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The Pandemic’s Gun Surge Offers a Frightening Glimpse of the Future

A sociologist spoke with 50 gun sellers about 2020’s dramatic uptick in firearms sales and its effects.

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A display at a gun store in Chantilly, Virginia

In November 2019, just as a novel virus began circulating in Wuhan, China, the United States entered year four of the so-called “Trump Slump,” a sustained decline in domestic firearm sales that began after the 2016 election, precipitating several bankruptcies and much hand-wringing among industry executives. The slump wouldn’t last much longer. Amid Covid lockdowns, a looming recession, and an ambient feeling of social collapse, demand for guns skyrocketed. In late March, when the Trump administration announced that it would allow gun stores to remain open as “essential” businesses, guns and ammo flew off shelves, resulting in, as one Los Angeles legislator told The New York Times, “as much a run on guns as on toilet paper.”

Over the course of 2020, more firearms were sold than during any year on record, and the surge continued well into 2022, bucking the usual boom-and-bust cycle that the industry has seen for decades. By year three of the pandemic, nearly one in five U.S. households had purchased a firearm, according to one measure. Many did so for the first time. Gun lovers, ran a Vice headline, were claiming “a huge ‘I told you so’ moment.”

Merchants of the Right: Gun Sellers and the Crisis of American Democracy
by Jennifer Carlson
Princeton University Press, 288 pp., $29.95

The Covid buying spree arrived at the tail end of a half-century development in American politics: the steady movement of guns to the red-hot core of the political right. By the end of Obama’s second presidential term, gun possession was a more reliable voting indicator than race, class, gender, and age, and support for gun rights better predicted party affiliation than views on any other single issue. Gun advertisers, stoking the political fires, found themselves “addicted to conspiracy-theory-fueled political partisanship,” as one former gun exec put it in a 2022 Atlantic essay. Over the past decade, and with predictably deadly results, lethal weapons became an unnerving and ubiquitous sight at political protests around the country, as right-wing fantasies of political violence and celebrations of armed vigilantism reached new heights.

Studies of American gun culture have often focused on the top-down influence of large organizations, such as gun manufacturers or the National Rifle Association. But these accounts only tell one part of the story. Sociologist Jennifer Carlson argues that we would learn just as much by examining how gun enthusiasts have constructed a political style from the ground up. During the febrile spring and summer of 2020, Carlson conducted remote interviews with 50 gun sellers in two red states (Arizona and Florida) and two blue ones (California and Michigan). She wanted to know how these dealers experienced the dramatic uptick in firearm sales and consequent expansion of their normal clientele against the backdrop of the pandemic, the summer’s racial justice uprisings, and the presidential election.

The book-length product of these interviews, Merchants of the Right, treats gun sellers as “merchants not just of guns but also of gun culture.” The stores they preside over serve as spaces like “nineteenth-century coffeehouses and salons,” where political conversation and conversion abound (perhaps over a cup of Black Rifle joe). In a year of Black Lives Matter, Covid, and the 2020 election, gun sellers furthered a culture of armored individualism, unhinged conspiracism, and extreme partisanship. The gun-buying surge of 2020, in Carlson’s sobering portrait, is both a culmination of these tendencies and harbinger of a perilous, illiberal future. 

Only one of the sellers Carlson interviewed—a vanishingly rare self-described liberal—permanently shut down the public-facing section of her store at the onset of the pandemic, citing the “blatant racism” and “us versus them” mentality of gun lovers. The vast majority that remained open were rewarded handsomely for doing so. They arrived at work to find “jammed parking lots, lines already formed at the doors, and phones ringing off the hook.” One store in California saw its daily sales increase fifteenfold overnight, while one in Michigan made as much in one day as it usually made in a month.

The buying spree brought a newly diverse clientele to gun stores: more women, racial minorities, LGBTQ+ people—all populations much more likely to be politically liberal. Many gun sellers genuinely relished seeing their businesses fill up with “all 31 flavors,” as one put it, referring to the Baskin Robbins ice cream slogan. Giving their newly diverse clients a gun rights crash course offered daily confirmation of the pro-gun mantra that “God created people, but Samuel Colt made them equal,” buttressing gun sellers’ belief in gun ownership as a universal instrument of emancipation. “For the first time, regardless of your demographic, regardless of your background … everybody is … looking at the future and realizing, ‘Shit. I’m not necessarily guaranteed anything tomorrow,’” one told Carlson. Another claimed to “delight when I put a gun in the hands of any marginalized or discriminated minority group.”

Industry publications and organizations echoed gun sellers’ nominally pro-diversity message. Bearing Arms ran a headline bragging that there was “more diversity at a gun range than a university faculty lounge.” In March 2020, the NRA tweeted a video featuring a disabled, immunocompromised Black woman wielding an assault rifle and evangelizing to Covid preppers. Repeating an oft-used NRA talking point, the woman argued that the pandemic could augur a repeat of “what happened during Hurricane Katrina,” when “police actually went door to door stripping our society’s most vulnerable people of their guns.” While the woman acknowledged her vulnerability to “the deadly coronavirus,” whether she ultimately survived the pandemic, she said, was “up to God.” “What’s in my control is how I defend myself if things go bad to worse.”  

The NRA propaganda clip embodied a kind of respectability politics conservative gun sellers expected minority buyers to perform to be welcomed into the ambit of “responsible” gun ownership. One of Carlson’s interlocutors, speaking to her in the middle of the summer’s Black Lives Matter uprisings, offered a portrait of the type of new buyer conservative gun sellers found particularly attractive: “From minorities, and from Black women, actually … [I hear] that a large number do not support the Black Lives Matter protests or rioting or any of that,” he said. “And that’s the greatest thing about gun ownership! Everyone can connect in it—it’s a primal thing and a big jump in personal responsibility that carries over into everyday life.” Gun sellers used minority buyers to promote an ethic of individual empowerment, centered around the armed citizen and their gun, that rejected protest and collective solutions to social problems. 

The gun sellers Carlson interviewed were primed to respond to the summer’s uprisings with a suspicion that very frequently curdled into conspiracism. An unsettling number of Carlson’s interviewees responded to questions about the protests with some version of “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but.…” One seller, though he admitted that he didn’t “know a lot about Black Lives Matter,” told Carlson that he could “smell it—how’s that? Does that work for you? I smell what it is.” Another, faced with riots in majority-white Grand Rapids, Michigan, pointed to the “synchronized manner” in which the uprisings sprang up—“that just doesn’t happen in the Midwest outside of Detroit and Chicago”—and attributed it to “some kind of underlying dark force.” These claims reflect a type of apocalyptic paranoia that is and has long been a staple of pro-gun rhetoric: At an NRA convention just after the Uvalde massacre, for example, one member told Politico that the school shooting could have been produced by “forces someplace that somehow find troubled people and nurture and develop them and push them for their own agendas.”

For the people Carlson interviewed, conspiracy theories about Black Lives Matter protests, the pandemic, and the 2020 election served a clear purpose. By offering all-encompassing, unfalsifiable explanations for major events and dividing the world neatly into friends and enemies, conspiracies allowed gun sellers to avoid grappling with the converging crises of 2020 as members of a small-d democratic public. In a sense, Carlson writes, gun sellers “use” conspiracism in much the same way they “use” their firearms: Convinced that their guns, and their guns alone, would give them protection, they were able to “circumvent the urgent questions of collective action and of democratic deliberation” generated by the protests and pandemic. “When you have uncertainty, you have to have a guarantee,” said one of Carlson’s interlocutors. “And the only guarantee in this country is the right to protect yourself.”

Carlson sees gun sellers’ responses to the crises of 2020 as examples of what Nancy Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead call “the new conspiracism.” Where a more traditional conspiracism might focus on untangling the threads of a hidden plot, this new type of conspiracist thinking is more focused on “asserting a common enemy and their common goal.” This style has been typified by Donald Trump, which explains in part why Trump so successfully courted gun owners despite his checkered record on the issue. In their interviews with Carlson, gun sellers primarily defined their common enemy in partisan terms, which she reports is a marked change from the gun carriers she interviewed for her 2010 book, who rarely indulged in partisan rancor.

Even as Carlson’s interlocutors celebrated a diverse clientele, they denigrated and often dehumanized their political opponents, with the stereotypical portrait of a liberal as a “numb, unthinking automaton, an obedient drone,” as one industry publication put it in April 2020. They closely scrutinized customers for characteristics they coded as “liberal”—panic, fear, naïveté, hysteria, groupthink—and sometimes refused to sell at all to new buyers displaying such attitudes, deeming them “unfit for Second Amendment rights.”

Pro-gun conservatives have long portrayed the Second Amendment as the right that protects all others, as the essential guarantee of political liberty. Yet gun sellers used signifiers of political affiliation to determine whether a prospective new buyer was fit for gun ownership. These acts are in Carlson’s view about much more than just gatekeeping access to guns: In these moments, gun sellers deemed their opponents unfit for equal citizenship, tightening the circle of political belonging and civic inclusion. This fundamentally illiberal notion, she observes, is one that would, just a few months later, explode in the attempt to deny the votes of millions of their fellow citizens.

Of course, there are places in the U.S. where citizenship and gun ownership are already closely entwined. In Tennessee, where two Black lawmakers were recently expelled from the legislature for protesting the state’s lax gun regulations in the wake of yet another mass shooting, a college ID or city library card is not an acceptable documentation for voter registration, but a handgun carry permit is.

As much as Carlson’s book is a work of sociological analysis, it is also a warning. From her vantage, contemporary gun politics are a “canary in the coal mine of American democracy.” While some of the gun sellers she interviewed did maintain a commitment to civic debate and engagement across political lines, many saw mutual, existential fear as a defining condition of political life. This worldview is already ascendent on the right. In polls taken a year into the pandemic, nearly half of Republican voters agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” A majority believed “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast we may have to use force to save it.”

It would be too easy, however, to place blame for this bitter development solely on the right. Over the past two decades, a majority of U.S. citizens came to believe, against all available evidence and in a striking reversal from the turn of the century, that guns make their homes and streets safer. This startling about-face, Carlson observes, coincided with “the grim harvest of emaciated social bonds and a fallow government hollowed out by neoliberal defunding of education, welfare, mental health care, and other social safety nets,” a development presided over by both political parties. 

Yet certainly the development only favors the right. As the writer Matthew Sitman pointed out last year, “The right benefits from people becoming more isolated, hunkered down, wary of others, and doubtful that a better future can be built.” By pairing millions of mini-arsenals with a cultural “tool kit” of armed individualism, arch-conspiracism, and a no-holds-barred form of partisanship, armed conservatives are working toward a democracy not of the ballot but of the bullet. As Carlson’s book shows, they’re well on their way.