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?"

— Contact Evan Goodenow at egoodenow@winchesterstar.com

(30) comments

Cleo

Gun Safety Classes should be mandatory when purchasing a gun. Appreciate Frederick County Sheriff's dept for giving these classes.

Bose-Einstein

Gun sales "shoot " up. Interesting turn of phrase. Guns and toilet paper are the new hoarding. One creates a problem and the other cleans it up.

Core

Ok, I can get behind this. I understand the need for people to defend themselves and all. Forgive me though if it makes me nervous that we are likely to see an inordinate number of noob gun owners who think just having a gun will make them safe. It takes much time to be trained effectively to use a gun consistently for self defense. Just going out and buying a gun and taking a few classes does not make you safe and does not help in your defense.

If you fire a gun and your round kills my innocent bystander family member, I will see to it that you don't have enough money left to buy ammunition. You will be spending that money on lawyers.

Doc Samson

"Just going out and buying a gun and taking a few classes does not make you safe and does not help in your defense."

Making general, sweeping incorrect statements doesn't make you right, either. I agree that if you take the responsibility seriously, you should train regularly. I also agree that if you are in a situation where you feel it is necessary to defend yourself or your loved ones, you should know what is at risk. That being said, it is still a free country, the 2nd Amendment means something (for now), and more guns equals LESS crime. It's scientifically proven, don'tchaknow!

shinyhappypeople

https://www.dawn.com/news/1044154

“and more guns equals LESS crime. It's scientifically proven, don'tchaknow!”

Actually you couldnt be more INCORRECT if you tried. The US, with the highest gun ownership is least safe, and Japan with the lowest gun ownership is the most safe. Once again your information is far from accurate.

Doc Samson

Actually...

https://www.richardcyoung.com/essential-news/fbi-stats-show-more-guns-equal-less-crime/

So, yeah, I'll take FBI stats over "dawn" news. Maybe you need to check out Teen Vogue or Wiki for more credible sources?

shinyhappypeople

Except you didnt cite the FBI, you linked an article from a right wing hack site called richardcyoung.com. I stand by the ACCURATE facts from my source, that the countries with the most guns experience the most problems (crime, accidental shootings and deaths). But please give my regards to Richard when you see him.

Doc Samson

Ah, classic tactic! Ignore the actual data because... right wingerzzz!!! [rolleyes]

But, I'm generous so I'll do the hard work of pulling up the actual stats because I know it can be oh so confusing...

https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/preliminary-semiannual-uniform-crime-report-january-june-2014

https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/preliminary-semiannual-uniform-crime-report-january-june-2014

https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2019/crime-in-the-u.s.-2019/tables/expanded-homicide-data-table-8.xls

You are welcome.

shinyhappypeople

I dont know exactly what you THINK or FEEL these links represent, but you’ve linked to an article showing preliminary data from 2013 into 2014 about crime stats from state to state, and the other is a 2015-2019 list of murders broken down by weapon used. What you claimed, the misinformation that more guns equals less crime and murder, is wrong, is a lie, and is not backed up by your links at all. But nice try.

Doc Samson

Yeah, okay. I'm taking a guess that you're all in on the new math where 2+2 doesn't necessarily equal 4, aren't ya?

coachmilburn

Everyone should have the right to protect their home and family. One can never be to overly concerned about their own safety. Its your right to protect yourself and your family!

Old Western Man

Evidently, exercising one’s God given civil rights are controversial for some.

john brown

Lot of fear in frederick county.

john brown

Wild Wild West.....lol

Journey2goremtns1

"Where" Spelling.

Journey2goremtns1

That's right, MOVE! Go to a country like Venezuela or China were socialist and communist live in a gun free zone. I'll buy your ticket if you stay. But remember they don't condone certain behavior.....

Avenger21

Oh, look at you! How precious!

Blondie

I will gladly buy him a one way ticket just to get rid of his stupid comments.

Mr Incredible

Well, when you live in a state where the democrat governor is letting people out of prison for covid when masks supposedly work, when you have a democrat governor that heads a parole board that paroles violent criminals, when you have a state legislature run by democrats (and a democrat city counsel) that never misses a chance to propose gun restrictions, when you watch violent democrat anarchist burn and loot on TV all summer, all while democrat cities scream "Defund the police" and when you have a pack of gun grabbing democrats in congress and the White House that want to make criminals out of 100 million AR owners, it doesn't take too many smarts to figure out why people are buying guns. Democrats are the best gun salesmen on the planet.

ralcabin

👍👍👍👍

Blondie

You got that right.

anon

I grew up with guns. My Dad was an instructor. Only hold guns inside for cleaning and NEVER aim guns inside. This goes against my nature. To this day I cannot aim a gun inside unless I am at a range. This just seems wrong to hold these classes in a public safety building while aiming guns

slowe

I would prefer t live in a gun-free country. More guns create more danger.

Blondie

Then move.

Mr Incredible

Russia is nice this time of year.

DFunk73

I find it funny when someone void of experience or education make outlandish statements.

Avenger21

You certainly have a lot to account for then, huh? Make any crank calls lately?

Doc Samson

@Avenger21 - Leftist approved anonymity, I see! Lol!

Doc Samson

"More guns create more danger"

Wait... I thought you belonged to the party of TEH SCIENCEZZZ??? You know, where facts matter, regardless of your feelings? Just asking because there are numerous "scientific", peer reviewed studies showing that you are exactly wrong...

Of course, as Mr. Incredible notes, your party is also ridiculously hyperbolic, destructive, and hypocritical so... carry on! [lol]

Joe Crane

Said every criminal in the US. That's exactly what they want. Ignorance is bliss.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.