Colorado Gun and Ammo Sales Skyrocket Amid Coronavirus Fears

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The Colorado Bureau of Investigation reports receiving twice the number of background check requests in the past week than it did during the same period a year ago, indicating a surge in gun-buying statewide. Several Denver firearm retailers also have experienced a near-sellout in firearms and ammunition, especially among popular handgun calibers.

Between March 10 and March 16, the CBI’s InstaCheck received 14,604 background check requests, compared to 7,357 from the same time frame in 2019, says CBI spokesperson Susan Medina.

Colorado requires background checks on almost all gun sales, including those from retailers, pawn shops, gun shows and even some private sales, so the numbers serve as a good proxy for total gun sales in the state. Federal and state laws prohibit anyone convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor domestic-violence charge, or people suffering from specific, very serious mental illnesses, from legally buying a gun. In addition, anyone who lies on a background check application can be prosecuted for committing a separate felony that’s sometimes nicknamed “lying and buying.”

Usually, the CBI takes only six to seven minutes to tell a gun seller if a potential buyer has passed the background check, Medina says. But according to some metro area retailers, wait times for background checks over the past weeks have stretched to several hours and, in certain cases, to more than a full day.

The current surge is unlike the normally busy times that gun retailers experience, such as just before hunting season or on Black Friday. Since those peak periods occur on specific days, the CBI can increase staff and prepare for the increase in background check requests, Medina notes. The recent demand was unanticipated, however. “We’re in uncharted waters here,” she says.

As it scrambles to both keep up with demand and follow Governor Jared Polis’s orders for “social distancing,” the CBI is devising ways to perform the legally required background checks while also helping its own staff avoid getting, or spreading, COVID-19, Medina says. As a result, the bureau can’t predict when the waiting times for background checks will return to normal.

Some local retailers appear to be running low on their supplies of firearms, especially handguns and shorter (but legal-length) shotguns. Firearms sellers also report running low on several calibers of ammunition, particularly those made by well-known companies.

For example, on March 16, the Sportsman’s Warehouse website said that it is “temporarily out of stock” of .40 caliber UMC made by Remington both locally and nationally, and that its store in Sheridan was “out of stock” of .380 caliber Remington. The website for Murdoch’s reported “limited stock” for 9 mm rounds at its Littleton and Castle Rock stores; the Littleton store reported having just eighteen boxes left a few hours before closing. According to the website for Cabela’s, the Lone Tree and Thornton stores had “limited stock” of any brand of 9 mm, and other calibers, such as .45 auto and .38 special, made by widely respected manufacturers are only “back orderable” at this time.

Unlike California and some other states, Colorado doesn't require background checks for ammunition purchases. It does, however, limit the magazines used in semi-automatic handguns and rifles to fifteen rounds per magazine. According to both state and federal laws, buyers need to be at least 21 to obtain handgun ammo and 18 to buy ammo for “long guns,” such as shotguns and rifles.

Colorado only requires a permit if a person plans to carry a firearm that is concealed, and does not have any kind of waiting or cooling-off period for buying any caliber of firearm. In 1998, Congress replaced the multi-day waiting period with an exception for states capable of conducting instant background checks. So in Colorado, most buyers can walk out of the store with their firearms almost immediately after the paperwork is finished.

But these days, those background checks are not so instant.

"Due to the extreme volume of firearm background checks being requested at this time," the bureau's website notes, "CBI InstaCheck is experiencing longer than normal wait times. The CBI InstaCheck Unit appreciates your patience as our technicians process requests as quickly as possible."

Update: Late on the afternoon of March 17, the CBI released updated data that showed a backlog of about 5,000 background checks; current wait times have approached two days, says Medina. To combat that, the CBI has expanded the number of hours staffers work behind the scenes, although public hours remain from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Meanwhile, firearms retailers have run very low on, or in some cases are completely out of, certain popular types of handgun ammunition. According to the Sportsman's Warehouse website, the company has temporarily suspended all online ammo sales.

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