This story was published in partnership with The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering guns in America.
As the number of confirmed 2019 novel coronavirus cases continues to multiply, many Americans are emptying store shelves of hand sanitizer, bleach, and canned goods. But there’s an acute fear among Asian Americans that the virus’ origins in China will spark a violent xenophobic backlash. Along the West Coast, where the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus in the U.S. have occurred, those fears seem to be spurring a surge in gun sales.
“People are panicking because they don’t feel secure,” said David Liu, who is Chinese American and owns Arcadia Firearm and Safety, which is just east of Los Angeles. “They worry about a riot or maybe that people will start to target the Chinese.”
Liu said his store had seen a fivefold increase in sales over the past two weeks. He’s sold out of Glock handguns, and some customers have requested to buy his entire inventory of ammunition branded for home defense. “They think it’s Costco,” he said.
According to Liu, the surge customers are overwhelmingly of Chinese descent. They worry, he explained, that in the event of mass panic, they might face violence because of their ethnicity and be easy victims because of their historically low rates of gun ownership. Surveys of gun ownership don’t usually track Asian Americans separately, but instead include them in an “other” category that is typically very small.
As The Los Angeles Times has reported, since the first novel coronavirus outbreaks in the United States, Asian Americans have experienced intensifying venom, including bullying, racist comments, and harassment. On February 24, a man of East Asian descent was assaulted in central London. One of the assailants reportedly said, “I don't want your coronavirus in my country.”
“The main thing I’m hearing is that they don’t wanna get jumped because of their race,” said Cole Gaughran, the internet sales manager at Wade’s Eastside Guns in Bellevue, Washington. Gaughran said his store has seen a sixfold increase in sales in the same two weeks. His new customers, most of them first-time gun owners, were almost entirely of Asian descent, he said. Bellevue is just a 15 minute drive from Kirkland, where at least 11 people have died from the virus.
There’s no way to get an accurate accounting for how many people buy guns on a weekly basis, or in real time. However, in Washington, local police departments do process background checks for most first-time gun buyers. In Bellevue, police say they’ve registered the spike in demand. Meeghan Black, the police department’s public information officer, said that since August of last year, the department has processed a steady average of around 158 checks per month. But in the first four days of March, they handled more than a hundred.
“The officer who processes these checks said he’s been processing the last ten years, and has never seen anything like this in his life,” she added.
A stack of firearm transfers slated for processing from this past weekend’s sales. Black said the department normally sees about six of these every weekend.
In nearby Lynnwood, Washington, the local police department saw no such increase in firearm sales. But at least one local gun shop did.
Tiffany Teasdale, the co-owner of Lynnwood Gun & Ammunition, said she, too, has seen a sixfold increase in sales over the past two weeks, predominantly from Chinese-American customers. “We’ve had a line of customers before opening Thursday through Sunday, and customers in the store until 10 to 15 minutes after closing.” she said. “We used to sell from 10 to 15 firearms in a weekend. [We sold] 60 firearms just [last] Saturday.”
Teasdale said that nearby stores had seen increases as well, and her distributors had run out of 9mm ammunition. “It’s been happening for the last four or five days,” Teasdale said.” A lot of our distributors nationally are saying that all of their warehouses are empty. None of them know why.”
So far, police departments and civil rights groups in cities experiencing increased gun sales had received no reports of violent attacks against Asians. The Bellevue Police Department said they hadn’t received a single complaint since the first U.S. case of coronavirus made headlines.
Robin Engle, a spokesperson for OneAmerica—a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on immigrant rights—said that while the organization was aware of people avoiding Asian restaurants, it had not heard about any hate crimes in the Seattle area.
When told about the reports from gun-store owners, she said, “It is alarming that people are afraid that that can happen to the point that they’re going out and buying guns.”