BRIDGETON — David Forbis pulled a blue medical mask over his mouth and inched along in a long line of customers at Metro Shooting Supplies.
Forbis, 32, a garage-door installer on his day off, wanted a gun.
“My wife, she has a 9 mm,” Forbis said Saturday. “She believes in having a gun. I didn’t. I’m perfectly fine with what I have at home, I’ve got a little machete.”
Until the coronavirus, that is. Forbis said concerns of the unknown brought him to Metro Shooting in Bridgeton.
“I’ve got to protect my family,” he said.
Toilet paper and hand sanitizer aren’t the only items flying off shelves because of fears over the COVID-19 outbreak. Add ammo and guns to that list.
Forbis’ level of concern was heard repeatedly at other gun shops in interviews by the Post-Dispatch in recent days.
“In times like these, people get desperate,” said Victor Arredondo of St. Louis as he shopped for an AR-15 rifle at Denny Dennis Sporting Goods in Fenton.
Industry experts say the coronavirus has had an impact on ammo sales, especially since mid-February.
On March 10, the day the U.S. reached 1,000 cases of coronavirus, the gun industry saw an unprecedented 276% sales surge in ammunition nationwide, according to a data study published by Ammo.com. Federal background checks when a firearm is sold at retail showed that such checks were up 300% on March 16, compared with the same date last year, according to Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
The line of customers outside Mid America Arms in the Affton area proves the point locally.
“Just in the last 10 days, it ramped up unbelievably,” Mark Campbell, an owner of Mid America Arms, said Friday. “We have done three weeks’ worth of business this week already.”
Why the surge?
“Just panic,” Campbell said. “People are panic-buying.”
Campbell said he has seen this mood before, during the Ferguson protests and after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012.
At Mid America Arms, near the St. Louis city limits, a delivery truck showed up with 300 boxes of 9 mm ammunition minutes after opening on Friday morning. Campbell’s colleague, store co-owner Al Rothweiler, stacked the boxes onto a dolly and hurried it inside, assuring the crowd gathered outside that the ammo would be ready for sale soon.
“Those 300 boxes,” Campbell said, “they’ll be gone by the end of the day.”
The crowd of a dozen or so people was in front because the county had limited public gatherings to 10 people, and Campbell was only letting six people into the store at a time. A store employee wearing orange rubber gloves unlocked the door each time a customer left to let another one in, then re-locked the door. Mid America also limited customers to just two boxes of ammo per caliber.
Starting Monday, residents of St. Louis city and county are under stay-at-home orders. Some businesses are allowed to stay open, but the list of businesses (including gas stations and laundromats) does not include gun or ammo shops. Campbell said he wasn’t sure how it applied to his business. Campbell said he was meeting with a police lieutenant Monday to see how to proceed.
Either way, ammunition can still be sold online.
Ammunition sales made online to Missouri customers show a 182% increase (when comparing sales from Feb. 23 through March 15, with sales from Feb. 1 through Feb. 22), said Alex Horsman with Ammo.com. Missouri's increase ranked 18th nationally. Sales to Illinois customers on that ammunitions website were up 350% in that same period, ranking Illinois seventh in the country, Horsman said.
‘Armageddon, fear of the unknown’
A half-dozen gun and ammo stores visited by the Post-Dispatch on Friday and Saturday had differing policies on how to interact with the public.
While larger stores like Denny Dennis didn’t limit the number of customers inside, Graf’s Reloading at 923 South Fifth Street in St. Charles did. Graf’s said it was following CDC recommendations about social distancing and exposure to the public when it decided to close its showroom and take phone orders for supplies, starting last Friday. Customers were told to order over the phone and pick up the merchandise in the back of the store. On Saturday morning, three cars were idling on a lot behind Graf’s, driven by men waiting for their purchases.
Forbis at Metro Shooting Supplies, at 11434 St. Charles Rock Road in Bridgeton, waited in a line of 19 people before the store opened Saturday. He was one of two of the customers with medical masks. They waited close to one another, then once the doors opened, they inched along in close quarters, too. Forbis said he is nervous he’ll get the virus but also nervous about not being armed in crazy times. Forbis has a wife and four children, ages 1 to 12.
“I’ve seen that the police aren’t going to respond,” Forbis said. “I’ve read reports that they’re not going to come. If it’s not happening to you right then and there, then they’re not going to come.”
A gun store owner quipped that police might not arrive in time: “There isn’t a police officer around that’s faster than a speeding bullet.”
In Fenton, a man from Arnold who declined to give his name was buying rifle ammunition. He mentioned that his brother lives in California and people already were breaking into homes. He said he was stocking up on food and wanted to make sure he could defend his home and supplies. Others talked about a push in other areas to release inmates early.
“I’ve heard people say, Armageddon. Fear of the unknown,” said Kevin Tod, a manager and buyer for Denny Dennis Sporting Goods, at 1 Gravois Road. “I haven’t seen this level of hysteria in quite awhile.”
Fifty boxes of 9 mm ammunition, the top seller, were gone in 45 minutes, Tod said. “Guns are definitely flying off the shelves, but the ammunition is crazy,” he added.
As the virus spreads across the U.S., some law enforcement agencies have sought to limit officers’ exposure as much as possible. To do that, some agencies are limiting their responses to certain lower-level crimes. Some are closing their front lobbies and taking crime reports over the phone, rather than sending an officer.
The St. Louis Police Department announced March 18 that the department will take certain lower-level crime reports over the phone to limit the times an officer responds in person. Those low-level cases include larcenies, destruction of property, missing persons, thefts or car break-ins “if they’re not in progress and if there are no suspects to pursue,” police said.
Elsewhere in the St. Louis area, Ballwin police cited coronavirus concerns when it announced last week they are suspending fingerprinting services for now. They are also asking people who want to contact an officer to call before showing up in the police department lobby.
Last Wednesday, St. Louis County police announced they aren’t responding in person to less urgent calls, such as minor thefts, destruction of property and minor noninjury vehicle crashes. “Officers are taking reports over the phone for those types of incidents,” Officer Tracy Panus said. “Of course, we are responding to all calls in progress and any call where lives are in danger.”
Sgt. Benjamin Granda of the St. Louis County Police Department on Sunday said that the department “is adapting daily so that it is able to provide uninterrupted, superior service to our citizens while facing this evolving challenge.”
Asked about some gun owners’ fears that police might not respond to calls for help, Granda said: “The St. Louis County Police Department will be there. Period. We must not let a sense of uncertainty lead to hopelessness or lawlessness.”
Laurie Skrivan of the Post-Dispatch staff contributed to this report.
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