- - Monday, March 16, 2020

Crises increase gun sales. So, people don’t have to look far right now for an explanation for the recent surge in purchases. But the coronavirus threat is not the explanation that should jump out to people. 

“So American … I’ll shoot the virus! … We don’t do smart stuff in this country,” joked Bill Maher on Friday on his HBO show, “Real Time.” It is easy for Mr. Maher to make fun of people’s fears, but one can easily imagine the social turmoil that would ensue if shortages become severe or if lots of police become ill. Unfortunately for cops, telecommuting isn’t an option.

This past week, reporters started emailing me for thoughts about the panic buying of guns. One journalist from a major news outlet asked me for “any suggestions on ways to document that folks are purchasing firearms out of an abundance of caution or desire for self-defense specifically related to coronavirus.”

But they misunderstood the timing of the increase in sales, which began before there was any panic over the coronavirus. Though the Chinese government noticed the first cases on Nov. 17, it wasn’t until Dec. 31 that the Wuhan Municipal Health Center publicly announced an “urgent notice … of pneumonia of unknown cause.” Only on Jan. 8 did Chinese scientists announce the discovery of a new coronavirus. On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization finally declared a global emergency, but did not recommend restrictions on international travel.

Gun sales began increasing last October, well before anyone started thinking about the coronavirus. Gun sales increased by 9 percent over the previous month, and were 11 percent higher than in October 2018. 

A more obvious explanation for this increase lies in the comments from Democratic presidential candidates. In September, Beto O’Rourke infamously exclaimed: “Hell, yes, we are going to take your AR-15.” Mr. O’Rourke vowed to “buy back every single assault weapon,” but said that he would use force if people didn’t voluntarily agree to selling their guns.

A couple of weeks ago, former Vice President Joe Biden raised the stakes of the election by announcing that Mr. O’Rourke “will be the one who leads” his gun-control effort. On Thursday, they were further confirmed when Mr. Biden picked Jen O’Malley Dillon, Mr. O’Rourke’s former campaign manager, to manage his own campaign. In September, Ms. Dillon had tweeted out a promise to “GET EVERY ONE OF THOSE G—D—N GUNS OFF OUR STREETS.”

In presidential debate, Democratic candidates continually promise to ban semi-automatic rifles such as AR-15s, even though they function identically to other small-game hunting rifles. They fire the same small caliber bullets, and do so with the same velocity and rapidity (one bullet per pull of the trigger). Democrats may label it a “weapon of war,” but no self-respecting military in the world would use these semi-automatic rifles.

The only question among the Democrats was whether there would be a voluntary “buyback” program, or whether the police would have to go into homes to confiscate people’s firearms.

Sales in January and February are up compared to the same time last year by 18 percent. Gun owners may have been spooked by the new Democratic majorities that took over the Virginia legislature in January and seeing what Democrats have in store for the nation at large. 

The Virginia legislature started passing many gun-control laws. These include gun-free zones, limits on concealed handgun permits, gun-lock requirements, a one-handgun-a-month purchase limit, costly background checks on private transfers of firearms, and a “red flag” law. Virginia has even given its local governments the green light to pass their own, more extreme gun-control laws. In a matter of just a few months, Virginia has gone from a gun-friendly state to one of the most restrictive states. 

Gun owners know that their rights are under siege, and people will continue lining up at gun stores while they still have a chance to do so. They’re not trying to shoot a virus. They just want to protect themselves and their families.

• John R. Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author most recently of “The War on Guns.”

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