News & Politics

Gun Ownership Seems to Be Rising in the DC Area

At a time of unease, some locals are buying firearms.

Revolver in a shopping cart.

Even as the pandemic has plunged Washington into its worst recession in a generation, one local industry is experiencing a boom: gun sellers. DC’s Metropolitan Police Department is on pace to register 25 percent more firearms in 2020 than it did the prior year. Shawn Poulin, owner of NOVA Armory, a gun store in Arlington, says that from the time the Covid crisis started to appear until early summer, sales quadrupled. And a region-wide run on ammunition has prompted another local dealer to limit the sale of bullets at its range to one box per customer. “Ammunition is like toilet paper,” Poulin says. People are stocking up.

Local gun instructor Cedric Barnes—whose Barnes 1st Step Firearms Training has also seen a significant rise in customers—thinks the uptick in Washington weaponry is linked to a general sense of fear that has permeated the region in the seven months since the virus arrived. “It’s almost like a horror movie,” he says. “The zombieland is coming around, so everybody’s trying to bear arms before that happens.” It’s also hard not to be nervous when DC continues to be at the center of so much right-wing online craziness; it was only four years ago that a North Carolina man showed up at Comet Ping-Pong with an AR-15–style rifle.

Such unease is hardly restricted to the District, of course, and gun sales have also increased nationally. Researchers at the Brookings Institution estimate that from March through June, nearly 3 million more guns were sold in America than would be typical.

But DC has never been the kind of place where Second Amendment fanatics bring their rifles to Walmart, and you don’t think of the area as a hotbed of gun nuts. So who’s buying all these firearms? “Everyone,” Poulin says. “Right wing, left wing, middle of the road. Gay, straight. Old, young. Black, white, Asian. Male, female.” Pistols, shotguns, and rifles are his top sellers. Though because his inventory is now running low, some customers are happy to buy whatever type of weapon he has ammunition for.

As the region braces for a potentially chaotic presidential election, people are antsier than ever, and it probably isn’t soothing to hear that we’re likely in the middle of a firearm boom. Poulin says most gun owners are responsible, law-abiding citizens. But one aspect of the sales spike concerns even him: Many of his recent customers have been first-time gun buyers, and some brought home their new weapons during a period when a number of indoor gun ranges in the area were shut down due to Covid restrictions. “There wasn’t a [way] to practice,” he says. “It’s like giving a driver’s license without knowing if the person could drive.”

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Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.