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Before DaShana Street, 29, bought her first gun in June, she had never held a firearm, let alone used one. She began to fear for her safety when more than 100 businesses in her home of Grand Rapids, Michigan, were damaged in the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd this summer; city officials tallied nearly a half-million dollars in necessary repairs. Street works in retail. Would her store be vandalized next?
And for Street, a Black woman, the thought of Breonna Taylor being shot to death in her own home during a botched police raid also lingered.
“To this day, I have a lot of questions about that story,” Street said. “I think it was really unfair and unjust what happened to her. You can’t even sit in the comfort of your own home. You never know.”
Street’s boyfriend went to the gun shop with her. Call it stereotypical, but she was immediately drawn to the only pink gun in the store: a Glock 43 handgun, which the store owner warned her might be too powerful for a newbie.
Street’s first time firing the gun was during a beginners’ class. She was nervous.
“The first shot I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’” Street said. “Then after a couple of shots, I started to loosen up.”
Street now holds a concealed carry permit. She ordered a belly band to holster the weapon whenever she leaves the house, especially when she is delivering food for her side job. Before she got a gun, she wasn’t comfortable delivering orders at night.
Now, her gun is either on her person or on her nightstand, and always loaded.
“It’s like my child,” Street said. “It gives me a sense of safety and security. I was really nervous about the idea of carrying a gun. But now, it’s like the new normal.”
Each month, gun sales in 2020 have outpaced month-over-month sales. Although there is no official demographic breakdown of gun sales by race or gender, interviews with the gun community — new owners, sales people, analysts and activists — reveal a mounting anxiety among women and LGBTQ+ people, particularly those of color. And some are choosing to arm themselves for the first time. The 19th spoke with a half dozen people to unpack why 2020 feels different, and the people who are trying to welcome these atypical gun owners into their world.
This March, as whispers of lockdowns made toilet paper and cleaning materials fly off the shelves, lines snaked around gun stores. Americans purchased 1.5 million handguns and around 835,000 long guns in March, for a 85 percent increase overall compared to March 2019, according to data from Small Arms Analytics. In a press release, Jurgen Brauer, the chief economist at Small Arms Analytics, said that much of the industry’s inventory had been depleted.
Put simply, it’s fear that drives gun gales, Brauer said in an interview with The 19th. In a year in which Americans worried over their jobs, having enough food for their families or money to bring it home, many wanted to be able to act if their personal safety was threatened.
As daily staples returned to the shelves, a police officer drove his knee into the neck of a 46-year-old man who used his last breaths to call out for his mother. Data from June, the first full month after Floyd was killed, show gun sales increased year-over-year by 145 percent, with 1.5 million handgun purchases, according to Brauer’s analysis.
“With George Floyd, the question then arises for personal security,” he said. “If you need the police, will they come or will they be busy somewhere else? Or if the police come, will they behave impartially or do you need to defend yourself against the police? I mean all these kinds of feelings arising — whether real or perceived, whether reasonable or not — all of it contributes to motivation to engage in firearms purchases.”
The last time gun sales spiked in an election year was in 2008, after President Barack Obama had been elected and gun owners likely feared he would restrict their access. But it was 2016, the race featuring the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party, that sent the gun industry into overdrive. In anticipation of Hillary Clinton winning the White House, firearms manufacturers and importers stockpiled a massive inventory. But when Donald Trump, who enthusiastically supported the Second Amendment during his campaign, won unexpectedly, they found themselves with way too many guns. As guns and ammunition were sold for cheap, manufacturers’ stocks fell and they laid off approximately a quarter of their workforce. Remington, the country’s oldest gun maker, went bankrupt.
This forced the industry into a “new normal,” Brauer said, and it has spent the past couple of years recovering from what many called the “Trump slump.” Who knows how 2020 will be categorized, a year anomalous for so many reasons, including the fact that neither presidential candidate had to talk much about guns on the campaign trail with COVID-19 dominating nearly every debate, town hall and rally. Americans had enough to fear to drive panic sales without political rhetoric as a tipping point.
In 2017, a Pew Research study said White men are especially likely to be gun owners, with about half saying they own a gun compared to about a quarter of White women and men of color, and 16 percent of women of color. It’s why groups like A Girl and a Gun formed to provide training and education to women in the firearms community, who don’t always feel welcomed at gun stores or shooting ranges.
Robyn Sandoval, 45, executive director of A Girl and A Gun, has seen a 150 percent increase in membership compared to last year. Around 40 percent of her group says they have been involved in firearm training for less than a year.
A subsequent “new shooter survey” from August found that around 25 percent of A Girl and a Gun respondents purchased a gun for the first time because of the racial unrest or because of fears of a weapons ban in the upcoming election; others were urged by family or friends or had a new firearm in the household. A combined 21 percent were either concerned about the pandemic and access to essentials, fear of targeted violence or discrimination, and rising unemployment and crime.
A Girl and a Gun has continued to offer training classes through the pandemic, even virtual options. The training focuses on firearms safety, but also what it means to be a survivor, to fight for your life and protect your family, Sandoval said. Members are presented with different options and scenarios — not everyone is into guns — but they discuss kubatons, knives, pepper spray, and other self-defense and first-aid tools.
“It’s really about the whole gamut of being your own first responder, knowing resources you have available, how to make a plan,” Sandoval said.
As a delegate and Southwest Regional Director for the D.C. Project, a nonpartisan women’s organization advocating for gun rights, Sandoval wants to educate people about the consequences of gun restrictions. Every year, the D.C. Project spends four days meeting with members of Congress. Formerly anti-gun herself, Sandoval believes that people who don’t have any experience with firearms want to remove and restrict access to them.
“I do think it’s important that I tell members of Congress that the moms that make demands to take my rights don’t speak for moms like me,” she said. “There’s a lot of moms like me, who are safe, law-abiding proficient firearms advocates. We want the ability to protect our families.”
This year, Sandoval is in a conundrum. She didn’t want to say who she’ll vote for, but historically she’s “voted blue.” The Second Amendment is a huge factor for her, and Joe Biden has proposed regulating assault weapons through the 1934 National Firearms Act. His plan would require owners of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to either sell them back to the government or register them and incur a $200 tax.
The plan and Biden have been endorsed by Giffords, an organization that lobbies and conducts gun-control research and draws its name from Gabrielle Giffords — a former U.S. House Representative from Arizona who was shot in the head in 2011 during a public-facing event outside a grocery store.
“Joe Biden, we feel he has the compassion and toughness to actually lead on gun safety, on gun-violence prevention,” said Sheila E. Isong, Giffords’ engagement director. “We know that this is an issue he’s going to take seriously and he’s going to push for. He was there for [Rep. Giffords] after she was shot. And he was there for countless other gun-violence survivors and in different moments of pain.”
Sandoval, a mother of a disabled daughter who is blind, doesn’t consider herself a single-issue voter — disability rights are also something top of mind, along with education and health care. But so is protecting her family.
“The Second Amendment is also something I’m very passionate about that relates directly to my family and also my career,” she said. “This election has been very interesting how polarizing it is on both sides. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of middle ground.”
Geneva Solomon is the co-owner of Redstone Firearms, a gun store in Southern California that she’s operated with her husband for the past seven years.
Since March, Solomon says they have experienced a 400- to 500-percent increase in all aspects of their business, from the store and their range to consulting and education. In the beginning of the pandemic, Solomon felt like she blinked, and suddenly there was a line outside of her store beginning two to three hours before the shop opened. Demand got so “massive” they had a waiting list.
“I honestly tell people it was like a movie,” she said. “We were just sitting in the shop. We knew everything was going on with COVID, and we hadn’t been quite yet put on lockdown. But it was as if everybody was standing in line for toilet paper and Lysol … then everyone hit the gun stores.”
Solomon ended up doing a lot of educating about gun laws in California, and the 10-day waiting period before a firearm can be released to a purchaser. People were walking into her store thinking it was easy to get a gun as it is to buy bubblegum from a vending machine. Redstone’s mission is to make gun ownership as accessible as possible to first-time gun owners in particular.
“The culture in the gun industry is very toxic when it comes to new gun owners,” Solomon said. “If you don’t walk into a gun store and know the lingo, or you didn’t grow up with, you know, the guns silver spoon in your mouth, you’re kind of shunned away from most gun stores.”
Redstone was born out of Solomon’s own experience. Thirteen years ago, Solomon, who is Black, decided to buy a gun at the end of an abusive relationship. “I have to be able to protect my daughter at whatever expense,” she thought to herself. So she went into a gun store, still not knowing much after some cursory internet searching. It wasn’t like the shoe store — no one approached her asking if she needed help. But she saw others in the store getting that kind of service.
After pulling a number, she spoke to a salesman who suggested she read some books and come back later. She did exactly that, but she still had no idea what kind of gun was right for her. She went back to the store, made a selection, but when she asked for help finding an instructor, the salesman claimed to know none.
“I thought to myself, ‘OK, maybe I’m an anomaly,’” she said. “And once we kind of got into this world I started hearing these stories. And sometimes it breaks my heart.”
She feels she can relate to a lot of customers because, unlike her husband who grew up around guns and has a background in law enforcement, Solomon was once the scared gun owner. She grew up with a fear of guns. Her father was shot when she was a baby, and he lost his leg as a result.
As a survivor of domestic violence, Solomon acknowledges the risk of having guns in the home. Fifty-five percent of intimate partner homicides are committed with firearms, according to FBI data. Solomon teaches her students in the basics class that you’re more likely to die by your gun than use it to protect yourself.
Solomon says the highest demographic among her customers is people that are the minority, including people from the LGBTQ+ community and people of color.
To ensure her customers are comfortable, Solomon keeps politics out of her store and her gun range. Her store remains unapologetically pro-Black, she says, as they offer “swag” with people of color on hats and T-shirts and stickers. She’s had customers come to her after being intimidated at other stores into joining the NRA or divulging their political party. Buying a gun is empowering and serious, she says, and as more Americans join the gun-owning community this year, she doesn’t want her customers to feel swayed.
“Guns are a bipartisan issue, and I just don’t think many people realize, prior to the pandemic, that a lot of people who you would think would be anti-gun really aren’t,” Solomon said. “As much as it’s become this political thing, I would love to see it become a bipartisan issue. Because now we have a ton of new gun owners. We now need to focus on making sure those guns stay safe and secure.”
It is on a similar principle of inclusiveness and nonpartisanship that Erin Palette founded Operation Blazing Sword. In June 2016, 49 people were killed in a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. The day after the massacre, Palette saw messages from conservative gun owners offering to teach gun safety to queer people. There was a huge disconnect though: Some queer people felt they couldn’t go to a gun store because they didn’t feel safe there — it’d be like covering themselves in steak sauce and jumping into a lion enclosure at the zoo, she said.
So Palette took to social media to connect “gun curious queer folks” to those offering gun training. Beyond firearms education, the key element of Palette’s brainchild is bringing people together.
“We’ve been told that gun owners are all right-wing who hate queer people, and we’ve been told that queer people are all hard liberals who love gun control,” Palette said. “And they are seeing that each is not the enemy, that they are human beings with hopes and dreams, and they see that they have more in common than they have in difference.”
The Pulse shooting was a moment when a lot of queer people realized that hate crimes are not just about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that there are “monsters” who will target LGBTQ+ people as a specific demographic Palette said, and that’s reason enough to get a gun. Hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people increased by almost 6 percent from 2017 to 2018, with a 42 percent increase in crimes against transgender people. In 2018, Operation Blazing Sword merged with the Pink Pistols, a shooting group formed under the taglines “armed queers don’t get bashed,” and “pick on someone your own caliber.” Palette now runs the largest queer guns group in the United States, if not the world.
Once Trump got elected, Palette said a lot of people worried about his administration rolling back protections for LGBTQ+ people. She has the same pitch for Operation Blazing Sword now as she did then: Join for the fear, stay for the freedom. She can’t think of anything more American than arming oneself for protection because you don’t trust the government to keep your best interest at heart.
Much of Palette’s life work has been about uniting gun owners with varying and sometimes polarized political views. Just a few weeks ago she was a speaker at the virtual 2A Rally for Your Rights. But, with the increase in gun sales, and what she calls distrust and outright hatred on both sides of the aisle, she’s concerned about what will happen as votes are counted.
“I am quite frankly worried that the day after the election, we’re going to be shooting each other in the streets,” Palette said.
Palette reflected on a teachable moment she had with a volunteer in the early days of starting Operation Blazing Sword. The volunteer wanted to sign up to train people to use firearms, but didn’t feel comfortable with being publicly known as a gun owner.
“I said, ‘Oh, you’re afraid of the social repercussions of being outed.’ And that person went, ‘Oh,’” Palette said. “And that was something they hadn’t considered before … I saw an opportunity for them to realize what it’s like to be outed or to want to stay in the closet for whatever reason.”
Similarly, Palette said, there are a lot of queer people who are into guns, and stay “in the gun closet” because of the social stigma attached to being a gun owner.
“I’m bringing these people together and they’re realizing, you know, you’re not the enemy, we’ve got more in common than we’ve been told,” Palette said. “And that’s humanizing, and I really wanted to try and put the human face on the other side because I felt this conflict was coming. And it’s only getting worse.”