Then came 2020 and a year that gave Georgians of every persuasion something to fear. In the spring, the coronavirus spawned apocalyptic-tinged uncertainty and shortages, followed by a summer of Black Lives Matter and white supremacist protests. A tumultuous fall election ended with the U.S. Capitol being stormed by a mob.
Shaw joined the ranks of gun owners in September, after easing her mind by taking a gun-training class. She ordered a 9 mm Sig Sauer P365 to protect herself, her home and her two daughters.
“It’s better to have one and not need it than to need it and not have it,” Shaw said. “I don’t want to become a victim, if I can help it.”
The federal government by law does not keep a count of the number of guns sold or information on gun buyers. The best gauge for purchases is the number of background checks performed by the FBI. Such checks are required before Americans can buy guns from licensed gun dealers, but are not needed for person-to-person sales.
In 2020, a record 904,035 Georgians got firearms background checks. The average for the previous five years was 561,846.
Nationally, a record 38.9 million Americans got background checks, up 14.7 million from 2019, FBI records say.
Gun sales often rise when Democrats take office because they are more likely to push for gun controls. That could have contributed to the rise in background checks late last year. And background checks remained high in January, when President Joe Biden was sworn in.
But buyers also appear to be increasingly diverse. Licensed gun sellers say since last year they are seeing more female, elderly and Black buyers who traditionally lagged white Georgians. Whole families are coming in for training classes, including some who might have tilted toward gun control.
“I have had many, many conversations with folks who have opposed guns in the past, and they have called me this year and said, ‘Hey, Phil, I am going to buy a gun,’” said Phil Smith, the founder of the National African American Gun Association, based in Griffin.
Smith said the six-year-old organization has grown to about 35,000 members and has been getting about 1,000 new members a month since the pandemic, about 40% higher than before. More than 50% of members are now women.
A Pew Research Center Poll taken in 2017 said that about 24% of Black people in the U.S. owned a gun, compared to 36% of whites and 15% of Latinos.
Mark Major, owner of 2-Swords Tactical and Self Defense, a guns sales and training business, said he has gotten more queries lately from “what I would call liberals who never bought a gun before.”
Daniel Komoroski, a 25-year-old Buckhead resident, said he has long been critical of guns and how easily they can be purchased. But he changed his mind and bought one after what he called the “incredibly frightening neoconservative violence” at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. “I felt I needed to be able to protect myself against anarchists like those,” he said.
As 2020′s defining events unfolded, there were corresponding monthly jumps in background checks in Georgia. The first two months started with a typical 50,000-plus requests. When March and the coronavirus came, the number rose to 84,601.
Then in June — when protests erupted after a video showing a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, until he died — requests for background checks jumped to 106,541. Background checks topped 72,000 each month the rest of the year amid social and political unrest.
The wave hit the Georgia Gun Club in Buford, a store and shooting range, as people began to realize the pandemic was real and there were shortages of food and goods in grocery stores.
“Once that happened we saw a surge in firearms sales across the board,” said general manager Wade Cummings. People snapped up shotguns, pistols, rifles. “We sold everything sitting on the shelves in the store and everything we could get in the store.”
By July sales were 70% higher than earlier months, some of it paid by coronavirus relief payments, Cummings believes. Sales could have been double that, but they couldn’t get guns to sell, and manufacturers are still back-ordered for six months to a year, he added. The store also quadrupled training classes, which remain sold out through March.
The number of applications for licenses to carry a concealed weapon in Georgia also has jumped. County probate courts handle the transactions, and there were 6,196 applications in Forsyth County, beating the previous high in 2016 of 4,720. Clayton County jumped from 4,911 in 2019 to 6,487 in 2020. In Cobb County,15,542 residents applied last year compared to 11,315 in 2019.
Kevin D. Holder, the executive director of the Council of Probate Judges of Georgia, said rural, suburban and urban counties are all reporting record numbers.
Many of the new gun owners are women, trainers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Julie Pollock, 58, grew up in Pennsylvania with no guns in the family house. After moving to Georgia 25 years ago and meeting many gun owners, she and her husband talked about getting a pistol, but never did.
Recently they took a gun safety, use and tactics class. Now they are visiting gun stores and plan to buy.
“I didn’t start considering it until I started watching the tides changing in America,” Pollock said, citing riots, scenes of burning businesses and talks of antifa, an anti-fascist movement, stirring up trouble.
“People are so angry and so mean. They just want to cause trouble,” said the Cobb County resident. “I am wondering if it’s ever going to escalate into some of the residential areas.”
Also, she said, as a Black woman married to a white man, she’s concerned about racism. “I want to be able to protect my home if anyone comes into it.”
Allison Olim from Sandy Springs is a first-time buyer. She said her husband Lenny had never seen the need for them to have one until last spring, as the pandemic took hold. People were being laid off jobs and lockdowns took effect.
“I already felt that the crime in Atlanta has risen tremendously,” she said. “I said to my husband, ‘I feel like this is time to purchase a gun because I feel like this is going to get worse.’ He absolutely agreed at that point.”
They both bought 9 mm handguns.
Raoul Alphonso of Cherokee County brought his wife and daughters, ages 19 and 20, to get training at Georgia Gun Class in Kennesaw after they inherited a handgun last year from his father-in-law.
“You would never expect to use it, but you never know,” Alphonso said. “I wouldn’t want to get caught in a situation with my family. But, if I am going to have one in the house, I wanted to do it correctly and get the training.”
Alphonso had guns in his house growing up and his oldest daughter had been on a high-school rifle team. He wanted his daughters to take the class so they could make up their minds if they wanted to purchase and carry guns.
Like others, he cited the broad social and political unrest. He and his wife often work in downtown Atlanta for a video production business and are concerned about safety.
Mike Williams, the owner of Georgia Gun Class, taught gun safety and shooting to Pollock, Shaw and the Alphonsos.
“People seemed to be alarmed when this whole thing happened during the summer,” he said of the protests. “Their main concern was being able to defend themselves, where they were out in public and felt like the police might not be able to defend them.”
Of those taking his class, “about 60 to 70% are females,” Williams said. “That is way up. Usually, it is about 20 to 25%.”
Paul Forgey, owner of 4G Tactical Firearms and Security Training near Stockbridge, said he trained twice the number of people last year that he did in 2019. A growing segment of them were older people, some in their 80s.
“That bothers me,” he said. “They are scared.”
Chelsea Parsons, who advocates for gun-safety laws at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy institute, is concerned about the flood of new gun owners.
Many of them will not take training classes and could be a danger to themselves or others, she said. Millions more guns floating around will mean more guns available for suicides, more stolen from homes or cars, more being illegally sold and used in crimes, she said.
And, with children homeschooling in record numbers, there’s the danger that more will get their hands on guns in the home, she said.
Parsons said she’s also concerned more gun sales increase the likelihood of selling to people who should be blocked. There is no background check for person-to-person sales. And a loophole in federal law says if a background check can’t be completed in three days, the sale from a dealer can proceed.
Most background checks are completed in minutes. But in 2019, 2,989 guns were transferred to prohibited persons before background checks could be completed, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy organization.
Data from the Center for American Progress suggest that guns are stolen or used in suicides or domestic violence more often than self defense.
“Folks have to think twice or think carefully if this is the right decision for a particular house,” Parsons said.
As 2020 ended and 2021 began, it was clear that more folks were making that decision in the affirmative.
Rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol early in the new year, spurred by then-president Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the election had been stolen from him.
Requests for background checks in Georgia in January shot back up to 92,903, the first time they had topped 90,000 since July.
And Biden, a Democrat who led the legislation to ban assault weapons in the 1990s during the Clinton administration, moved into the White House.
“Whether it’s real or not, the impression is to the gun-buying public they need to get what they want now before they can no longer buy them,” said Cummings of the Georgia Gun Club.