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Data Suggest Record-Setting Year for Virginia Gun Sales

Person holding a gun stands next to confederate monument
An armed protester stands at the base of the Stuart monument during protests on June 1, 2020. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia recorded a record number of background checks for gun purchases this year, according to data collected by Virginia State Police.

Gun sellers requested over 650,000 background checks through the end of October, up 83% over the same period in 2019 and the highest number since the state began collecting records in 1989.

The data are a common, if imperfect, proxy for gun sales. Gun sellers must request background checks through the Virginia Firearms Transaction Program before a customer buys a firearm. One buyer could buy several guns at once -- or none at all if they’re flagged as a felon or change their mind.

The data maps to national trends showing spikes in sales in March and again in June. New gun control laws passed by Virginia’s Democrat-controlled General Assembly appear not to have dented sales in the commonwealth. 

Patricia Webb, a gun rights advocate who owns a shop in Hanover County, attributed the spike in sales to uncertainty caused by the pandemic, protests over the summer, and worry over police response times. Webb said she’d noticed buyers of different backgrounds, not just “conservative, Republican, 50-something white men.”

“People are rightfully concerned, and they're realizing that they are responsible for their own safety,” Webb said. 

The figures include some first-time buyers like April Sullivan, a 52 year-old Short Pump resident who favors stronger gun control laws. Sullivan said her 20 year-old son persuaded her to buy a gun after seeing people’s behavior in the early days of Virginia's lockdown.

“People were hoarding toilet paper and just acting like fools,” Sullivan said. “People are just -- they’re just out of control.”

Sullivan said she has not taken out her teal handgun since taking a shooting class this summer with her son and her ex-husband, who is also a first-time gun buyer. She said she was worried about “angry white men” inciting violence after a tense encounter between supporters of President Donald Trump and counter-protestors at Lee Monument earlier this week. 

Josh Horwitz, director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and co-author of “ Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea” said he supported legislation to ban guns at polling places and other places where he said they could intimidate.

“I think if we are arming up to get our political point across this democracy is in real trouble,” Horwitz said. 

Public health experts also worry that guns will be used for self-harm. A recent Stanford University study found the risk of suicide was nearly nine times higher for gun owners than non-owners, and was highest immediately after the purchase of a firearm.

“Bringing a gun into your home is a huge responsibility,” Horwitz said. “Are you prepared for that?”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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