How riots, politics and a pandemic drove record gun sales in Michigan


Three days after the Capitol insurrection, Marc Boyer spent his coronavirus stimulus check on a shotgun.

Boyer, a 56-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, felt dread as a frenzied mob that spent hours assaulting police and roaming the halls of Congress slinked back to their homes across the country. Boyer said the riots proved police can’t stop homegrown terrorists, so he ventured out to find a weapon to protect himself. The Jackson native encountered long lines and empty shelves at three firearms dealers in Southeast Michigan before buying a shotgun at a gun show in Adrian.

Lake Orion resident Andreas Maier bought his first AR-15 this week after he and his wife purchased handguns for personal defense a few months prior. Maier cited political tensions as a reason to arm himself but also said he’s concerned the incoming president will limit access to firearms.

“You’re going to have a much harder time taking something away from someone who already has it,” Maier said.

Jeff Stahl, manager at Full Bore Firearms in Alpena, said sales at his business tripled last year. Customers expressed fears about the property damage and violence that accompanied some Black Lives Matter protests “in the big cities” could meet them at home in Northern Michigan, Stahl said.

“People want to be able to defend themselves; people are scared,” Stahl said. “They have every right to be. Our country is in a sad state of affairs right now.”

Michigan gun sales shot to a historic high last year amid the coronavirus pandemic and a volatile election. A record-setting surge in firearm purchases continued rising in January after the deadly Capitol riot and the inauguration of a new president who pledged to end an “epidemic” of mass shootings.

The FBI reported 1 million firearm-related background checks were conducted in Michigan last year. The 2020 total is an 84% increase from the previous record of 579,605 background checks in 2016.

January 2021 was the hottest month on record so far, with 120,227 Michigan background checks. There were 39,067 background checks in January 2017 when former President Donald Trump was inaugurated.

Each background check doesn’t correspond one-to-one with a gun purchase, but the data provides a rough estimate since licensed firearms dealers have to conduct one at the point of sale.

It’s nearly impossible to determine exactly how many guns are sold in the U.S. each year. Federal law prohibits a central registry of firearms, though some states require registration for certain types of guns.

One thing is clear: Political anxieties drive up demand.

Bullets and ballots

Gun sales always spike during election years, according to FBI data, even more after Democrats take office. Firearms dealers expected business to boom last year, but the rush of Michigan residents to arm themselves left stores struggling to keep their shelves stocked with guns and ammo.

Federal background checks were mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1994. President Joe Biden took credit for advancing the bill through Congress when he served in the U.S. Senate.

The law also inspired a wave of armed militia groups that felt the government was encroaching on their Second Amendment rights. Gun sales soared after the bill passed.

A quarter of a century later, Biden’s rise to the White House is inspiring Americans to arm themselves at an unprecedented rate.

“In a way, we should thank Biden because he has been the best gun salesman I think in history,” said Stahl, the Alpena gun store owner.

Firearms dealers and industry trade groups also said COVID-19 lockdowns and racial justice protests inspired a wave of new gun owners. The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated 40% of gun sales last year came from first-time gun buyers, while purchases by Black Americans increased 56% from 2019.

“The group of gun owners is certainly more diverse than it was just a few years ago, in every way you can think of,” said Steve Dulan, an attorney and board member of the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners.

Dulan pointed to several issues behind the arms race.

“The most anti-gun administration ever just got elected at the federal level,” Dulan said. “You’ve also got the riots over the summer that have led a number of people to understand they cannot rely on police to protect them.”

“I’ve had that conversation a lot with people who said ‘I never thought I’d be a gun owner but after watching police stations under siege on television, I realized I’m foolish to not take some personal responsibility.’”

Brian Wright, head of operations at William’s Gun Sight Company, said business hasn’t been this good since after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. The most popular items included handguns, home defense shotguns, AR-15 rifles and ammunition.

“The firearm industry is political,” Wright said. “When you add in a pandemic and riots like what we had the summer, that just fueled the fire along with the political atmosphere. It was a perfect storm.”

Williams Gun Sight Company had a line out the door every day from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring to the end of January, Wright said. The Flint business had to hire security to manage foot traffic.

Sales typically slide during the summer and increase in the fall, but not last year.

Gun sales reached a monthly all-time high in June after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer imposed a statewide mask mandate and business closures. There were 110,604 federal background checks conducted in June 2020, an 245% increase compared to June 2019.

Whitmer’s COVID-19 measures inspired armed protests last year. Demonstrators affiliated with paramilitary groups brought rifles into the state Capitol last April.

Dulan said the armed rallies seemed different from the Second Amendment events he’s attended at the Capitol in years past.

“We’ve got the word responsible in our name — Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners — and certainly as a group, we recognize there’s a difference between lawful and unlawful uses of guns,” Dulan said. “Use of a gun to threaten someone without some kind of justification like self-defense is certainly not responsible or lawful.”

“Most of us who are gun owners are fatigued, we’re tired, we’re offended by this idea of a couple of crackpots always being put forth as our representatives,” Dulan added.

Some firearms dealers are throwing their weight behind the anti-government sentiment. Huron Valley Guns, a New Hudson superstore that includes a firing range, barbershop and restaurant, was a vocal opponent of Whitmer’s coronavirus orders.

Huron Valley Guns did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

The business tagged Whitmer in a Dec. 30, 2020 Facebook video depicting owner Ed Swadish and five other men shooting a health notice from the Oakland County Health Department. Another video showed Swadish torch a state health department mask order with a flamethrower.

Huron Valley Guns briefly employed one of the men arrested for the alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer. Eric Trump changed his plans to hold a campaign rally for his father at the business after the connection was discovered.

The business’ Facebook page encouraged restaurants to reopen against state orders, and questioned the accuracy of the presidential election. One post offered to give the first customer of the day a customized magazine depicting Whitmer behind bars.

“Now they have the House, Senate and the Oval Office,” read another post published on the evening of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. “My prediction is some kind of tragic shooting (remember those?) around May … and a call for gun confiscation shortly thereafter.”

Fears of new firearms restrictions are inspiring an acerbic reaction to Biden’s presidency among Second Amendment activists. Dulan noted Biden’s past interest in having Beto O’Rourke help his administration develop gun safety measures.

O’Rourke became a top target of the NRA and other gun rights groups after he said “hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15″ during a Democratic primary debate.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden remains committed to reducing gun violence and “would love to see action on additional gun-safety measures” during a February press conference. O’Rourke does not have a role in the Biden administration as of the date this story published.

Fear-mongering over gun confiscations are common when Democrats take office, hence the spike in sales under Democratic administrations. However, Dulan said calls from progressive Democrats to expand the Supreme Court gave concerns more legitimacy.

Biden has been hesitent to support adding more justices to the high court. A new commission is studying possible reforms, however.

Peering down range

Michigan’s rise in gun sales follows a national trend, but no other state saw a larger increase in firearm background checks from 2019-20.

A comparison of national background checks shows southern states and the Midwest experienced the largest increases in gun sales.

Wright, the Flint firearms dealer, said demand will likely remain high throughout the next two years but retailers are facing shortages that could drive down sales soon. Empty shelves were prevalent throughout the massive Flint business this week, and limits on ammo purchases had to be instituted to prevent a handful of customers from dominating the supply.

In the meantime, accessories are becoming a major seller. William’s has experienced a big boost in the gun sights it manufactures on-site. Weapons like the AR-15 are highly customizable, allowing connoisseurs to drop thousands of dollars on customized items.

The training industry is also thriving. More residents are seeking concealed pistol licenses, which requires applicants to complete a safety course.

There were 159,867 concealed pistol licenses filed from Oct. 1, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2020, a 15% increase from the previous year, according to Michigan State Police data. The state collected $11.2 million in revenue from fees paid for CPL applications.

Open carry is legal in Michigan without any training.

At William’s in Flint, instructors teach conflict avoidance strategies and techniques to minimize anxiety in frightening situations. Wright said drawing a firearm should only be considered as a last-resort action in a life-threatening situation.

“At the end of the day, a firearm is an important tool,” Wright said. “We want you to learn to use it safely.”

Dulan said an influx of first-time gun owners shouldn’t be cause for concern. Dulan grew up engrossed in a culture of safe firearm use in the Upper Penninsula. He said maintaining traditions of proper training is a solid defense against gun violence.

“Welcome, new gun owners. Now get some training,” Dulan said.

Boyer, the Jackson resident, bought a firearm precisely because he feels more likely to become a victim of gun violence. He remains scarred after a garbage worker shot his dog a few years back; now he’s concerned more people are armed on a daily basis.

Combined with what feels like a political environment that encourages violence, Boyer said he’s not expecting things to cool down soon.

“These gun makers are going to get really wealthy, and all of my neighbors are going to kill each other,” Boyer said.


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