Former mechanic Shawn Shriver bought a storefront about an hour outside Pittsburgh years ago. He created a 400-square-foot gun shop that he runs with his wife. They sell guns, ammo, and holsters to their neighbors. They normally carry about 150 pistols on a regular day. But there haven't been many regular days since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March, as well as the public unrest that emerged in June.
"I've got like three pistols in this store," he said on Wednesday. "That's it."
A similar story has played out in many gun stores across the country in recent months. Shriver's experience may be more relevant to understanding the electoral implications of the recent riot-inspired gun-sales spike because of where it's happening: a small town at the southwest tip of a swing state that could play a key role in electing the next president of the United States.
"After COVID hit we sold out of ammo," Shriver said. "And then they started with the protesting, and a lot more guns started going off the shelves."
Pennsylvania is not the only bellwether state where this is happening.
A broader look at monthly sales data, as measured by FBI background checks, confirms swing state voters' eagerness to arm themselves in 2020. The nine states at the epicenter of the presidential race between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden each saw historic seasonally adjusted gun sales in June—larger in all cases than the record-setting sales of March—a sign of surging demand for firearms in the wake of rioting and protests that have turned violent.
Many of those states saw substantial increases by comparison to historical means, too. Background checks for gun sales shot up 4.2 times higher than average in Michigan in June, 3.8 times in Arizona, and 3.6 in Florida. With the exception of Minnesota, each of the swing states saw gun sales more than double compared with the historical average—Minnesota sales were only 1.9 times higher than those of June 2019.
Not only have gun sales increased; so too has the number of first-time buyers. A survey from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry's trade group, estimated that 40 percent of gun-store customers in the first half of 2020 were new. Shriver said new customers at his store, SnS Brass and Guns in Claysville, make up about 20 percent of sales. Since March, he thinks the number has been closer to 50 percent.
Kelly Ann, a firearms instructor in western Pennsylvania who works mainly with women, said she has seen unprecedented demand for her classes, especially from newcomers.
"I have added five new classes to my season just to try to keep up with demand," she said. "We have lots of first-time gun owners and people who want to be first-time gun owners, even very left-leaning people."
Gun dealers and activists in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin told the Washington Free Beacon they expect the influx of new gun owners to have a significant electoral impact.
"I've long said that gun owners become gun voters," Erin Palette, Florida resident and founder of the LGBTQ gun-rights group Operation Blazing Sword, said. "These mass purchases of guns for self-defense indicates an unprecedented level of distrust by the average American of the government's ability to keep them safe."
"The folks already own these guns now and Wisconsin folks are gonna want to use the things they spend their money on," Rob Kovach, president of Wisconsin Firearms Owners, said.
Swing state dealers and activists have seen a rush on their inventory as Election Day approaches. They are confident that the surge will create new gun voters, but they have yet to see new gun-rights activists. And with COVID, the economy, and civil unrest dominating the 2020 election, it is not clear gun rights will break through as a significant factor despite the stark contrast in policy proposals from Trump and Biden.
Shriver said the first-time buyers coming into his shop are more concerned with personal protection than politics at this point.
"A lot of that people come in, they're like, ‘Well, I've never had a gun before. I think I need one to protect myself because of what's going on,'" he said, noting customers have bought up all of his semiautomatic handguns, rifles, and pump-action shotguns, but left the bolt-action rifles, which are better suited for hunting, untouched.
Brandon Wexler, a career firefighter who owns Wex Gunworks in Delray Beach, Fla., said he has seen the same thing. Most new customers are more concerned with getting their gun than getting involved in political activism at the moment. He still thinks the new gun owners will turn out even in 2020, "because everyone in Florida, the Gunshine State, is Pro-2A."
Palette said she hasn't seen new Florida gun owners turn into new gun-rights activists but said, "Give it time." Kovach had the same view of new Wisconsin gun owners, who he said were joining the ranks of an already politically active and unusually self-reliant community.
"I think long term we'll see those new gun owners seeking training and range time," he said. "Those activities will encourage folks to interact with us longtime gun owners and perhaps some of our opinions and habits will rub off on those new gun owners."
Ann, who is one of the Pennsylvania representatives for a female-led gun-rights group called the DC Project, said some 500 new women have volunteered in recent months. While she thinks engagement with new gun owners is "not enough" at this point, she also believes it could be a sign of things to come.
"It is certainly not enough to overthrow what [pro-gun control group] Everytown has, but people are starting to step up," she said.
Shriver shared the hopeful outlook. He said his regular customers are all-in on electing pro-gun candidates like President Trump in 2020, one of whom gave him a stack of Pennsylvania voter registration applications to try and help get some of those new gun owners on the voting rolls.
"They dropped these off, I'm gonna say two weeks ago, three weeks ago. And I've been asking people and I haven't had anybody fill them out yet," he said laughing. "But when they come in, I ask them."