People wait in a line to enter a gun store in Culver City, California on March 15. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

People wait in a line to enter a gun store in Culver City, California on March 15. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

First it was toilet paper, now guns and ammo are flying, too

As the response to coronavirus ramps up, people are loading up on firearms in Snohomish County.

LYNNWOOD — The owner of Lynnwood Gun and Ammunition isn’t taking questions on the phone.

She doesn’t have time. Tiffany Teasdale is too busy with a surge in sales due to the coronavirus and policy changes meant to stem the tides of the pandemic. And like the world outside, everything is in a constant state of flux at the small gun shop off Highway 99.

On Wednesday morning, Teasdale and her staffers were hustling to serve customers lined up along the glass cases throughout the store.

When a Herald reporter asked if they were seeing more business lately, an employee responded with a sarcastic huff.

“You think?” he said.

Another employee across the room broke out laughing.

Then the phone rang. Teasdale told the person on the other end that she couldn’t give out information about inventory, because by the time someone gets to the store, it’ll have changed.

Seconds later, the phone rang again: Another question about what’s in stock.

“Nope, you have to come down here,” Teasdale said. “Hustle though, because we’re running low.”

Teasdale said she didn’t have time for an interview. She gestured to the customers, and got back to work.

The same story is playing out at gun shops, big and small, throughout the region and across the nation. The sales appear to be fueled by the same worries that have led to the sudden disappearance of toilet paper rolls, hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. Some customers talked about wanting to be prepared to protect their homes. Others wanted to stock up on ammunition while it was a decent price, and before it was all gone. And at least a few purchases appear to be the result of conspiracy theories floating around the internet.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office has seen a significant increase in the number of firearms transfers. Since March 13, when Gov. Jay Inslee announced statewide school closures and event bans, the agency has processed background checks for 80-plus transfers a day almost every day — up from an average of 41 in February. For the most part, that doesn’t include gun sales made within incorporated cities in the county, where other local law enforcement agencies process background checks.

Concealed pistol licenses also were up, from an average of 33 per day in February to 40 per day in March. For the licenses, there are a couple more factors at play, said Rebecca Koontz, technical services supervisor. Because many city services have closed down, more people are coming to the county to apply for CPLs, she said. Moreover, while the sheriff’s office had limited its hours, people could still apply online. (As of Thursday, the office has been completely closed to the public, until further notice.)

Those numbers appear to bear out at stores. At Cabela’s in Quil Ceda Village, rows and rows of shelves were bare of ammunition Wednesday afternoon, while employees were busy helping customers pick out guns. Customers said they couldn’t find otherwise common ammunition at other big box stores, such as Walmart and Sportsman’s Warehouse.

At Cabela’s in Quil Ceda Village, rows and rows of shelves were bare of ammunition Wednesday afternoon. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

At Cabela’s in Quil Ceda Village, rows and rows of shelves were bare of ammunition Wednesday afternoon. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

The same went for online retailers. On Thursday afternoon, MidwayUSA was reporting that many of its ammunition types were out of stock. Cheaper Than Dirt warns that it could take two to three weeks to fulfill orders due to “unprecedented demand.”

From Feb. 23 to March 15, reports that it saw sales go up by 351% in Washington, compared to the previous three weeks. A noticeable surge in sales nationwide began on March 10, the retailer said, when the number of U.S. coronavirus cases topped 1,000 and when governments began taking more severe measures.

But the sales have sparked concerns from gun control advocates, including the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility.

“Research shows that the presence of a gun in the home increases the risk of death,” spokesperson Kristen Ellingboe wrote in an email. “We’re concerned that the social isolation and other stressors brought on by COVID-19 could lead to an increase in gun violence, particularly cases of domestic violence and suicide.”

If people do feel they’re in danger, Ellingboe said they can use lifesaving tools, such as extreme risk or domestic violence protection orders, that “can remove the threat of firearms and prevent tragedy.”

In south Everett, a handful of people gathered Wednesday afternoon outside of West Coast Armory North, off Airport Way, waiting their turn to look at what was left. The store had taken social distancing precautions, allowing only two customers inside at a time and asking others to keep a 6-foot distance from each other outside.

Like Lynnwood Gun and Ammunition, the store sent out a statement on Facebook, saying staff was unlikely to answer phones. Some employees had to stay home because of school closures, or because the coronavirus posed a high risk to them, the post said.

Standing in line was 24-year-old Grayson Porter , a U.S. Army Veteran and a private guns and ammunition dealer. He said he was there to see what was left, and to get some ammunition for his personal stock. He said customers had bought all of his ammunition at the beginning of the week — 60,000 rounds in all — within 48 hours.

“It’s more of the fear factor,” Porter said. “There’s limited supply. That’s just got everybody worried what’s happening next … things are becoming more and more scarce.”

Porter said he’s heard murmurs from others that the National Guard was mobilizing to enforce martial law — a hoax that’s gripped the internet in recent days, and appears to have started with a viral text message. The Washington National Guard denied those rumors in a Twitter post on Friday.

“Let’s put aside the rumors about martial law or military rule,” the tweet said. “IT’S JUST NOT TRUE.”

Those lined up outside West Coast Armory said they just wanted to be prepared. One customer said he wanted to protect his food when everyone’s out of a job and scrounging for resources.

“If I run out of ammunition, my Plan B is potato gun,” he said, with a laugh.

Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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