Detroit-area gun dealers see sales surge amid virus fears

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Madison Heights — Amid COVID-19 virus fears, guns and ammunition are selling like toilet paper.

Firearm and ammo sales typically spike during emergencies and after mass shootings, when calls for stricter gun laws ramp up, but Metro Detroit gun store owners say the current demand is unprecedented.

Driving the frenzy are concerns that criminals will take advantage of relaxed police enforcement of low-level misdemeanors, that people will become violent if forcibly quarantined, and that gun sales will be banned, vendors and customers say.

Customers stand in line as they wait to get a federal background check, buy a firearm, ammo or equipment at Double Action Indoor Shooting Center and Gun Shop in Madison Heights.

William Kucyk, owner of Action Impact Firearm Range and Training Center in Southfield and Eastpointe, said he's scrambling to keep up with the rush of new customers.

"It's been insane," he said. "People are panicking, buying guns and ammo as fast as we can put it on the shelves. Customers have been lined up at the door before we open for the past five days. We're doing 10 times more business than normal.

"My customers tell me they're afraid people are going to become violent once they're quarantined. I don't know where they're getting that from, but they're telling me that's what they're afraid of."

According to one firearm dealer and a local Chinese American advocacy group, many Asians are buying guns because they fear they could be blamed for the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China. President Donald Trump this week referred to COVID-19 as the "Chinese Virus."

Al Allen, owner of Double Action Indoor Shooting Center and Gun Shop in Madison Heights, said he's forced to shut down his store for two hours each afternoon to restock — "and the merchandise is going out as fast as we can bring it in," he said.

Allen said more Asians are buying guns from his shop than at any time in the 30 years he's been in business.

"I'd say right now, Asians are about 35% of our customer base, and it's usually maybe around 8%," Allen said.

Employee Nick Warner of Double Action Indoor Shooting Center and Gun Shop, explains the functionality of a 9mm handgun.

Shenlin Chen, president of the Association of Chinese Americans in Detroit, said there's heightened concern among her Asian American acquaintances, which is leading to curiosity about firearms.

"People are starting to feel nervous," she said. "They're uncertain how bad this will become, and how bad people will treat us. So we're hearing people asking questions: How do you buy a gun? The discussion is increasing."

Some, including Detroit police Chief James Craig, say the media has a hand in "stoking fears."

"I will always support law-abiding people who want to protect themselves and their families, and I realize people are afraid right now," Craig said. "But I think the news media are stoking a lot of those fears.

"I'm not saying this virus shouldn't be taken seriously, but some of these news reports make it seem like we're facing Armageddon."

Double Action Indoor Shooting Center and Gun Shop owner Al Allen, center-right, runs a federal background check at the computer at his store in Madison Heights.

James Harvey of Detroit said he fears people might become violent if the virus spreads. Harvey, 46, said he bought 100 rounds of 9 mm ammunition at Kucyk's Eastpointe store Tuesday.

"Whenever a crisis happens like this, crime goes up — especially after police have come out and said they're relaxing their posture on misdemeanor crimes," said Harvey, a stand-up comedian whose stage name is "Detroit Red."

"If low-level criminals think they can get away with crimes, I might have to protect my own, so I'm going to be prepared."

Randy Mullins, an employee at Top Gun Shooting Sports in Taylor, said demand has been "through the ceiling."

"It's common sense," he said. "Once people are done buying toilet paper, the next thing is guns and ammo. They're buying absolutely everything. I've been doing this a long time, and I've never seen anything like it."

Firearm dealers say the current flurry of sales far outpaces the sales increase seen after the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that left 26 people dead, including 20 children.

Following the shooting, as some elected officials, celebrities and others called for stricter gun laws, firearm purchases soared.

"I was in the business during Sandy Hook; it got busy, but it was nothing like this," Mullins said.

Data on the size of the recent sales spike is not immediately available, although according to the FBI, background checks for firearm purchases have already increased significantly over last year.

About 5.5 million background checks were conducted in January and February combined, according to FBI data, up 31% from the same period last year.

During the recent buying furor, Kucyk said AR-15 rifles are among the most popular items in his stores.

"All my ARs are gone," he said. "I could get a shipment in and they'd all be gone again within a few hours."

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, mayors in Champaign, Illinois, New Orleans, and Fresno, California, issued emergency executive orders giving them the authority to ban sales of firearms and ammo — which Detroit gun advocate Rick Ector said is an abuse of power.

"There are anti-gun politicians across the country who are willing to use this national emergency to push their agenda," said Ector, owner of Legally Armed in Detroit, which provides firearms training and education.

"If ever there was a time to own a gun, it's now — especially with police departments being compromised," Ector said. "People have to be their own first responders."

Several police departments, including in Detroit and Lansing, have announced they'll scale back their response to certain nonviolent crimes in an attempt to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Craig insisted safety won't be compromised by the new measures but agreed "responsible citizens" should arm themselves if they feel inclined.

"We can't be on every block," he said. "People wanting to protect themselves is right out of the 2nd Amendment playbook."

The reduced police response to misdemeanors is helping to fuel the gun-buying frenzy, said Justin Kazaroff, owner of the Fenix Ammunition Co. in Novi.

Kazaroff said he normally sells about $4,000 in merchandise per day. "Over the last week, we've been doing $50,000 a day," he said.

"You can have all the toilet paper and cans of food you can fit in your house, but when you have police in Lansing saying they won't respond to property crimes in person, even the most anti-gun person in the world is going to look around and say, 'I've got my wife and kids to protect,'" Kazaroff said.

"People are really nervous."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN