Less than a week after Minnesota recorded its first COVID-19 case, Kory Krause glimpsed what the global pandemic could mean for his Frontiersman gun store in St. Louis Park.
“We did more than a month’s worth of sales over just a four-day period,” Krause said.
Cases once fully stocked with shotguns, handguns and ammunition now sit bare inside Krause’s shop. In their place are signs describing weekslong shipping delays from suppliers struggling to keep up with demand.
The spread of the novel coronavirus — and its dire economic toll — has helped fuel a record surge in gun sales in Minnesota. The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System vetted 96,654 transactions last month, the most ever in the state for a single month. That was part of a record 3.7 million background checks processed nationwide.
Minnesotans bought tens of thousands more firearms last month than in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary and 2018 Parkland High School mass shootings — massacres that sparked spurts of gun sales ahead of calls for gun control.
But Krause and other Minnesota gun enthusiasts are quick to note a key difference with the latest rush on firearms: More people than ever are buying shotguns and handguns for self-defense instead of the military-style rifles that become popular when buyers worry that they may become outlawed.
“Our number one seller is home-defense shotguns,” Krause said. “We couldn’t give them away after Sandy Hook. … But they completely wiped us out. In the event the outbreak gets worse and civil unrest breaks out, wanting to protect their family and their stockpile is really the vibe we’re getting from people.”
In St. Louis Park, where Krause’s Frontiersman store has operated since 1967, the police department processed five times as many permits to purchase firearms last month than in the average month last year.
Josh Gazelka, a 26-year-old Pequot Lakes resident who works in digital marketing, bought a new pistol at a nearby Fleet Farm as the stock of firearms and ammunition began drying up. Gazelka, whose father, Paul Gazelka, is the Minnesota Senate Majority Leader, described a “general level of uncertainty” over the economic and societal effects of Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home orders. With a wife who is nine months pregnant, Gazelka said his thoughts have turned to safeguarding his home if conditions worsen.
“I don’t expect my neighbor to attack me, but if I have to protect my family I want to be able to,” Gazelka said.
Both Gazelka and Eric Inman, a 48-year-old IT professional in Norwood Young America, also say friends who have never owned guns have consulted them in recent weeks for help selecting and using firearms.
“The word unprecedented would be the only descriptor I’d use,” Inman said.
The rise in demand is overlapping with confusion among sheriffs across the state as they try to figure out how to take applications for permits to carry firearms, which must be processed in person. Many offices used public-facing service windows that have since been shuttered as counties have sent many workers home.
“They feel that they could be in violation [of Walz’s stay-at-home order] and don’t want to subject travelers or their staff to the potential virus,” said Bill Hutton, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, which recently sought guidance from the state on how to take applications.
But Minnesota has avoided some of the legal fights experienced in other states over orders shuttering gun stores. A 2015 bill protects gun stores from being deemed nonessential.
“We passed it at a time where there was no state of emergency here and there was not even the thought of one,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “Just to clarify that these are your rights and regardless of whether we are in a state of emergency or not, people have the right to own a firearm and protect themselves.”
The spike in gun sales, meanwhile, has some lawmakers fearful of an overburdened federal vetting system letting those barred from owning guns slip through the cracks.
Federally licensed sellers can choose to transfer firearms to people if a background check takes longer than three days to complete. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and 15 other Democratic senators wrote the FBI director and acting Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) director this month, urging them to tell sellers to wait until background checks clear before turning over any new guns.
The senators note that more than 270,000 background checks were not finished within three business days in 2018 and that more than 4,800 guns went to people who were later discovered to have been barred from owning firearms.
Their request comes even as gun safety advocates press for new state legislation to expand background checks to cover private sales and to let judges order guns removed from people deemed a threat to themselves or others, Minnesota activists are also now focusing their energy on encouraging safe storage for new gun owners.
“I see a lot of talk about purchasing the firearm and getting the firearm, but there’s not a lot of follow-up on how to store it and how to handle it safely,” said Shannon Johnson, a volunteer in Chisago County for Minnesota Moms Demand Action. “I think a lot of it is we just assume people are aware of how to safely store firearms.”
Kate Havelin, chairwoman of the Protect Minnesota Advocacy Fund Board, is concerned about the implications of more guns and ammunition in more homes during an emotionally fraught moment.
“We have more Minnesotans who are stressed and spending more time at home, and many of those homes have guns,” Havelin said.
Gun sellers and enthusiasts don’t see the new run on firearms abating anytime soon. Krause recently posted a plea on his website that the store needs used guns “more than ever.”
“Especially 12 and 20 [gauge] shotguns, 9mm handguns, and extra/unwanted ammo,” the message reads. “PLEASE help us provide a firearm to those who are struggling to locate a gun to protect themselves and their family during this crisis. CASH paid on the spot!”
Inman, the Norwood Young America gun owner, sees no downturn in gun sales unless stores run out of stock. “It would not be unfounded to think that the only way the numbers decrease is that the supply would not be there to back up the demand,” he said.