Within a day of the shutdown in March, lines 40-deep stretched outside the door of D&L Gun Shop in Warwick’s Buttonwoods section as people waited to buy guns and ammo.
The lines tapered off by April but surged again after the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter marches and violence that accompanied some demonstrations, including that in Providence. The lines were back again with the call to defund police.
Of late, it has not been unusual to find half a dozen people waiting to get into the gun shop.
The surge in gun sales is reflected in the numbers of permit applications and approved permits as provided by the attorney general’s office at the request of the Cranston Herald and Warwick Beacon.
This February, 1,152 permits were processed, of which 1,140 were approved and 12 denied. In March, the numbers more than doubled to 2,732 applications, of which 2,686 were granted permits and 46 denied. As of June, law enforcement agencies had approved 12,518 gun permits this year as compared to a total of 13,467 for all of 2019.
Local police departments have witnessed an increase in gun sales in the past following mass shootings and political threats of stricter gun legislation. In this case, conditions between the pandemic, demonstrations, an election and calls to defund police make it “a perfect storm,” said a member of a local police department.
In Cranston, permit applications have more than doubled. Chief of Police Col. Michael Winquist on Tuesday said his department has conducted 658 checks to date in 2020 – far ahead of the 313 it had conducted during the same period in 2019.
Concealed carry permit requests, a more intensive process, are also up in Cranston, although not as significantly. Winquist said Cranston Police have processed 80 concealed carry permits thus far this year, compared with 58 during the same timeframe in 2019.
Winquist said despite the growing volume, the department has been able to handle the gun permit requests largely within the seven-day timeframe required by law. Since the onset of the pandemic, Gov. Gina Raimondo has through executive order given police an extended 30-day window in which to conduct the checks.
“We pretty much have been able to keep it within the seven days … We’re pretty efficient at getting these done,” the chief said.
Winquist said Cranston has three gun dealers – Post Road Guns on Plainfield Pike, Econoloads on Park Avenue and On Target Firearms, a home-based and federally-license dealer and gunsmith. Post Roads Guns is the busiest, he said, and the department views all three operations as good citizens.
“We’ve never had any problem,” he said.
New legislation adopted at the state level, the Julie Lynn Cardinal Act, will require the forwarding of gun purchase applications to police in a person’s hometown.
Winquist said it remains unclear exactly how the change will affect the volume of checks being conducted by his department, given that there has not been an analysis conducted of how many in-city purchases have been made by Cranston residents.
“We really don’t know if we’re going to get more, less,” he said.
The Warwick Police Department, too, has stepped up processing. Col. Rick Rathbun said most permits are processed within a couple of weeks. He expects the volume of Warwick permit applications to drop due to the Julie Lynn Cardinal Act.
While Warwick has several gun dealers, Rathbun called D&L the largest. He was complementary of its relationship with the department and adherence to regulations.
The department does not keep a record of those applying for a permit, nor for that matter, the number of permits processed. This differs dramatically from applications for permits to carry concealed firearms, which require local approval and are recorded. To be issued a license to carry a concealed weapon, applicants must be qualified by a certified firearm instructor and achieve a minimum score with a caliber of firearm equal to or larger than the firearm they intend to carry.
On average, the Warwick Board of Public Safety processes six applications monthly, a number that has not increased since the shutdown, Rathbun said.
Gun permit applicants are not required to demonstrate proficiency in the use of a firearm.
They need to have a gun safety certificate, or what is known as a “blue card,” from the Department of Environmental Management.
According statutory language, DEM is responsible for conducting a two-hour safety course in the safe use of pistols and revolvers. In part it reads, “Proficiency in the use of pistols or revolvers shall not be prerequisite to the issuance of the safety certificate. No person shall be required to complete the course more than once; provided, that any person completing the course who is unable to produce the safety certificate issued by the department of environmental management shall be required to take the course again unless the person provides evidence to the department that he or she has successfully completed the course.”
Gail Mastrati, assistant to the DEM director, said last Tuesday that DEM has seen a jump in those seeking to obtain a blue card. She said the blue card test is not available online and must be taken in person at a participating location. DEM processes the test results.
She added that due to the high volume of tests taken this year, there is about a three-week period between the time participants take the exam and receive their card.
“We appreciate the patience and understanding the public has shown under these challenging circumstances,” Mastrati said.
Background checks performed by law enforcement agencies include a search as to whether the applicant has a record of crimes of violence, has been convicted of a felony, been indicted, is a fugitive of the law, has a record of addiction, has a dishonorable discharge from the military, has a restraining order, is considered a danger to him or herself and is old enough. In order to qualify for a handgun permit, the applicant must be at least 21 years old.
What Rhode Island is experiencing is happening across the country.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, one of the agencies contacted in processing applications, processed 7.8 million background checks for gun purchases from March to June. June background checks for firearms were up 136 percent from June 2019 according to the NSSF.
Mark Oliva, NSSF director of public affairs, said that the 2.5 million background checks conducted in March represent the highest single-month total recorded since the National Instant Criminal Background Check started in 1999. Since the beginning of the year, he said there have been 10.3 million background checks and he wouldn’t be surprised that the total for the year exceed the record 15 million of 2016.
Oliva calls the spike in gun sales a “confluence” of developments starting with the pandemic and concerns that law enforcement could be compromised in providing security because of the virus and now encompassing the upcoming general election and fears that Democrats could further control gun ownership.
“They are concerned about protecting themselves,” he said of people buying guns. Oliva added that a NSSF survey of retailers following the March surge found that 40 percent of those buying guns were first-time buyers. He thinks that new gun owners could be a factor in the election as they have a direct interest in their investments.
“We’re seeing polar opposites,” he said describing the feeling about guns.
“You’re talking about a fundamental American right,” he said of gun ownership. He questioned the need for permits adding permits are required to practice a religion or speech and other rights provided by law.
The Office of the Attorney General reported 2,644 permit applications were processed in April of which 2,563 were approved; in May there were 2,097 applications and 2,065 approvals; and in June it jumped up to 2,451 of which 2,406 were approved.
“Our Office plays essentially a data collection role in this process,” explained Kristy dosReis, spokeswoman for the attorney general, in an email. “Under Rhode Island law, firearms dealers are required to send our Office a triplicate copy of the gun purchase application after it has been approved or denied by municipal police department. Under Rhode Island law, while we track the number of approved and denied applications on an annual basis, we are required to destroy the copy of the application after 30 days.”
“It’s a little scary,” retired Warwick Police Col. Stephen McCartney said when asked his opinion in the increase in gun sales. He’s concerned that officers responding may encounter armed residents looking to assist or take matters into their own hands. He noted that police officers undergo extensive training in the use of firearms whereas many civilians don’t.
“People have a right to have a gun at home,” he said making the distinction they can’t carry a concealed weapon without the required permit.
Rathbun is troubled by conditions that have made people fearful and having them feel the need to purchase guns. He said the majority of people are law abiding.
“Fear is driving the decision to buy firearms,” he said.
Winquist said he is not concerned about the increase in firearms sales, although he stressed the need for gun owners to follow proper safety and storage measures to keep the weapons out of the wrong hands.
“It doesn’t concern me. Obviously, it’s Second Amendment rights … My only concern is that the firearm owners are responsible,” he said, adding: “We do have our fair share of guns that end up missing, stolen. And a lot of times, those guns could end up in the wrong hands.”
Col. Richard Tamburini, chief of the Johnston Police Department, said the town has two gun dealers but neither of them are anything like D&L in Warwick, which offers a wide range of guns.
Tamburini said he has no problem with people owning firearms provided they have been properly vetted.
“My concern is people who buy guns off the street from somebody who has broken into a home with a screwdriver and walked out with a loaded .38,” he said.
Daniel Kittredge contributed to this report.