WINCHESTER — Standing a few feet apart, brothers Michael and Roger Smith of Stephens City gripped semi-automatic pistols and slowly raised them at their target.
The guns weren't loaded, and the target was a wall at the Frederick County Public Safety Building. The brothers were learning proper shooting technique as part of a gun safety class held by the county Sheriff's Office on Feb. 20. The brothers, who needed to complete the class to obtain their concealed carry pistol permits, are among a skyrocketing number of Americans who applied for permits or purchased guns last year.
In a nation of 330 million people, the U.S. leads the world in gun ownership, with civilians owning 393 million in 2018, according to the Small Arms Survey, a global study by the Graduate Institute of International and Developmental Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. But after cooling in the last few years, America's romance with guns heated up in 2020 amid fear about coronavirus pandemic-related shortages, crime and nationwide uprisings about race and unjustified police violence. Last year, a record-setting 21 million background checks were conducted by the FBI for gun sales, up 60% from 2019, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry lobbying group.
Gun sales often spike over fear of confiscation or new gun laws after mass shootings such as the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut in 2012. Or when Democratic presidents, who tend to favor stricter gun laws than Republicans, are elected. But sales spiked last year despite the gun-friendly Trump administration being in power.
Analyzing FBI background check statistics, a June study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, found gun sales spiked in March after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. Sales stabilized in April and May, but spiked again in June shortly after protests began over the May 25 death of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Michael Chauvin.
A.J. Williams, general manager of Stonewall Arms in Winchester, said annual gun sales at his store increased roughly 50% last year. He said sales began increasing after the state elections in November of 2019, when Democrats won control of the General Assembly for the first time in a generation.
But sales — which have exacerbated a nationwide shortage in ammunition — ballooned after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in March.
Williams said many customers were first-time gun buyers. The NSSF estimates there were 8.4 million first-time gun buyers in 2020, accounting for about 40% of all sales. About 40% of buyers were women, and Black people bought guns at a rate 58% higher than in 2019.
"It's opened up a whole new sector of firearms retail that just wasn't there before," Williams said. "A lot of people are buying guns that wouldn't ordinarily."
Stonewall Arms, which opened in 2002, sells handguns and long guns, but Williams said the majority of sales are pistols. He said most customers said they were buying guns for personal protection.
Although the local crime rate is low, Williams, a Frederick County deputy from 1999-2012, said some customers were concerned that police responses might be delayed due to staffing shortages because of the virus.
Williams said the biggest new sales were for pistols and shotguns. The latter is ideal for home protection and can be used to hunt. "I had several people tell me, 'I want a gun I can protect my house with and I can kill food with if I need to,'" Williams said.
The spike in gun sales led to ballooning applications for concealed carry pistol permits, which are good for five years. Applications, which include renewal applications, increased 51% statewide in 2020 compared to the annual average for 2015-19, and the percentages were even higher locally. In Winchester, applications increased 83%. In Clarke and Frederick counties, the increases were 62% and 73%, respectively.
The Smith brothers applied for permits in December. Neither has purchased a gun yet, but said when they do, it will be to protect their families.
"I've got three daughters," said Roger Smith, 30. "I would rather have a way to protect my family versus not being able to. Especially in this day and age."
Michael Smith, 25, said he wants to protect his young son and learn how to keep a gun safely stored in a home with children.
"I want him to know how to react in a situation in case there is a gun involved," he said. "You never know in this day and age. The more informed I am, the better I can inform him."
Danielle Smith, Michael Smith's wife, and Whitney Smith, Roger Smith's wife, also attended the class and have applied for permits.
While property and violent crime have hit historic lows in the last generation, fatal shootings in some large cities were up last year, raising fears of crime. Danielle Smith acknowledged crime is low in Frederick County, but said the shootings in large cities unnerved her.
"With what's going on in the world, I want to make sure that I'm safe and can protect the people that are around me," she said. "Times have changed so much and if I get [a gun] I will feel a lot safer. Especially because I have a little [child]."
'Treat all weapons as if they're loaded'
Like Danielle Smith, most people buy guns for safety, but they can be dangerous in the wrong hands. In 2019, the latest year statistics were available, there were nearly 40,000 gun deaths in the U.S., including about 1,000 in Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 30,000 were suicides, and there are 450-500 accidental fatal shootings annually, according to an analysis of CDC statistics by the Pew Research Center.
Many accidental shootings involve children, but they can also involve experienced gun owners. Like the Winchester gun store owner in 2019 who accidentally fired a round through a wall of his store while cleaning a pistol he thought was unloaded. No one was hurt, but the bullet struck a gas line of a car dealership next door.
Williams said he talked some customers out of buying guns for the first time until they underwent training, which Stonewall Arms offers. He said shooting is a "perishable skill" and practice and training are essential for safety.
Sheriff's Office Capt. Aleck Beeman, who instructed the class on Feb. 20, knows all it takes is a moment of carelessness for an accidental shooting to occur.
Beeman, an officer since 1979 and a Sheriff's Office employee since 2000, told the 14 people in the class that every gun should be handled as if it was loaded, and fingers should never be placed on triggers except to fire a weapon.
He noted a few police cadets — none from the Sheriff's Office — have wounded themselves holstering weapons at the Skyline Regional Justice Academy in Middletown. And he said guns should be stored with trigger locks or in gun safes in homes where children live or visit.
"There's nothing worse than a child being killed with your weapon," he said. "Treat all weapons as if they're loaded."
Beeman also addressed misconceptions about shooting. Unlike in some TV shows and movies, people who get shot don't always fall down and can fire back when wounded. So Beeman discussed the need to be a moving target after firing and to seek concealment and preferably cover if forced to shoot. Cover, meaning a place bullets can't fully penetrate like a concrete wall, is preferable to concealment, which doesn't offer protection from being shot.
A shooter must always be able to clearly identify their target before opening fire, and Beeman stressed that the decision to shoot should be a last resort. He cited the Hines v. Commonwealth state Supreme Court ruling in 2016 about when a shooting is legal.
The decision overturned a voluntary manslaughter conviction against a defendant who fatally shot an armed man in his home in 2011. The court found that a claim of deadly force in self-defense is legitimate if the defendant "reasonably feared death or bodily injury at the hands of his victim" and the defendant can show he or she was in "imminent danger of harm."
Beeman noted that the definition of "imminent danger" or a reasonable fear of death is subjective and concealed carry permit holders must consider that they can be prosecuted criminally or sued civilly if they open fire.
"The decision to use deadly force is the most important decision you make as a person. Once that trigger is pulled, it's irreversible," he said. "If it happens, you're the one who has to figure out, did I do the right thing and can I live with it?"