Fear of the global pandemic, of civil unrest and of a new presidential administration are driving up gun sales and the issuance of concealed-carry pistol permits, according to authorities and gun dealers.
“At Christmas time, we usually see a bump in jewelry sales, but not so much this year,” said Mid-City Pawn owner Howard Godbee. “People were coming in shopping for guns. And now after Christmas, the demand hasn’t slowed. I’ve never seen anything like this. Gun sales are up 50% or more. There are no slow days anymore.”
The sheriff’s offices in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties in total sold about 6,000 more pistol permits in 2020 than they did in 2019, an increase of 36%. Dealers said the election of Joe Biden, who has proposed restrictions on some types of guns, and rioting at the Capitol have continued to fuel sales into 2021.
In total, the three counties issued 22,771 pistol permits in 2020 compared to 16,727 in 2019. Morgan County, with a population of nearly 120,000, saw a 73.8% spike in gun permit sales with roughly 10,600 issued in 2020 compared to 6,100 the previous year. Sheriff's Office spokesman Mike Swafford said the bump wasn’t unexpected. Permits are required in Alabama to carry a concealed pistol or to keep a pistol in a vehicle.
“It’s not surprising with the pandemic, civil unrest in other areas and the election all added to the numbers,” Swafford said. “Anytime there are uncertainties or upcoming change, we see more people reaching out to obtain a permit.”
He said the county, in April, moved the pistol permit process online to make it more convenient for residents. “We have seen most of our applications and renewals move to the online option,” he said.
Limestone and Lawrence counties also saw jumps in the number of permits issued, but not as dramatic.
Permits issued in Limestone went from 7,747 in 2019 to 9,080 in 2020, an increase of 17.2%, according to spokesman Stephen Young.
“It’s typical during times of uncertainty we see a rise in concealed-carry permit sales, and 2020 was evidence of that,” he said. “With the unprecedented uncertainty presented by COVID-19 and unrest in many cities throughout the year, we saw record numbers of applications for permits.”
Lawrence County Sheriff Max Sanders agreed the increase in permits issued “is related to the uncertainties and concerns in the public during 2020.”
Chief Deputy Tim Sandlin said the county sold 211 more permits in 2020 than it did in 2019. Sales went from 2,880 to 3,091, an increase of 7.3%.
Morgan and Lawrence counties charge $20 for an annual permit and Limestone charges $15 annually. Permits can be purchased in up to five-year increments.
Gun dealers in Decatur said the 2020 rush for firearms eclipsed past demand and the pandemic created supply problems they hadn’t seen before.
They said the COVID-19 threat caused many ammunition facilities and gun manufacturers to temporarily shut down last spring. The Black Lives Matter protests during the summer involving the slaying of George Floyd in Minnesota have people scared, they said.
Biden's election sparked a year-end run to dealers, they said.
“I think Biden will attempt to control our Second Amendment,” said Melvlyn Crowden, manager at Bama Pawn and Gun on Beltline Road Southwest. “I’ve been in business here 29 years. I think people’s rights are about to change. Our government is now anti-gun.”
Crowden and Godbee said a perfect storm scenario has the demand for guns up and supply waning.
“People are buying guns because they are fearful,” Crowden said. “Regular people are arming themselves to protect their families, possessions, property. You have the media feeding this frenzy. Twitter and Facebook are censoring comments more and more. Our freedoms are being taken away. People see that. Are we turning into a communist country?”
Godbee said the number of new customers walking into his store is an eye-opener.
“First-time gun owners are coming in twice as much as they used to,” he said. “Most don’t even know what they’re looking for. They’re wanting personal protection.”
North Alabama is following state and national trends, according to data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). NICS performs firearm background checks.
In 2020, Alabama law enforcement conducted 1,085,475 background checks, a 57% increase over the previous year. In 2020, 139,873 of those background checks were in in June during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. July saw 107,490 Alabamians complete background checks and 100,921 were completed in December. In 2019, 690,084 Alabamians had firearm background checks. December 2019 was the busiest month that year with 100,100. In 2018, 474,294 were conducted the entire year, according to FBI statistics.
Godbee said he saw the June spike.
“People thought (former President Donald) Trump might not win reelection and with the trouble of rioting in Birmingham and Huntsville started getting closer to home, people became afraid,” he said. “People are wanting to protect themselves from rioters and from people breaking into their homes.”
He said demand is not slowing. In the fall his store on Sixth Avenue in Decatur “probably had 60 or 70 automatic rifles. Now we have about five or six.”
Ammunition is in more demand than new weapons, the dealers said. “We can’t get it. I’ve got back orders with all of my wholesalers,” Godbee said.
Godbee and Crowden said the short supply of ammo has changed the industry. Customers wanting to purchase ammo also must purchase a new firearm, they said.
“This is unprecedented," Crowden said of a record year of sales. "You can’t buy ammo without buying a gun. Ammo has been hit the worst. We don’t have any target (practice) ammo. Some ammo is up 50% or more in price across the board. ... It’s supply and demand. I’ve got some wholesalers on vacation right now because they have nothing to sell.”
She said she had customers in recently from Kentucky, southern Tennessee and Jasper, all saying they can’t find ammunition for their weapons.
She said her online sales weren’t as good last year because “we didn’t have the supply to sell.”
Godbee agrees, saying he can’t sell ammo without selling a gun. “If we do, I will have firearms but no ammo to sell for those guns,” he said. “Our customers who come in to buy a firearm want ammunition, too. We’ll be hurting our own business selling just ammo.”
Even with that restriction, Godbee said he still has to ration ammo purchases. “We are limiting 9mm ammo (purchases) to one box per day per customer and AR-15 ammo to five boxes per day,” he said.
They said 9mm and .38-caliber pistols and “self-defense shotguns” also sell quickly. “The 9mm is the most popular, but women like the lighter .38,” Crowden said.
With the short supply comes a higher price tag, Godbee said. “Some ammo is up 50% or more. Some of the 9mm ammo was selling for $12 a box, now it’s $20 to $29,” he said. “Gun prices are up, too, but not as much. We don’t need to run sales anymore. Prices are up 20% to 30%. A gun that was $1,000 might be $1,300 or $1,400 now. But everything is in short supply.
“Unfortunately, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”