Gun sales have increased around the country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increase seems to be driven mostly by first-time gun buyers.
In the Quad-Cities, the trend is no different. Scott County received 5,379 permit-to-carry applications in 2020, more than double the 2,014 applications received in 2019. As of the end of August, 3,143 applications were submitted in 2021.
An act passed in April 2021 changed the gun control laws in Iowa, and a permit to carry is no longer required to buy and carry a gun in the state. Anyone buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer must pass a federal background check if they choose not to get a permit to carry.
Rock Island County saw a similar increase to Scott County. In Illinois, all gun owners must have a Firearm Owner Identification, or FOID, card, which is applied for through the Illinois State Police. The ISP received 5,663 applications from people living in Rock Island County in 2020, up from 3,973 applications in 2019. There were 2,874 applications submitted up through August 2021.
Why the increase? Two experts point to a variety of causes.
"First came COVID and the toilet paper wars. Then came the protests and the defund the police groups," Jeannelle Westrom, owner of Davenport Guns and Shooting Club said. "A lot of things were happening."
Westrom, who is also on the Board of Governors of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said she always sees an increase in gun sales right before a national election, regardless of which party is in the lead. But with the added factors from COVID-19 and the civil rights protests, the increase this time was much more notable.
Westrom said the demographics of gun owners are also changing. She's seen an increase in buyers from minority backgrounds, and more than a few new customers have told her they used to believe they'd never have a gun in their house.
One of the demographics that has changed most significantly among gun owners is gender, Westrom said.
"Right now, half of the guns we sell are to women. Two years ago it was about 35% and it’s been getting higher and higher," Westrom said. "We have a group called 'A girl and a gun.' We have a group of ladies that come in a couple times a month. They get together and they learn some safety thing, and then they go out (on the Davenport Guns shooting range) and they shoot and they have fun, and they support each other."
Most of the guns Westrom sells are concealed carry and self-defense guns, as opposed to hunting guns. Westrom said she believes a lot of people are buying these types of firearms because they're concerned about protecting their families.
Eric Puryear, a Quad-Cities lawyer and advocate for civil rights and gun rights, said he believes protecting family members is an especially big deal for people from minority backgrounds.
"I think a lot of people have seen over the last couple years, especially when Trump was in office, just the rise of violent, racist rhetoric, the increase of hate crimes — it's something that is concerning. It concerns me, personally. I know it's concerned a lot of other people who I've known who have become gun owners recently," Puryear said. "I think that other people are seeing that, beyond just issues of race, that society is a little more fragile than we might have hoped. It can break down more quickly than we might have thought. The last year has shown people that it's good to have that self-sufficiency. Hopefully the need never arises, but it's much better to be able to defend yourself and defend your family."
Both Puryear and Westrom said first-time gun owners should focus on gun safety before and after buying. Puryear emphasized that proper gun storage is essential and it's worth getting a safe to keep guns out of the hands of children and to prevent theft. He said it's also important to teach all household members proper gun safety, so that if a gun does get left out, children know not to treat it like a toy.
"My children have been taught to shoot from around the age of two onward. For them, guns just aren't exciting things. They're a tool, like anything else. They enjoy going shooting, but for them a gun is no different than a knife in the kitchen. It is a tool that is to be respected, but it's not that forbidden fruit that draws children in," Puryear said.
Westrom said guns are sold with a gun lock, and people should decided how to best store their guns based on their household situation. Westrom also focused on the importance of being well-trained in how to use a gun properly.
First-time gun owners should buy something they'll enjoy using, so they practice with it regularly, Westrom said. She recommended renting a gun and practicing with it on a shooting range before making a purchase.
Davenport Guns has several training options, and Westrom said she knows other gun shops in the Quad-Cities do, too.
"It's kind of like buying a car. You don't go buy a car without kicking the tires and test driving the car. Test drive the gun that you're thinking about buying," Westrom said. "I mean, if you're going to use this to protect yourself and potentially defend your family, please, please get training. Please."