Gun sales blazing as pandemic, protests trigger purchases

  • Bill Rodeschin, owner of Rody’s Gun Shop in Newport, works with his son, also named Bill Rodeschin, at the shop last week. Rody’s has struggled to stock firearms and ammo as a spike in purchases has converged with kinks in the supply chain during the pandemic. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Empty spots on the shelves signify out-of-stock ammo at Rody’s Gun Shop last week.

  • Bill Rodeschin, owner of Rody’s Gun Shop, walks home for lunch Wednesday, a stone’s throw from his shop in Newport. Valey News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 11/9/2020 12:31:00 PM

Misha Yakovleff, a nurse at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, had been hearing from veteran patients at the hospital about how difficult it is to purchase firearms and ammo these days because stores everywhere are out of stock.

Out of curiosity, Yakovleff recently stopped by Sporting & Hunting Depot in Charlestown where he lives to check things out for himself. He was surprised by what he saw — or, rather, didn’t see.

“The shelves were fairly empty. I’d never seen anything like it,” said Yakovleff, who hunts during deer season.

Although the store had some handguns for sale, 9 mm handguns — widely favored for self defense — “were cleared out and there were none in the backroom. ... I don’t know who’s buying them or what’s going on,” he said.

Yakovleff was not alone in finding empty shelves. Sporting & Hunting Depot declined to comment, but other shop owners in the Upper Valley say a combination of factors, from growing fears over public unrest to reduced production capacity at gun and ammo manufacturers related to the COVID-19 pandemic, is resulting in a shortage of supplies just as the fall hunting season is underway.

The surge in gun and ammo sales, store owners say, began in March with the pandemic-forced shutdown of nonessential businesses. It accelerated as public protests, some that flared into violence, spread in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

Sales of guns and ammo were also spurred by the influx of new residents into the region — some without prior experience in handling firearms — fleeing urban centers for what they see as healthier rural towns because of the pandemic, according to gun store owners.

“Whether it be handguns, long guns, shotguns, ammo, all the above, there is next to nothing,” Wayne Barrows, owner of Barrows Point Trading Post in Quechee, said recently as he cleaned and oiled a .22 rifle while his wife, Alana, looked on.

Barrows stood next to a glass case that displayed a single 9 mm handgun. “Normally the case would be full,” he noted.

On Tuesday, the store had only 23 rifles for sale. Usually, Barrows said, he keeps 50 to 75 rifles in stock. When he calls suppliers, they tell him they are backlogged, given the delays manufacturers are facing themselves.

Then there has been the growing interest from first-time gun buyers, Barrows said, many of whom he has turned away. He said he can spot the novice gun buyer “in 10 seconds” simply by the uninformed questions they ask.

“I’ve sent two dozen people out the door because they don’t know nothing,” Barrows related. “Two of those people I sent out bought a gun online and then asked if they could pick it up here and I said no again. Some don’t like it, but that’s the way it is. My house, my rules.”

The sharp increase in demand for firearms is reflected in the FBI’s background check system that must be conducted before a person can purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer. During the first nine months of this year, background checks in New Hampshire increased by 28% to 143,440 and by 34% to 35,843 in Vermont over the same period a year earlier, according to the FBI data.

In late October, Newport gun maker Sturm, Ruger & Co.’s CEO Chris Killoy cited “civil unrest” for helping to fuel an “incredible surge in demand” for Ruger firearms in the third quarter, when sales rose 53% to $145.7 million while net earnings increased about fivefold to about $25 million from the same quarter a year earlier.

“The surge in consumer demand likely continues to be driven by the call, by some, for the reduction in funding and authority of law enforcement organizations, protests, demonstrations and civil unrest in many cities throughout the U.S. and concerns about personal protection and home defense, stemming from the continuing COVID-19 pandemic,” Killoy told stock analysts in a conference call on Oct. 29.

Killoy described what he has been seeing in the marketplace as “fundamentally stronger and different than anything I’ve seen in my three decades in the business.”

A couple miles from Ruger’s manufacturing plant in Newport, Bill Rodeschin, a retired engineer from Ruger who helps his 94-year old father — also named Bill Rodeschin — run Rody’s Gun Shop, walks over to one side of the room behind the counter to a single row of rifles.

“Just before COVID our rack was double-stacked,” Rodeschin said. “Come COVID, when the food shortages happened and people started leaving the city and coming here, to their places on Lake Sunapee, there were 15 to 20 people in this room on a Saturday.”

Sales “tapered off” but “then the ‘peaceful’ riots started and the whole wave started all over again and continued until about three weeks ago,” Rodeschin said. “We’re doing good, but I’ve got back orders, thousands of dollars, going back to April.”

Rodeschin has had to limit ammunition to “one box per customer” because supplies are “coming in drips” from manufacturers. “That’s affecting hunters,” he said.

The shortage of ammunition is familiar to David Stark, owner of Plainfield ammunition manufacturer Discreet Ballistics, which makes specialty “subsonic” rounds that are engineered to project slower than the speed of sound and thereby avoid the small sonic boom that produces the “crack” of a speeding bullet.

Stark said his bullets — he makes them in four different calibers — are preferred by hunters who want to “camouflage,” but they’re also purchased by handgun owners. Founded in 2015, Discreet Ballistics sells its specialty ammo primarily online.

Stark estimated that sales since March are up “five to six times” the normal level. In addition to the pandemic and civil unrest, he cited the election year as the main driver. Gun sales rise when gun owners fear Democrats being in power and, conversely, slow under Republican administrations as happened during much of 2018 and 2019 when Ruger had to reduce work shifts and staffing levels because of a slowdown in firearm sales.

“The same thing happened with Hilary (Clinton),” he said.

Stark acknowledged irony that as so many companies are struggling due to the pandemic, his is industry is hot.

“It’s like us and farmers,” he said. “It’s been very good for us but at the same time I’m very cognizant how other businesses are doing.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.



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