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COVID-19: Spike in background checks for gun purchases since pandemic's onset

FDLE: More than 1.5 million background checks in 2020
FDLE logo superimposed over guns
Posted at 8:14 AM, Mar 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-12 08:14:38-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — One year ago, the coronavirus pandemic onset spurred a surge in consumers clearing the shelves of all sorts of goods, from toilet paper to hand sanitizer to nonperishable foods.

It also caused a spike in background checks for gun purchases, according to records reviewed by Contact 5.

Eight of the 10 highest months for background checks performed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement occurred in the past year since the pandemic resulted in shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders in March 2020.

FDLE Background Checks 2004-2021
Background checks for firearms performed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (data courtesy of FDLE).

FDLE data shows 2020 was the highest year ever recorded for background checks for gun purchases, with more than 1.5 million background checks performed by the state agency. Since 2004, no year has exceeded 1 million background checks, according to FDLE data.

"People want to do whatever they can in their own power to protect themselves and their loved ones," Alexa Blackman said in an interview with Contact 5.

Blackman is one of the hundreds of thousands of Floridians who had a background check performed last year to purchase a firearm.

Alexa Blackman holds up target in front of Dave Bohman
Alexa Blackman speaks with Contact 5 investigator Dave Bohman, holding up a paper target from her last visit to the shooting range.

"As a woman, when you are walking around alone, unfortunately, you are vulnerable," Blackman explained.

Local gun dealers saw the surge in purchases first-hand.

"We never, ever, ever had anything anywhere remotely like it," Alex Shkop, who owns the Guns and Range Training Center in West Palm Beach, told Contact 5.

Shkop has seen waves of gun buyers after a natural disaster like hurricanes and after politicians call for gun reform.

But Shkop notes nothing compares to the pandemic surge, where dozens of customers would be standing in line in the morning ahead of his store opening.

"We were stressed out," Shkop said. "[We were] out of our minds, and we were, as a group, on the verge of (a) nervous breakdown."

Dave Bohman speaks with gun shop owner Alex Shkop
Contact 5 investigator Dave Bohman speaks with Alex Shkop of the Guns and Range Training Center in West Palm Beach.

Monthly background checks performed by the FDLE hit an all-time high in June 2020 after waves of protests and counter-demonstrations broke out nationwide. That month, the agency conducted 183,791 background checks on potential gun buyers.

Shkop said "90% of that wave" of gun buyers last year would never have thought of purchasing a firearm if it wasn't for the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The last spike [in 2020] was driven strictly by the virus," Shkop told Contact 5.

Shkop said demand is now tapering off, but a shortage in guns and ammunition is causing a rise in prices.

"[Things now] are much more orderly and, to be honest, we prefer it that way," Shkop said.

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