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As American Gun Sales Hit Record High, Tips for New Owners

Gun sales have hit a record high in America. Pictured: Weapons on display at a gun shop in Manassas, Virginia, on March 17. (Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Americans are buying guns at a record pace. A surprising number of the sales are from first-time firearm owners, says Stephen Gutowski, a reporter at The Washington Free Beacon and a certified National Rifle Association instructor.

Gutowski joins the podcast to explain some of the reasons for the spike in gun sales and to offer safety tips for first-time gun owners.

We also cover these stories:

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

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Virginia Allen: I am pleased to be joined by Stephen Gutowski, a reporter at The Washington Free Beacon and a certified National Rifle Association instructor. Stephen, thanks so much for being here.

Stephen Gutowski: Hey, thanks for having me.

Allen: Last week, you wrote a great piece for the Free Beacon discussing 2020 gun sales in America. About 5 million Americans have become gun owners for the very first time in 2020. Are those numbers normal?

Gutowski: No, those are pretty abnormal numbers. In fact, it’s a record pace at this point for gun sales in the United States and from what we know, at least from what the industry says from surveys that they’ve conducted, 40% of new sales are going to first-time gun owners, which is how you get that 5 million number.

That is very unusual and … the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry group, … in addition to what they’re saying, I’ve also spoken to a number of gun stores and a number of new buyers and it’s certainly something that’s completely out of the ordinary.

Allen: Wow. What are the manufacturers saying? What are those that work at gun shops and sell guns [saying]? Are they pretty surprised by what’s going on?

Gutowski: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, obviously, we’re living in fairly unprecedented times generally with the virus and some of the civil unrest that we’ve seen and so guns and gun sales are also a part of that and driven in large part by those events. …

One store that I’ve talked to several times is Wex Gunworks down in Florida in Delray Beach and he said it’s been unlike anything he’s ever seen before. I think his quote was, “They said that President [Barack] Obama was the greatest gun salesman of all time. No, it’s actually COVID-19.” And I think you see that reflected as well in big gun companies, too.

Sturm, Ruger [& Co.] is one of the largest gun companies in the world. It’s one of the only publicly traded gun manufacturers in the U.S. and they reported their sales were simply through the roof. Their CEO said that in his 30 years in the business, he’d never seen anything like it.

Allen: Wow, so in 30 years of being in gun sales, he’s saying, “This is nothing like I’ve ever seen,” as far as the rate and the amount of sales?

Gutowski: That’s right, absolutely, and their stocks reflect that as well. The stocks for Sturm, Ruger as well as Smith & Wesson, which is the other publicly traded gun company, have absolutely gone through the roof over the past six months or so, which is reflective of that.

They also don’t expect it to slow down anytime soon. It’s something that is likely to continue throughout the pandemic, but also perhaps even increase in the later part of this year, because the other thing that tends to drive gun sales historically have been elections, especially elections where one of the candidates is proposing significant new gun control legislation, which is certainly the case here in 2020.

Allen: Yeah. You mentioned that … that has been a trend that we’ve seen in election years, that gun sales go up, but what is different about this year that all of these records are being set and people that have worked in gun sales for so long are saying, “I’ve never seen something like this”?

Gutowski: Yeah, I think one thing that is really different, it is really those … new gun owners, right?

Because a lot of election-based gun sales, which we really haven’t even gotten into yet I don’t think here in 2020, but that was the big driver in 2016 when there were record gun sales and in 2013 after Sandy Hook where there was actually a lot of focus on the potential for new federal gun control laws, you saw a big spike in sales in those time periods as well.

But those were oftentimes driven by people who already owned guns wanting to buy firearms that they believed might be made illegal by politicians.

Whereas this time around, from everything we’re seeing—and this is also reflected in dealer surveys by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, but also from my own interviews with gun dealers and with first-time buyers—but really, they’re motivated by the concern for self-defense, with concern for home defense, being worried about essentially the uncertainty that comes along with a major global pandemic, for instance, or with the civil unrest that we’ve seen in the last few months as well.

So I think that’s the main difference is that you’re seeing a lot of new people coming to gun ownership driven by almost exclusively their desire for self-defense.

Allen: Who are these people? Are they mainly folks that live in rural areas, more urban? Do we know the age demographic?

Gutowski: They’re actually what has been termed in recent years in the gun-owning community as a part of Gun Culture 2.0, which is this idea that gun owners are becoming over time younger, more suburban and urban than rural, and more women and more minorities are becoming gun owners as well.

Now, that’s been a trend that’s been talked about for several years now in the gun-owning community and in the gun industry, but it seems to have been accelerated over these last six months here.

There was a recent survey again by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which indicated that the largest growing demographic among customers as reported by gun dealers were actually African Americans followed by female gun owners and you’ve also seen this and evidenced in the actual background check data itself.

Now, the FBI doesn’t keep that sort of data on race or gender for gun background checks, but what it does keep are the differences in a check that’s done on a handgun and a check that’s done on a long gun, a shotgun or a rifle.

We’re now seeing far more handguns being sold than long guns, which is a reversal of historical trends, again, one that’s been going on for a while now, but one that seems to have been sped up, which indicates to a lot of experts, at least, and I would agree with this assessment, that more people are buying guns for home defense or for self-defense than they are for traditional activities like hunting and their sales are happening in more urbanized areas than they were before as well.

Allen: Interesting. How did you become a Second Amendment advocate?

Gutowski: It was kind of funny. I didn’t start shooting until after college. I grew up in Pennsylvania. I grew up in Chester County, which is outside of Philadelphia. It’s one of the collar counties, right? There’s a lot of hunting that goes on out. It’s the kind of area where they give you off for the first day of hunting season. But I was never into firearms growing up, my family was never into it.

It wasn’t until I moved down to D.C. and started working down here as a writer that I went to what was called Fun Day at the Media Research Center, where I worked when I first came to DC.

One of the activities, there was skeet shooting with a pump-action 12-gauge Remington 870-type shotgun, which is the total, of course, wrong gun for that sort of activity, but it didn’t matter because there’s a lot of fun and so I got into it.

And it’s one of those things where with guns—as with maybe a lot of different hobbies, but this happens pretty commonly with firearms—you start off, you like it, and then you realize that, “Oh, OK, I have this gun, but this gun would be better for this particular activity.” Right? Or, “This gun would be better for this activity.” And you just go down a rabbit hole and that’s how it got me, personally, is I just started to really enjoy firearms.

They’re something that you can also work with your hands, there’s a lot of great engineering that goes into it, and so I like building AR-15s. The AR-15 I have on the wall here behind me is one that I built myself. I have another build that I’m working on. That’s another fun aspect to it. I like to work on my car, I like to build guns, I like to build computers.

There’s a lot more to firearms than just to the shooting aspect, although that part is clearly the most fun, especially if you can go out and do some of the things that I’ve been able to do, like shooting machine guns or shooting firework targets and explosives and shooting from helicopters, all these fun different things that I’ve been able to do with my time at the Free Beacon.

Allen: Yeah, so cool. It’s neat.

You’ve been in this world of the Second Amendment and guns and firearms for so long, but I want to, for a second, if you would, just let me play the devil’s advocate for just a moment.

Aren’t you concerned that with so many first-time gun owners purchasing firearms that we’re going to see more shootings? I mean, tensions are really high in the nation right now, so shouldn’t we be concerned that so many people are buying guns?

Gutowski: I mean, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know that I would expect a lot of first-time gun owners to be involved in a lot of additional shootings.

What would concern me more, frankly, is whether the first-time gun owners are getting the proper training needed to prevent accidental shootings or even suicides in terms of the risks that come along with owning firearms.

Suicides by firearm are, first of all, they make up two-thirds of gun deaths, which … when … that 40,000 gun deaths a year number gets thrown around, a lot of people don’t realize what the context isn’t given [is] that two-thirds of those are by suicide, and so that’s a valid concern.

If you’re a new gun owner, you should ensure that you’re, one, getting good gun safety training so that you don’t accidentally hurt yourself or someone else because guns are not toys, right? I mean, they’re not, and they require a great deal of responsibility on the gun owner’s part to learn how to properly use their firearm.

Then also, there’s a responsibility on the mental health side of things as well to make sure that you’re keeping up with your mental health because firearms, while they might not cause you to commit suicide, if you use them in your suicide attempt, you’re more likely to successfully carry out that attempt, which is something you have to keep in mind as a firearms owner.

But in terms of violent crime increasing or even justified self-defense shootings increasing, it seems unlikely outside of areas that are directly impacted by some of the rioting that we’ve seen. And even there, the rioting is horrible and it’s always a terrible situation, even if you’re justified in having to shoot someone else to defend yourself.

But I will say that compared to rioting in the past, in, say, 1968, we haven’t seen a major uptick in casualties from the rioting that we’re seeing now, thankfully, and I wouldn’t expect for that to really change much.

Allen: Yeah. You referenced one of the most important aspects for new gun owners being getting that instruction on how to properly use their firearm. Where can they go to receive that kind of instruction and get that information?

Gutowski: That’s a great question. One reason that it’s more of a concern now, other than just that there appear to be a lot more new gun owners than normal, is also that we’re dealing with the pandemic still and the restrictions from that mean that it’s more difficult to go and get in-person training than it would normally be and so there are some alternatives on that front where you can do online training.

There are some sheriffs, your local sheriff might be offering some. I know that some sheriffs throughout the country have done that online, firearms training. There’s some good resources on YouTube as well.

But also, I believe the NRA itself is offering an online version of its major gun safety courses. I would say the NRA safety courses are the most ubiquitous option out there.

If you have a local range near you where you’re going to shoot, … there’s going to be NRA courses available for you most likely at that range by some NRA instructor. There’s also an NRA instructors website where you can look up local classes.

Whatever you think of the NRA from the political side, they are legitimately the largest gun safety organization in the sense that they certify hundreds of thousands of firearm safety instructors throughout the country and those instructors offer classes.

Now, for instance, myself, I’m certified to teach the NRA’s basic pistol course. It’s a certification process. You don’t have to be an NRA member or you’re not working for the NRA if you get certified to teach their classes, it’s just that the NRA has the most widely available gun safety courses out there and they offer a wide range of them.

There are also, of course, more advanced options as well from a lot of different high-end firearms training, programs like Gunsight in Arizona or Rob Pincus offers a bunch of classes—he’s a renowned firearms instructor—there’s a lot of those sorts of options as well.

But most people, you just bought a handgun for self-defense, you’ll be good, at least get the basics if you go and look up your local NRA basic pistol course and take that for like $150 or whatever. You do it over a weekend, you come out knowing a lot more about gun safety on the other side.

Allen: For anyone who’s listening who’s thinking, “Hmm, maybe I should consider buying a gun,” but they don’t know where to start, they’re thinking, “I don’t know what the laws are in my state. I’m not exactly sure where to go, how to go about this,” what are some resources you would recommend to them?

Gutowski: Yeah. … Frankly, there are 50 different laws to contend with because we have 50 different states and they all have their own specific gun laws on possession, on how to buy, on gun carry, all that stuff is different state to state.

I mean, there’s a lot of consistency to it as well, the federal system governs much of it, but it can be different even just right across the border. Something you did in the state that you’re from can be a felony in the state next door when it comes to gun possession even, sadly.

But the best thing to do if you’re looking to buy a gun right now and you’re new is just go to your local gun shop or call them and ask them. They’ll have the knowledge about how the process works in your particular jurisdiction.

… I live in Virginia, right? And the process here in Virginia is extremely different from the process right across the river there in Washington, D.C., where DC has some extremely strict laws and there’s a lot of complications that go into how you get a gun legally in the city, especially handguns.

Handguns tend to be more heavily regulated throughout the country than long guns and so there’s extra steps and complications that go into that and the best person to ask is generally going to be your local gun store, your local licensed dealer.

Allen: What about gun storage? Especially if you have kids in your house, you might be thinking, “Well, I would love to have a gun, but it makes me really nervous to bring a firearm into my home when I maybe have a 7-year-old running around.”

Gutowski: Yeah, no, I mean, that’s an absolutely legitimate concern, right? You have to think about when you’re buying a gun that, again, it’s not a toy, this is a tool and it’s potentially dangerous.

Dangerous to not just you or someone that might be trying to attack you, but also to your loved ones if they don’t understand how to properly handle a firearm safely or if they’re children and they can’t learn that at their young age yet.

You have to make sure that you’re taking the proper precautions to ensure that they don’t get access to your firearms so that there’s no chance that they could hurt themselves, right?

I think the best way to go about that, again, your local gun store is going to be a really good resource for a first-time buyer. Generally, they’re very welcoming people.

In my experience, a lot of gun stores are going to be willing to talk to you and give you advice and guidance. Same thing goes for certified instructors, [they] will generally try to help you through any questions you have.

Most gun stores are going to have gun-safe options for you. There’s a lot of products on the market in terms of gun locks.

Also, every modern firearm that you buy new today comes with a gun lock, at least a basic-level cable lock that you can lock up your gun with and ensure that without the key, nobody, a child is not going to have access to your firearm without your permission or your oversight.

So at the very base level, if you buy a new gun, you will have a basic lock that comes with it, but there are many additional options like gun safes or more advanced locks that allow you to get from the locked position to a loaded position faster whilst remaining very safe in terms of children having access.

I would say talk to your local gun store, see what options they have for gun locks and gun safes. Do your research online—there’s a ton of reviews on YouTube and in gun magazines—and then make an informed decision about how you want to store your firearms, especially if you have kids, because that is a very legitimate risk, it’s a concern, but it’s one that can be managed properly if you put in the work and research.

Allen: Stephen, we really appreciate your expertise on this. How could our listeners follow your work?

Gutowski: Yeah, you can find all my writing at The Washington Free Beacon. So if you go, all of my pieces will be there. You can also follow me on twitter at @stephengutowski, … it’s a Polish name, not as rare as I used to think. There’s a weirdly large number of Gutowskis out there in the U.S., but it still can be a little bit complicated for the non-Polish among us.

Allen: Well, I’ll be sure to link that in the show notes. Stephen, thanks so much for coming on the show. We really appreciate your time.

Gutowski: Yeah, thanks for having me.

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