Americans Are Really Out Here Stockpiling Guns and Ammo
A dispatch from a small gun shop where coronavirus fears have people hoarding weapons
I drove to the gun shop on the fifth official day of the pandemic to see if I might find the true face of American paranoia. I’ve seen it on TV, and I’ve seen it on Twitter, but I wondered if it was right outside, within reaching distance, in places other than supermarkets.
Of course, by now, we’ve all seen our population gripped with the fear of not having enough toilet paper in the event of a mass quarantine, but what about the fear of self-defense in the event of a societal collapse? Are people preparing for some sinister strain of violence to snake through the communities should everyone be locked in their houses guarding their piles of Hot Pockets, Charmin, and Purell?
The area 50 miles north of Manhattan isn’t exactly considered “gun country,” but I’d driven past this particular gun shop many times. It’s in a quiet setting, across from a church and Goodwill drop-off station. In a classic patriotic homage, a variety of American flags hang on either side of the shop’s heavy door. As I walk inside, I see a few men inspect pistols over showcases. A commercial for RuPaul’s Drag Race plays at full volume on the flat-screen TV above the register, opposite a stuffed moose head the size of Rhode Island.
The owner is a large Italian man with a Bronx accent and a Beretta in a holster hanging over his shoulders. He’s built like an armadillo and he’d probably look seriously mean if it weren’t for his small oval wire-frame glasses. They soften his mug so much I can almost see him playing peekaboo at home with his infant grandkid — if he has one.
Let’s call the owner Sal. I’ve never met him before, but he seems a little dazed on this day. He’s having two conversations at once: one in-person, one on the phone. He balances the phone on his ear with his shoulder while he leads a disheveled-looking man around the shop looking to buy his first rifle.
The nervous man’s face twists as he looks at the few rifles left on the wall. He sports the kind of goatee you’d expect to see at a conference for funeral directors in a Holiday Inn. It’s a neat and grim shadow on his long face.
“Right now, I’m out of everything,” Sal says into the phone. “I’ve got very little. I’m all out of 12 gauge. I have Turkey Loads and that’s about it.” He looks around the shop as if he could send images telekinetically to prove just how low he is in supplies.
It looks like the place was ransacked minutes before I showed up. Shelves picked clean. Hooks on the walls that once held rifles and shotguns are empty. This doesn’t seem normal for Sal’s small shop.
I’m curious what he thinks about the pandemic and paranoia. I’ve been asking everyone I can: telemarketers, students, friends, and cashiers. As dazed as Sal might appear, he still seems rather centered. He’s probably making good money. But how many people has he had to be in contact with in the last few days? How many dollar bills and credit cards has he handled? How many guns have passed through the hands of the infected and back onto his wall?
As I wait my turn to speak to Sal, I see the foot traffic outside the bodega next door. People run in and out with rolls of paper towels cradled in their chests like footballs.
I’ve felt like I should be wearing a hazmat suit. Is that overreacting?
The nervous man finally picks a rifle and pays in cash. Sal licks his finger when he pulls the man’s change from the register. It’s a habit he’s trying to break, he says. He immediately pumps some Purell into his hands. My hands happen to be raw from over-sanitizing.
“Safe to say it’s crazier than usual?” I ask Sal.
“Oh, yea,” he says. “See the top of that shelf? That was full this morning. 12-gauge slugs are all gone.” He points to the vacant hooks on the walls. Those were all full too, he says.
“Did you expect this?” I ask, thinking he’d weathered other waves of paranoia during H1N1 or post-hurricane blackouts and shortages. But he says no. Right as I’m about to ask him about the paranoid strain in people, another customer comes in looking for ammo.
One thing that might’ve sparked a little fear were rumors that municipalities considered implementing bans on gun sales during the Covid-19 crisis. Gun sales tend to jump in times of crisis. People fear they might have to defend their home and family if the country were to be totally locked down. They fear a collapse in law and order. Others say they are stocking up on hunting supplies should there happen to be a food shortage.
To be fair, the people out here panic-buying guns seem to pale in comparison in terms of ignorance and degeneracy when you hear about large crowds gathered on Bourbon Street in New Orleans despite pleas to self-isolate or the party in Thailand where more than a dozen people were infected after they shared whiskey and cigarettes.
Sal’s phones are going wild. He closes in 45 minutes. He’ll be closed for two days. He’s unsure if he’ll even be able to open by Wednesday.
Every minute I don’t check the news on my phone, I feel like I’m missing some important updates.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who runs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has hinted that Americans should get ready to “hunker down” for at least 14 days. Italy tallied 368 deaths in the last 24 hours. Resorts are shutting down nationwide which makes sense because they’re like cruise ships that go nowhere — another American pastime that’s nothing more than a petri dish. One by one, countries have been imposing strict lockdowns. The city of Hoboken has implemented a curfew. Manhattan closed all bars, restaurants, and theaters. Jet Blue, J.Crew, Geico, and Credit Karma even felt the need to email me updates about Covid-19.
“It’s not so much the virus that scares me so much as what people are capable of in hysteria.”
Anytime I’ve left the house these last few days, I’ve felt like I should be wearing a hazmat suit. Is that overreacting? It’s reasonable to believe that by observing people in a pandemic, I’m merely projecting my own fears onto the rest of the world. Fear is part of survival. But I’m beginning to think I didn’t have to leave the house to find the face of paranoia. I could just look in the mirror. Fear spreads as fast as the virus.
“Is everyone just being ridiculous, or is this prudence?” I ask Sal. I almost cough. Thinking about not coughing makes me want to cough.
“No,” he says. “Everyone’s ridiculous — but they also say, ‘if it looks like you’re overreacting, you’re probably doing the right thing.’” He points with his thumb to the TV.
“It’s a balancing act,” I say, worried that my equilibrium might already be off.
“The worst part is my distributor,” he says. “I put a $4,000 ammo order in last week, and they cut it to $1,200. They’re holding back supplies. I don’t know what I’ll have next week.”
Sal realizes the nervous man left without taking his ammo. If that man didn’t know anything about rifles, he probably doesn’t know how to load and fire one either. I imagine him realizing he’s got a gun with no ammo while he watches YouTube tutorials at home — or, should things get real bad out there, when he tries to defend his stockpile.
“It’s not so much the virus that scares me,” Sal says, “as much as what people are capable of in hysteria. America could look very different… very quickly.”