Gun permits

Mike Jones

Ben Romanoff, the owner and general manager of ACE Sporting Goods, stands outside his gun store on Route 19 in South Strabane.

Civil unrest in the country combined with a presidential election in the midst of a global pandemic are sending the number of concealed carry permits and background checks in Pennsylvania soaring.

The Pennsylvania Instant Check System that is performed on all new firearm purchases in the state produced the most background checks in the last quarter since the program began in 1998.

During the months of July, August and September, 406,151 checks were performed across the state, nearly double the number during the same quarter a year ago.

“We began to see an increase of PICS activity in the first quarter as Pennsylvania and the rest of the country began learning about the COVID-19 pandemic, and that trend has continued,” said state police Capt. Mark Shaver, director of the agency’s Bureau of Records and Identification.

Those record numbers are mirrored by area county sheriff’s offices that process concealed carry permits, which are on pace to surpass totals over the past few years.

Washington County sheriff’s Deputy Anthony Mosco said their office has processed 5,975 permits as of last week, eclipsing all of last year’s total of 5,948 and on pace to bypass the 6,742 permits in 2018. Those numbers are even more impressive considering the office was staffed by appointment-only in April and May as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.

“I believe it’s a combination of several things. The (civil) unrest and the election coming up,” Mosco said.

The summer months of June, July, August and September were the heaviest four-month period the office has ever had, Mosco said, with June and July nearly double the number of permits from the previous year.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve been overwhelmed,” Mosco said. “I don’t think it’s been too bad right now. We’re keeping up.”

Greene and Fayette counties have experienced similar upticks.

In Greene, the 1,224 so far this year has beat the 1,201 last year and is expected to better the 1,438 in 2018. Fayette County has processed 4,552 so far and will likely pass the 5,431 and 5,458 in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

“Everything is coming into play and people are getting scared,” said Gerald Thomas, who handles the concealed permits for the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office.

Ben Romanoff, the owner and general manager of ACE Sporting Goods on Route 19 in South Strabane, said many of their clients right now are first-time gun buyers. Unlike previous presidential election years when semi-automatic assault rifles were big sellers over concerns about possible federal legislation banning those types of firearms, Romanoff said people are mostly buying handguns for self-defense.

“The civil unrest customers are seeing across the nation is the No. 1 concern, along with the defunding the police movement, the looting and rioting going on,” he said. “It has a lot of the citizens right here in Washington concerned about their safety and taking their security into their own hands.”

Protests in the region against police brutality have been overwhelmingly peaceful, although protests in other parts of the country have turned violent and continued for months.

“They’re fearful it may happen here,” Romanoff said.

That concerns Adam Garber, the executive director for CeaseFire PA Education Fund, who is worried an increase in firearm purchases could lead to more gun violence and suicides over the next decade.

“We definitely are concerned about it,” Garber said. “What we’re seeing, and what we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic, is people’s fear and concern is making a short-sighted decision to purchase new firearms.”

His group noticed a “surge in gun sales” earlier this year even before protests began following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police on Memorial Day. Between June and September, sales of firearms in the United States were up 100% over that same time period a year earlier, he said.

“It’s hard to distinguish the causes, but we’ve noticed as people have protested racial injustice in our country and used their right and obligation as citizens to fight for a better country, when guns have been added to the mix, they’ve led to violence,” Garber said. “I understand people’s concern, but adding firearms to that equation makes it more likely to be hurt rather than safer.”

Regardless of the reasons, Garber expects the surge in gun sales and concealed carry permits right now will have ramifications for years to come.

“We know the repercussions from COVID-19 will last past the pandemic, and that includes gun violence,” he said.

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