HARTFORD, Conn. — Gun sales are spiking in Connecticut and around the nation, a buying spree driven by fears of rising crime, a political shift in Washington and the social upheaval brought on by the pandemic.
“People are jumping at the opportunity to buy more guns,” said Rob Pizzi Jr., owner of Central Connecticut Arms in Portland, one of the state’s largest gun shops.
Preliminary numbers provided by the Connecticut State Police show 169,113 gun sale authorizations in 2020, up from 126,458 in 2019 — an increase more than 33 percent. So far this year, sales are continuing to increase, as the state has received 94,534 authorizations, which must be filled out before the sale or transfer of any firearm.
First-time gun buyers are a big part of the surge: The state has issued 31,170 new gun permits from Jan. 1 through early July, according to the preliminary data. That’s more than double the number of permits processed in all of 2019.
That’s true across the country as well: A survey of firearms retailers conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group based in Newtown, found that 40 percent of customers from January through April of 2020 were first-time gun buyers. And 40 percent of those new buyers were female.
“The fastest growing demographic of new gun owners [is] women,” said Holly Sullivan, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of gun owners. “By and large, the biggest growth is among women, and that’s consistent nationally and here in the state.”
Jenny, a 44-year-old stay-at-home mother, bought her first gun last year. A victim of domestic abuse, she said she was motivated by concerns about her personal safety. (The Hartford Courant does not identify survivors of domestic violence without their permission.)
“I had run into my ex-husband while I was jogging and after that, I made the decision that I needed to carry,” she said.
The uncertainty of life during the pandemic also played a role. “It was such an unpredictable time, and people were under a lot of stress,” she said. “I realized I was responsible for my own self-defense.”
Since buying her gun, she has begun spending time at the gun range to work on her shooting skills and, in the process, she discovered a new hobby. “I just love going shooting,” she said. “I have the confidence that I can hit my target.”
Pizzi said self-defense is the main reason his customers are buying guns. “People are starting to realize they’re their own first responders,” he said. “With all the anti-police sentiment that’s going around right now, we’re selling a lot of concealed-carry handguns. We sell a lot of home defense handguns and shotguns.”
Indeed, fear of crime is driving an appetite for more guns, Sullivan said. “Americans across the board, whether they’re first-time gun owners or longtime gun owners, feel more of a need to defend themselves and their families than they have in the past,” she said. “That is the cultural climate, the political climate and the reality that we’re in.”
Gun sales often increase after an election, and 2020 was no different. Democrat Joe Biden’s pledge to address rising gun violence prompted some purchases, Pizzi said.
“They’re worried about the political climate and what may or may not be available for them to purchase and what’s going to be illegal,” Pizzi said.
Gun violence prevention activists dispute that narrative. “People have an irrational fear that guns will somehow disappear overnight, just like they thought would happen in the Obama administration,” said Jeremy Stein, executive director of CT Against Gun Violence, an advocacy group.
“That didn’t happen then, and it’s not going to happen now in the Biden administration. We are not going to see a repeal of the Second Amendment. A lot of this buying is fear-driven: fear of the pandemic, fear of the unknown, fear of this idea that somehow guns will not be available or ammunition will not be available.”
More guns do not enhance public safety, Stein said. In fact, he said, research shows that the opposite is true.
“Guns lead to increased harms in homes, increased incidence of gun crimes and increased incidents of accidental death, suicide and domestic violence,” Stein said. “What we anticipate is that this increase in gun sales will eventually lead to an increased rate of gun deaths because more guns lead to more gun deaths.”
Amid the accelerating sales, the state police firearms registration system has been beset by delays. This month, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League filed a lawsuit over the long lag times in the process by which new buyers of guns and ammunition are fingerprinted and issued permits. (Without permits, buyers cannot make purchases and licensed dealers cannot make sales.)
The group sued the state last year after Gov. Ned Lamont allowed state and local police to stop fingerprinting applicants for gun permits during the coronavirus pandemic, a requirement for the issuance of permits. A federal judge said gun ownership is a fundamental right and ordered the police to resume fingerprinting, but the gun rights group, claiming that delays are continuing, wants the court to revisit the issue.
Brian Foley, a spokeperson for the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said the agency is implementing new software, bringing on new staff and adding phone lines to expedite the process.
“We inherited a paper system. We’re moving to an electronic system,” Foley said. “We understand the frustration with how long it was taking during the transitional period.”
The timing of the move to a new system happened to coincide with the dramatic increase in gun sales, Foley said. “There was no way for us to predict there would be this radical of a surge in gun permits and transactions looking at previous years.”
Daniela Altimari, Hartford Courant