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'Unprecedented': Gun and ammunition sales spike amid coronavirus spread

Industry representatives in Canada say the sales are fuelled in part by worries over ammunition supplies from the U.S. drying up, while stores south of the border say sales growth is driven by coronavirus fears.

Canadian gun owners fear ammunition shortage due to possible U.S. supply chain disruptions, experts say

People wait in a line to enter Retting Guns in Culver City, Calif., on March 15, as sales of firearms and ammunition spike in North America over coronavirus fears. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

In the 25 years he's owned his Ontario gun shop, Wes Winkel has never seen a spike in sales like what he's experienced in the last week: a 200 per cent increase compared to this time last year, driven by the coronavirus. 

It's not doomsday preppers fuelling sales, he said, but hunters and target shooters worried the supply of ammunition from the U.S. is going to dry up.

"Unprecedented. That's the only way I could describe it," said Winkel, who runs Ellwood Epps Sports Goods in Orillia, Ont. 

His physical location is closed, but online sales are surging, with about two-thirds of his clients stocking up on ammunition and the rest buying firearms.  

The run on supplies began last week, he said, when reports came out from the U.S. that gun and ammunition sales were spiking. Because 90 per cent of ammunition sold in Canada comes from the U.S., Winkel said his customer base knew supplies in Canada would take a hit. They wanted to act fast.

"It's legitimate hunters and target shooters that know if they need ammunition, they need to get it now or it will be gone," said Winkel, who is also president of the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association.

He said he experienced a similar surge when Barack Obama was first elected president and there was a run on supplies in the U.S., leading to shortages in Canada.

Winkel said he's asking customers to exercise restraint in the amount of ammunition they purchase and his company is limiting large transactions. 

'This is panic'

South of the border, gun shops are seeing long lines snaking around buildings as people rush to stock up. There, store owners are not hesitant to say fear over the spread of the novel coronavirus is driving sales.

"This is self-preservation. This is panic. This is 'I won't be able to protect my family from the hordes and the walking dead,'" said Ed Turner of Ed's Public Safety in Stockbridge, Ga. He said his sales are five times larger than their usual volume. 

People wait in line to purchase guns and ammunition at Peninsula Guns and Tactical in San Bruno, Calif. Six San Francisco Bay Area counties announced a shelter-in-place order for residents in San Francisco until April 7. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

An image of a lineup outside Retting Guns in Culver City, Calif., has been making the rounds on social media. On their Facebook page on March 13, the store's owners said ammunition supplies were running low for some types, while gun inventory was holding steady.

On Tuesday, owners moved to limit capacity inside the store to 25 at a time, asking customers to sign up to gain access. By the next day, they had moved to appointment only to deal with the influx of buyers. 

"We're all doing our best to navigate truly uncharted waters," a message from their Facebook page reads.

According to Ammo.com, a major online ammunition retailer, transactions were up 222 per cent for the 22 days from Feb. 23. 2020 through March 15, compared to the previous 22 days. The website also saw a 77 per cent increase in traffic. 

Data released by the site shows Texas, Florida, and Georgia recorded the highest sales volumes overall.

In California's San Gabriel Valley, Asian Americans are stocking up out of fear they may be a target as the virus spreads, David Liu, the owner of Arcadia Firearm & Safety told CBS Los Angeles.

"We think it's the perfect time to get a weapon for ourselves," said customer Dirk Zhang, who added his wife wouldn't allow a gun in their home until now. 

"She's a little afraid of the outbreak of the virus," he said.

Some of the anxiety in the U.S. is also being stoked by gun rights advocates who fear the government response to the virus will include limits on firearms.

In Champaign, Ill., and New Orleans, local mayors have signed executive orders giving them sweeping emergency powers, including the power to suspend or limit the sale, distribution and transport of firearms. 

A social contract

Gun control advocates worry that panic in the U.S. will seep into Canada, spreading the notion that a gun is necessary in times of social upheaval. 

"This idea that guns are needed for self defence, and in times of crisis you have to be able to protect yourself and guns are required… that's completely contrary to the social contract that we as citizens share in a country like Canada: that we'll take care of one another in a time of crisis," said Dr. Nadja Ahmad from Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns.

While her group is pushing for a ban on assault weapons and handguns as well as more power for municipalities to ban certain firearms, she recognizes that the federal government's current focus is rightly aimed at dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Najma Ahmed, a trauma surgeon at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, has been an advocate for stricter gun laws. (Albert Leung/CBC)

"We are hoping that (the government) knows how important this is and when the situation comes under control, they will turn their attention to what was a very important problem for Canadians," said Dr. Ahmed who is also a trauma surgeon at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

She said efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 offer a lesson for dealing with the proliferation of guns. 

"I'm hoping that Canadians will start to understand things like gun violence can also be viewed through a public health lens, and that if we listen to the science ... it tells us that the proliferation of guns makes us all less safe."

New licences hard to get

The CEO of the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights said Canadians shouldn't panic over the spike in firearms and ammunition sales, because only licensed gun owners can make those purchases in Canada.

"It's not criminals that are swamping the gun stores, it's law-abiding citizens that would go through the trouble to get and hold a licence," said Rod Giltaca.

He said the process to obtain a firearms licence in Canada can take months so even those who are hoping to buy a gun for the first time would find themselves out of luck.

A note on the RCMP website said service delays due to coronavirus mitigation measures are delaying processing of licences.

"There could be delays to some services, including processing applications for new firearm licences," the statement said. "The Canadian Firearms Program will provide updates on their website as circumstances change."

Giltaca, who is self-isolating as a precaution, said classes needed to obtain a gun licence are also on hold.

People wait in line to enter gun retailer Tanner's Sports Center in Jamison, Pa., on March 17. Pennsylvania's state-run background check system for gun purchases processed about three times its typical daily rate on Tuesday, as guns and ammunition have been flying off store shelves across the U.S. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

"People think that they can run out and get a licence, but the process takes between three to five months, there's a lot of steps."

That doesn't mean demand for new gun licences isn't there.

"I have had more people inquire about how to obtain a firearm licence in the past few days than I have in the past five years," Ryan Simper with Select Shooting in Kitchener, Ont., wrote on Twitter this week.

"If all that's driving you to obtain a firearm is a crisis ... we might need to have a longer talk."

About the Author

Steven D'Souza

CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.

With files from The Associated Press

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