Coronavirus: US sees spurt in gun sales - but real worry is domestic violence

Guns are displayed at Shore Shot Pistol Range gun shop in Lakewood Township, New Jersey, on March 19, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - There is no "lockdown" for the 50-odd people who work at the Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (Dais) in just one county in the US state of Wisconsin.

The non-profit is designated an essential service and all hands are on deck, says executive director Shannon Barry.

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control show that on average nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. That translates into 10 million people per year.

And, in times of stress, the rate goes up.

Experts are worried that this time more guns are in the mix as well.

Typically, in every crisis, Americans buy guns. The Covid-19 pandemic is no different except perhaps that now many are buying guns for the first time.

One gun store owner in Tulsa, Oklahoma told National Public Radio (NPR) gun sales were up about 20 per cent, and ammunition had skyrocketed 400-500 per cent.

The logic behind the rush: gun owners believe they can defend themselves if the pandemic triggers social meltdown and loss of law and order.

"It's really just a matter of, if things go bad in the next couple weeks to couple of months and people are panicking and rioting and looting, the government and the police will not have the ability to protect us," one buyer at a Los Angeles gun shop told NPR.

The powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) - which supports President Donald Trump - is encouraging gun purchases. A March 22 tweet from the NRA said: "Americans are flocking to gun stores because they know the only reliable self-defense during a crisis is the #2A."

#2A refers to the Second Amendment - the right of citizens to bear arms.

But experts do not think the US is near the kind of civil breakdown that many of the gun buyers worry about. The real threat is that the guns will be used at home, deliberately or accidentally.

"I think these people who are buying weapons for the first time are wasting their money and perhaps putting their households at greater risk," Professor Tom Kolditz, Director of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University in Houston, Texas, told The Straits Times.

"According to your police here, the only crimes that are increasing, are domestic violence crimes," he said.

"This is because people are trapped inside. They are not used to being at home with their spouse. There's a little bit of increase in irresponsible alcohol use. And when you mix domestic violence with perhaps new gun owners or gun owners who are unfamiliar with (the guns) that's a problem."

"I think you will see an increase in accidental shootings," he added. "None of these first time buyers are buying a $2,000 gun safe."

In their lifetime, more than one in three (35.6 per cent) of women, and more than one in four (28.5 per cent) of men, in the United States, have experienced physical and psychological violence and abuse including rape.

With millions under lockdown or "shelter in place" orders or guidelines, and the economy crashing, the situation at home can be a pressure cooker, said Ms Barry.

"For domestic violence victims, home is sometimes the least safe place" she told The Straits Times. "During the 2008-2009 recession, our organisation saw a 108 per cent increase in the number of calls to our helpline by folks seeking emergency shelter."

"Add all the pieces together - an economic recession, people being isolated within their homes, and their families kind of on top of each other - and add access to weapons, and there is a lot of potential risk," she said.

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.