Shelves are bare and what's in stock can be almost triple the normal price.

Also in 2020: Record U.S. gun violence. A local gun seller, owner stress safeguards and responsibility.

Nearly 23 million guns were sold in the US last year, making 2020 the largest single purchasing year on record. The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic caused Americans to fear for the worst and stockpile groceries, toilet paper, medications — and firearm ammunition

“It’s like milk and bread when there’s a hurricane or a snowstorm coming. You buy five gallons of milk and four of them will go bad before you can drink them,” said Gary Walker, owner of Gary’s Ace Hardware in Culpeper. 

Then, when the killing of George Floyd rocked the country last summer and sparked nationwide protests, another wave of sales swept handguns, AR15s, and the most common defensive ammunition rounds off the shelves — and those rounds have been hard to get back in stock. By August of last year, Gary’s Ace Hardware could barely find a box of 9-mm ammunition to sell.  

And it’s still difficult to get ammo. Bob Pennepacker, manager of the federal firearms license (FFL) at Gary’s Ace Hardware, said he hopes supply will finally catch up with demand by mid-April.

In a ranking of the top five weeks for greatest number of NCIS background checks since 1998, the weeks of March 16, 2020 and June 1, 2020 rank first and fourth respectively, according to data from the NCIS. The three weeks during and after the storming of the US Capitol on Jan. 6 each rank second, third and fifth.

Sadly, 2020 was also a record year for gun deaths. According to data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group which archives firearm incidents, nearly 20,000 Americans died from gun violence — 3,600 more than in 2017, the previous high — and another 24,000 died by suicide with a gun. And after the mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder earlier this month, gun-control advocates have reanimated the national gun debate.

From Pennepacker’s standpoint, banning weapons isn’t the solution. “When it really comes down to it, these people are not supposed to have these guns … if an AK or something like that were to be banned, they’re still going to get them anyway. If you’re going to be a criminal, you’re going to be a criminal.”

What Pennepacker does support, however, is a universal background check requirement — and according to a 2017 fact check by Politifact, roughly 90 percent of Americans agree. 

Under US law, FFL dealers must undertake certain responsibilities, like reporting lost or stolen firearms, reporting multiple sales, making sales records available to law enforcement, and performing background checks. 

“There’s been background checks in Virginia for 20 years or more. If something happens — and I’ve had it happen plenty of times — if something’s wrong, if you’ve committed a crime and you’re trying to buy a gun, the police will come and get you and it doesn’t take them long at all,” Pennepacker said. “So it does work. It’s just the [sellers] out there that don’t ask questions and just sell them to whoever [that cause problems].”

On the other hand, unlicensed firearms sellers, such as private individuals, are not subject to the same federal laws. Currently, only 22 states, including Virginia, require background checks for all sales and transfers of firearms — and states that don’t, some gun-law advocates say, create a dangerous loophole. 

But Pennepacker said Virginia’s “red flag” law also helps to prevent guns from getting into the hands of people who have threatened to harm themselves or others. 

Esther Critzer, a Rappahannock gun owner who has organized self defense shooting practices for women, said she doesn’t “agree with a lot of the gun control stuff” but added she believes in universal background checks. “I do think there are a lot of people who shouldn’t have guns,” she said. 

Critzer also believes that if people are going to own firearms, they should practice with them. “I talk to a lot of people and they don’t [practice] — it’s like a book on the shelf, they’ve got it, but they don’t use it.”

“Everybody has the right to have one,” Critzer said. “But if you’re going to be carrying one for self defense in your purse or on your body, you need to know how to use it — that could end up being a dangerous situation.”


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