As anxiety surges over COVID-19, civil unrest and an increasingly fractious presidential race, ammunition is proving to be in short supply across Minnesota and around the country as gun owners stock up and more people buy guns for the first time.

"Manufacturers can't keep up with the demand anymore," said Dave Bean, owner of Get Guns Now, an Oakdale gun shop. "The industry's never been hit this hard before."

Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group based in Newtown, Conn., said the shortages extend nationally.

"We've had sustained, elevated purchases of firearms for several months," he said. "Our expectation is that this will continue through the election."

The FBI's National Instant Crime Background Check System in March tallied 2.3 million background checks associated with firearm sales, which is a way to measure the number of people buying guns since background checks are required with every retail gun sale. It's the largest monthly total since record keeping began, Oliva said.

The previous presidential election year, 2016, also saw record gun sales, with 15 million background checks conducted. So far this year there have already been 13.7 million checks, with four months left to go. "We are well on pace to surpass that [2016] record," Oliva said.

The growing interest in guns also can be seen in the increase in Minnesota background checks over last year. According to Oliva, there were 21,899 background checks in the month of August 2019; last month's total checks stood at 34,829, a 59% increase month over month in a year's time.

The surge in gun and ammunition purchases began in March, as the pandemic led to panic buying and shortages of staples, like rice and toilet paper, that some feared might lead to home invasions, gun shop owners said.

George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, and the protests and riots that followed, further stoked fears of social unrest and violence, intensifying the run on guns and ammunition for self-defense.

"[People] have seen firsthand that law enforcement is not always going to be there to protect them," said Kevin Vick, executive vice president of Stock & Barrel Gun Club, a gun shop and range with clubs in Chanhassen and Eagan.

Dave Amon, an agent at Gunstop of Minnetonka, said demand shows no signs of slowing — especially as the national conversation around the changing role of law enforcement rages on.

"I've seen a lot more single moms that are scared and need something to protect them," he said. "They're scared when people talk about defunding the police."

Amon pointed to another cause of the shortage: Factories can't make as many bullets due to COVID-19 shutdowns and social distancing restrictions on the number of employees working at once, he said.

The result is a sporadic supply of ammunition. When the bullets and shells do arrive, they're gone in a couple hours, shop owners said.

New kind of customer

Across the metro area, gun shops and shooting ranges are seeing skyrocketing demand for all things gun-related, including training classes for new owners. While the new interest isn't limited to one demographic, gun shop owners said there's been a significant uptick in women buying their first guns.

Oliva said 40% of buyers are new gun owners, according to the foundation's retail surveys. Of those buyers, 40% are women and 58% are Black, he said.

"That's a seismic shift," he said.

Shop owners mentioned handguns and shotguns as among the most popular firearms choices, but people buy whatever they can afford from whatever is available, they said.

Customers milled about Wednesday at Stock & Barrel, asking questions about the dozens of handguns on display in glass cases. A laminated sign taped to the counter advised people of the ammunition shortage.

Most were there for the first night of a training class. Laura Kinsey, who lives in north Minneapolis and works in Uptown, said she used to own a gun and now wanted to buy one for protection. With crime rates up, she said, people are "taking the law into their own hands. … There's a lot of unrest in Minneapolis."

Terri Scriver of Minnetonka was looking to buy her first handgun. She wanted a midpriced model that fit her hand, she said. Her fascination with the sport of shooting and "current events" motivated her to start shopping, Scriver said.

"I'm finding out that people that I never would have thought would be interested in going to a gun range want to go," she said.

Vick said he expects the ammunition shortage to last into next year.

"Manufacturers were certainly caught flat-footed," he said, but they don't want to rush to hire workers only to lay them off once demand slows.

In Oakdale, Bean said the last batch of ammo he received was two weeks ago — a case of 1,000 rounds of 9-millimeter bullets, or 20 boxes at 50 rounds a box. They immediately sold out.

Many of his guns, too, are out of stock, which means business is actually hurting, Bean said, despite the intense demand.

"You kind of have to have inventory to run a retail store," he said.

His shop's main business now involves transfers: guns that were purchased or traded in online for another gun. Those sales must be completed face-to-face at a retailer, so the weapons are shipped to a local gun shop, which collects a fee for the transaction.

Stephen Schmida, who lives in the Uptown neighborhood, owns three guns, including two he bought just weeks ago: a Glock 17 handgun and an ATI Bulldog, a 12-gauge shotgun.

Schmida said he has watched customers at gun shops stockpiling ammunition and stores in turn raising prices on their limited supply.

Schmida, who has two young children, said there's one positive about so many new gun enthusiasts. When he went to renew his conceal-and-carry permit, he said, he noticed a change in the demographics of those around him.

"It was mostly people of color and women that were in line," he said. "That was the really cool part."