When single mom Denise Thurston prepared to drive with her young son from her Austin-area home through Houston in June, just as anti-brutality protests were boiling over, she was glad she had just bought a handgun.
Thurston, 45, worried that something like a highway shutdown would leave them vulnerable to protests, or counter protests, or non-protest opportunists who saw a woman and child stuck in an immobile car as easy targets.
"I'm not a big person," Thurston said. "I need some power behind me somehow, and that was my way of doing it."
A chaotic year
Thurston bought her 9mm Glock pistol and became licensed to carry after the March lockdowns began. Previously a firearms novice, Thurston also now owns an AR-style shotgun she purchased this summer for home protection.
She is among hundreds of thousands of Texans whose pandemic-era gun purchases broke state and national records.
Those at ground zero for this phenomenon—trainers, retailers and students—say a wave of fear ushered in by societal destabilization in March, social unrest in May and police walkouts in June have driven the purchases both by newbies and by more experienced owners.
"It shows how people are not trusting their government, they're not trusting what's going on or the information they're receiving, and so they want to take their personal protection into their own hands," said Michael Cargill, owner of Central Texas Gun Works in Austin.
As a result, Texas gun owners have filled up classes, emptied ammo shelves, and swamped gun stores and manufacturers.
"It did heighten my concerns, and it definitely prompted me to get more aggressive with getting comfortable with my gun and to start carrying, absolutely," said Austin-area resident Dawn Holmes, who got her license to carry last week.
In Texas, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted 121,926 background checks for handguns in June, more than three times the number the same month last year.
The number was even higher in March, right after the pandemic lockdowns began, and the FBI warned that some state shutdowns threatened to reduce the staff available for background checks on new sales and that the surge would create a backlog that could further delay new gun sales from being approved. Checks for Texans seeking to purchase handguns soared from 60,512 in February to 147,714 in March.
That number alone was more than double the checks that took place in December—the highest number of last year—and more than triple the monthly average for 2019.
Nationally, the FBI said they had done some 3.9 million background checks in June, the highest monthly total on record.
"It's based on a variety of reasons, but they're afraid," said instructor Tina Maldonado, who works with the local shooting league A Girl And A Gun, and who has more than doubled the amount of time she spends on the range with students since the lockdowns began. "Most of them are families, or parents whose spouses travel a lot, and they just decided they need to protect themselves."
Cargill said he has seen lines out the door and double the number of students since March 13, what he calls "D-Day," the weekend the first wave of new purchases hit.
Cargill predicts another increase around the election. Supporters of President Donald Trump are worried about their gun rights if Democrat Joe Biden wins, he said, and African Americans he's spoken to are worried about the empowerment of white supremacy and the growth of racism if Trump gets re-elected.
"I ask people questions, when they come in the store, to see where their heads are at," Cargill said. "Everyone should just take a deep breath and settle down a little bit. We need to be a lot nicer to each other. Worry about controlling yourself instead of controlling someone else."
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