Business & Economy

Vermont gun background checks hit record high in March 

Rifles on display at Parro’s Gun Shop in Waterbury. Photo by Jim Welch/VTDigger

Gun sales in Vermont appear to have reached a record high in March, when cases of COVID-19 began to mount, according to federal background check data.

Firearms dealers in the state had been reporting higher sales than normal when the coronavirus pandemic began to set in.

But data from the FBI shows that the federal government has conducted more background checks in Vermont last month than in any month previously recorded: 7,023.

The last time background checks approached this level was in March 2018, as the Vermont Legislature debated a series of gun control measures that Gov. Phil Scott ultimately signed into law.

That month, the FBI conducted just under 6,200 checks for Vermont gun purchases.

Between August and February, the number of background checks hovered around 3,000 per month.

“People are, for lack of a better word, scared,”  said Trish Jones, who owns Green Mountain Sporting Goods, a gun store in Irasburg.

Last month, her business saw so much demand that it had to start limiting the amount of ammunition it could sell to individual customers. And she said the pandemic has brought many first-time gun owners to her store.

“We’ve seen a lot of people realize that the Second Amendment isn’t just for the hunting rights,” Jones said. “They’re concerned about protecting their families.”

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On Friday, the Scott administration clarified that gun stores can stay open in Vermont during the COVID-19 crisis as long as they “limit in-person transactions.” 

The Agency of Commerce and Community Development recommends they conduct sales curbside or by appointment only, according to the office’s latest guidance

The Trump administration said earlier this week that gun shops should be considered “essential” businesses during the COVID-19 crisis. Until Friday, the state has not specifically weighed in on the status of gun stores after it ordered businesses deemed non-essential to shut down in-person operations.

Jones had already started offering curbside sales before the government issued its guidance this week. She said she is still seeing an uptick in business. 

The FBI’s latest numbers show there has been a surge in gun sales across the country. 

The federal government conducted 3.7 million background checks in March, a 33% increase over February. That’s the most it has logged in a single month since it put its background check database online in 1998, according to Newsweek.

Bill Moore, a lobbyist for the Vermont Traditions Coalition, a gun-rights group, said the same impulse people had to stock up on toilet paper, food and other basic items during the pandemic is what drove them to purchase firearms last month.

“I’m assuming it’s people wanting to feel safe in their homes and secure in defending their families,” Moore said.

“I consider having Band-Aids and aspirin in the cupboard a way to protect your family. I don’t differentiate.” 

Andrea Jones scans DVDs at Nancy’s Video in Irasburg, which shares space with Green Mountain Sporting Goods gun shop. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The increase in sales has caused some gun control activists to call for firearms restrictions. On Friday, the gun control group Moms Demand Action called on Scott to take steps to close what is known as “Charleston Loophole.”

That loophole allows those seeking to buy firearms to receive some weapons before the FBI is able to complete a background check. 

The loophole was what let the shooter in the deadly church shooting in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, obtain a weapon.

Under current law, if a check isn’t completed in three days, a firearm can still be sold.

Last week, Rhode Island’s governor signed an executive order giving law enforcement 30 days to complete the background check before a purchase can be made. 

“Our law enforcement agencies, hospitals, and first responders are stretched thin as it is, and they shouldn’t have to worry about more guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” Seton McIlroy, a volunteer with the group, said in a statement.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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