metals as physical assets and the mark for gold and silver as commodities or futures. That’s primarily because of the global impact the spread of the virus has had on mints, mines and refineries.
“On the commodity side, they are selling those trades, those transactions and contracts 100 to one, and most of those people don’t expect to ever actually receive that silver or gold,” Semifero said on his “Two Guys and Some Change” podcast last week. “On the physical side, it’s being made from the mines to the refineries and factories to be struck into coins and gold and silver bullion bars — that costs at least $14 to $15 an ounce just to get it out of the ground and get it processed — so right now you’re going to see a big disconnect between the physical gold and silver as it’s readily available for you to take home, and between what is going on with the commodities market and those trades.”
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