Ben's Trading Post Owner Ben Leblanc stands in front of a selection of rifles and a "Keep Calm and Carry" sign in his Presque Isle shop on Thursday, Sept. 10. Credit: David Marino Jr. / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Firearm and ammunition vendors across Maine have seen sales fluctuate with current events before, but nothing has paralleled the uptick they have seen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A total of 70,244 people have attempted to purchase firearms in Maine from March through August, up from 41,625 in the same six-month period in 2019, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation data. Sales of rifles and shotguns have increased, but the biggest rise in demand is for handguns. A total of 35,702 people attempted to purchase them in Maine from March to August, nearly double the same time period last year.

The statistics reflect the number of background checks submitted to the FBI, not the total guns sold as a result of those submissions.

While gun sales have experienced a nationwide rise, Maine’s surge is higher than the 45 percent national increase during the March-August period. The FBI data cover all firearms purchases from Federal Firearms License holders, estimated at 78 percent of gun sales in the United States.

Vendors throughout Aroostook County and beyond attribute the rise to the pandemic, but also to several other factors, including the 2020 Presidential Election, an increase in outdoor recreation, a rise in civil unrest since the death of George Floyd in May and stimulus checks issued under the CARES Act.

Many new buyers were driven to purchase firearms because of fear for their safety amid a global pandemic and deeply polarized nation, sellers said. Other buyers believed that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would make it difficult to acquire firearms as president if he is elected in November. Either way, the rise indicates growing anxiety and a desire for protection among Mainers during a tumultuous year.

Ben LeBlanc of Ben’s Trading Post in Presque Isle said firearms sales at his shop have gone up about 70 percent since March.

He said it was not unusual for sales to ebb and flow with current events — he noted that gun control proposals during elections often correspond to a rise in sales, while the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 led to a drop.

The most sizable sales increase Ben’s Trading Post has seen was from first-time purchasers. LeBlanc — who said he asks several questions during the sales process for safety purposes — said many in that group were surprised that a federal background check is required.

Under federal law, anybody purchasing a firearm from a dealer with a Federal Firearms License — such as LeBlanc — must undergo a background check. Mainers who buy a firearm through a private sale in Maine are not required to undergo a background check if the seller believes the buyer is legally permitted to own a gun.

LeBlanc said he did not enjoy selling firearms out of fear: he relishes providing people an opportunity for recreation and hunting in rural Maine. He hopes that new buyers continue to be hobbyists after the climate across the country normalizes.

“I’m hoping that these new people who bought handguns take a course and meet somebody [to shoot with],” LeBlanc said. “Go out and shoot [the guns] properly.”

The trend is far from exclusive to The County. Michelle Kosmo, manager of Outdoor Sportsman in Northport, said firearms sales at her store had at least doubled since last year.

“Some people are looking for recreational things to do,” Kosmo said. “Other folks are simply trying to protect themselves and their homes. What they see on the news is kind of scaring them.”

Nationwide sales are so high, the store is having difficulty acquiring rifles and ammo for the upcoming hunting season.

“We are doing everything and anything to get things in,” Kosmo said. “There are big shortages right now.”

It is not the only shop experiencing shortages — she said the store had recently begun getting customers driving up from Southern Maine who couldn’t find items at their local stores.

Up North Outdoors in Fort Kent does not currently sell firearms. Yet, the ammunition they stock is hardly staying on the shelves — store manager Jesse Jalbert said sales were up 200 percent in the spring compared to past years.

“My shelves of ammunition look quite bare compared to what they normally are in this period,” Jalbert said. “I can’t get a sales rep to give me a time frame.”

Many who were stocking up on ammo were doing so because they were aware of past sales increases and shortages in response to “historical events,” such as after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, in 2012, Jalbert said.

He said sales for recreational items were generally increased in 2020 — with many forced into unemployment by the pandemic, people had ample time for outdoor activities. They were also spending less on conventional activities such as restaurants and vacations.

“In a sense, it’s great to see people getting back in the outdoors,” Jalbert said. “Not that there was a lack of it up in this area.”

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