Illinois gun sales surge amid coronavirus pandemic, shop owners say; upswing echoed nationwide

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
COVID-19 fuels gun sales surge in Illinois and nationwide, shop owners say
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Gun sales appear to be soaring as Americans seek a different kind of pandemic protection.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- After terror attacks, civil unrest or the threat of gun-buying restrictions it is common for more Americans to exercise their right to bear arms.

But top law enforcement officials and firearm experts said there has never been a rush for weapons as we have seen in Illinois since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Gun dealers are making changes to meet demands as "essential businesses," as regular customers and newcomers alike want new firearms, ammunition and training.

At Maxon Shooter's Supplies and Indoor Range in Des Plaines, the changes since COVID-19 are evident starting at the front door.

Customers enter one by one and are required to produce their Firearm Owners Identification card, also known as a FOID card.

Patrons must also pull down their face coverings so a camera can capture their picture for security to prove they are who they say they are.

There is yellow tape to emphasize social distancing, through the sales area and at the indoor shooting range where only every other lane is now used.

Owner Dan Eldridge said they've had to restock supplies and business is brisk.

"The elevated gun buying is across the board," he said.

Eldridge also said during the past nine weeks they have been barely able to keep up with demand for guns, ammunition and training, with the majority of buyers being first time gun owners.

Hand guns are the top sellers.

"Previous rushes were a fear of something being taken away, a fear of something being banned. This rush was more of a 'I'd rather have it, not need it, than need it and not have,' that sort of purchase," said Eldridge.

Konrad Skarzynski got his first gun this past April at Maxon's.

"Some of the people out there are panicking out there, you know how they behave in stores and everything, and I just think that's, that's might be the right time to get one just in case," he said.

Skarzynski purchased a 9mm semi-automatic hand gun and has been taking training classes at Maxon's.

The 36-year-old truck driver said he got his Firearm Owners ID card several years ago and wasn't compelled to buy a gun until now. He fears the pandemic could lead to civil unrest.

"I feel better, you know, and I still believe I did the right thing, the right choice with buying the gun and taking the class," he said.

His concerns are not that uncommon. according to Todd Vandermyde, the executive director of the Federal Licensees of Illinois.

"There are still a number of people out there who are very concerned, when it comes down to it, they're going to be on their own for their own personal safety," said Vandermyde.

New state records obtained by the ABC7 I-Team reveal an unprecedented surge in background checks required to buy firearms in Illinois.

While the state doesn't track actual purchases, these background checks are used as a barometer.

Since the pandemic lockdown from mid-March to early May, there has been a near 60% increase in background checks compared to last year; more than 100,000 received and processed in the last two months.

Those record numbers also reflected across the country. According to the most recent FBI data analyzed by the I-Team, in March, those background checks jumped by almost 1 million from the previous month.

"It's sizable, it's significant, but on some level it doesn't surprise me," said Brendan Kelly, the head of the Illinois State Police.

He said despite the extraordinary times and unusual numbers, his agency is still effectively enforcing gun laws.

"Every time you see an increase in the number of attempts to purchase a firearm, you're gonna see a similar increase in people who are not eligible to be able to have those firearms that we will catch through that background check process," he said. "it does work. And believe it or not, you do have people who have felonies in their record, violence in their records, other things that were prohibiting from owning firearms lawfully, and they do get caught in that background check process, it does work."

And, the just-installed special agent in charge of Chicago's federal agency that oversees guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, vowed to keep weapons from those who shouldn't have them.

"That's our opportunity to ensure we are following those regulatory safeguards that keep those firearms from landing in the hands of people who have nefarious intentions," said Kristen deTineo.

Advocates for stricter safety measures raised concerns first-time buyers won't be able to get training to safely handle their new weapons.

Most firearm dealers contacted by the I-Team said their classes are filling up but still available.

Vandermyde said first-time gun owners should pass up the cool accessories and instead invest in a few modest training programs.

"The firearm purchase is the short answer, it's the simplest part of the equation, now spend the time on ammunition and training and develop those good skills so you'll be a safe gun owner," he said.

During the COVID-19 crisis, Illinois State Police officials have enacted an emergency rule that allows FOID cards and concealed carry permits to automatically remain valid during the pandemic disaster proclamation and for the year following, if the card holders submit renewal applications.