"You Can't Shoot a Virus," and Guns Won't Make You Safer

During the COVID-19 global pandemic, people are stocking up on guns and ammo.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

During the Coronavirus diseases (COVID-19) global pandemic, Americans are not only stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but they are also stocking up on guns and ammunition.

Many of these people are first-time gun owners too, such as Daniel Hill, a 29-year-old kitchen manager from Charlotte, NC, who bought a 9-mm handgun and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Hill said he feared that the virus could lead to a breakdown of public order, with looting and robberies and “everything shutting down, like in a zombie movie” where society “just won’t have any sense of lawfulness anymore.”[1] The owner of the store who sold Hill the guns said, “We attribute it mainly to the virus scare.”[1]

Sales at the store have increased 30 to 40 percent since late February, with more than 300 firearms being sold each week. Online websites are also reporting an increase in sales. For example, Ammo.com reported a 68 percent increase in sales in late February compared to early February.[2] 

Gun sellers seem keen to use fear over COVID-19 to sell their products. For example, the online website ArmsList uses sales pitches like "Coronavirus preparedness kit," "Coronavirus panic killer!" and "Coronavirus Zombie Protection."

However, the gun and ammunition rush could lead to a spike in gun-related deaths (e.g., suicides, domestic violence deaths, homicides, accidents). As Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said: “The unintended consequence of these panic-induced purchases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic could be a tragic increase of preventable gun deaths for the loved ones these individuals are trying to protect.”

Law enforcement officials agree. For example, a Los Angeles County Sheriff said, "Buying guns is a bad idea. Particularly, you have a lot of people now that are at home — normally, they're not. Cabin fever sets in, you've got a crowded environment, people at home — weapons are not a good mix."[3]

Why would people buy guns during a global pandemic? It doesn’t seem logical to do so. One of the most reliable findings in psychology is that people are hard to predict using theories based on logic. That’s because people don’t use logic when making decisions and choices.

Instead, they use “psycho-logic.” People tend to make decisions quickly, based on limited information. People often use mental shortcuts, called heuristics, which provide quick estimates (though sometimes inaccurate ones) for decisions about uncertain events.[4] The outbreak of COVID-19 as a global pandemic is definitely an uncertain event. People are especially likely to use heuristics when their cognitive resources are taxed, such as in a state of panic.

Logically, people might assume that guns make them safer, but they do not. For every gun-related death due to self-defense, there are 78 suicides, 34 homicides, and 2 accidental deaths.[5] In other words, less than 1 percent of gun-related deaths are due to self-defense [i.e., 1 / (1 + 78 + 34 + 2) = 0.87 percent]. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many states have ordered non-essential businesses to close down. This has sparked a debate about whether gun stores are "essential" businesses.[6] They are not. John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said that labeling gun retailers as "essential" in the midst of a global pandemic is not in the public's best interest. "Guns will not make Americans safer in the face of COVID-19," Feinblatt said. "Gun stores do not deserve special treatment. In fact, a surge in gun sales will put many communities at greater risk if guns aren't stored securely and if background checks aren't completed."

As two experts concluded, “If you're looking to protect your family, continue to buy food and basic essentials as needed, not guns and ammunition — and then stay home.”[7]

Or, as comedian Stephen Colbert concluded, “No! You can’t shoot a virus! The thought of frightened Americans arming themselves to the teeth scares the crap out of me — and there is no toilet paper left!”[8]

References

[1] Oppel, R. A. Jr. (March 16, 2020). For some buyers with virus fears, the priority isn’t toilet paper. It’s guns. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/16/us/coronavirus-gun-buyers.html

[2] Lee, K., & Chabria, A. (March 16, 2020). As the coronavirus pandemic grows, gun sales are surging in many states. Los Angles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-03-15/coronavirus-pandemic-gun-sales-surge-us-california?utm_source=The+Trace+mailing+list&utm_campaign=cc2c977f48-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_09_24_04_06_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f76c3ff31c-cc2c977f48-112404505

[3] Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (March 16, 2020). LA County Sheriff releases some jail inmates, advises against buying a gun right now. Retrieved from https://laist.com/latest/post/20200316/sheriff-coronavirus-covid-19-safety-precautions

[4] Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: Random House.

[5] Ingraham, C. (2015, June 19). Guns in America: For every criminal killed in self-defense, 34 innocent people die. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/19/guns-in-america-for-every-criminal-killed-in-self-defense-34-innocent-people-die/

[6] Allen, B. (March 27, 2020). Officials debate whether gun stores are 'essential' during coronavirus outbreak. National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/03/27/822873078/officials-debate-whether-gun-stores-are-essential-during-coronavirus-outbreak?fbclid=IwAR3cAsbSfNhCBhgNifFsh4r14fjhrkkS6ah6zjhNIdXiBMFsNXSpgbUI-SQ 

[7] Volsky, I., & Sakran, J. (March 19, 2020). Buying a gun isn't the answer to Coronavirus. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/19/opinions/gun-not-answer-coronavirus-volsky-sakran/index.html

[8] Maas, J. (March 17, 2020). Colbert interrupts coronavirus hiatus to deliver ‘Late Show’ monologue from his bubble bath. Retrieved from https://www.thewrap.com/late-show-colbert-bubble-bath-monologue-coronavirus-hiatus/