The U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of the right to bear arms has been a primary conversation topic among Americans in 2020. As uncertainty and fear have plagued the world over the last eight months, there has been a surge in gun sales nationwide — many of them to first-time owners.
Austin and Danielle, one young couple in Utah, had always talked about owning a firearm. Austin grew up in a city where gun ownership was less common, but Danielle grew up in a small town where gun ownership was normal. They both said the events of 2020 lead them to buy a firearm.
“We always talked about having a gun,” Austin said. “I thought they were probably important to have for self-defense. Once COVID-19 hit, it made getting one feel like an important purchase to make.”
The couple bought their gun in early April. While they believe in gun ownership, they wanted to keep their last name anonymous to avoid the negative stigma some associate with gun owners.
“I feel like a lot of people have a mental image of gun owners as uneducated or having low IQs,” Danielle said. “I do feel like most gun owners are responsible and only want them for recreation and self-defense purposes, but some people think they are hillbillies.”
The two cited the case of the Orem wildfires in mid-October, which were caused by target practice at a local gun range. They also mentioned a few other reasons they didn’t want to be labeled as “gun owners.”
“We wanted to remain anonymous because we didn’t want to be targeted for our political beliefs or because we choose to own a gun,” Austin said. “Remaining anonymous is a safe choice. That’s the reason I bought a gun — it’s something to protect my family and keep us safe.”
While some Americans have sought to restrict gun ownership, for many others it is a cherished right they work to protect. According to The New York Times, demand for guns has surged since the start of the pandemic in March and hasn’t let up all year. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) recorded an estimated 28 million background checks were requested from January to the end of September.
Jeffrey Denning, a Salt Lake City Police detective, teaches firearm safety classes to private parties. He has seen a dramatic increase in people wanting to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
“One gun store owner I talked to said the day after the Utah earthquake on March 13th, he received the most sales he had ever gotten,” Denning said. “After that, sales started going through the roof. The numbers are off the charts.”
According to the data reported by the NICS, the first spike (3.7 million background checks) in firearm demand happened in March likely because of the pandemic. The second spike (3.9 million background checks) was larger and occurred in June — right after acts of civil unrest began in major American cities.
“People should be able to protect themselves individually and collectively,” Denning said. “We should be able to preserve our freedoms — this lets us have agency and a land of liberty.”
Denning said that while firearms are certainly good for personal protection, the reason the Second Amendment is considered a right is more complex than that.
“The Second Amendment was included in the Constitution so the government could not take over,” Denning said. “It’s to serve against government encroachments. The amendments were developed because of what the founding fathers saw in other parts of the world.”
Most historians agree that this was the premise of the Second Amendment. But some people have grown increasingly wary of the potential dangers of an armed population. Because of this fear, there has been heated debate in recent years over whether to update or reform the Second Amendment.
Lucy Williams, an assistant professor of political philosophy, said the conflict was most pronounced in the 2008 Supreme Court case D.C. v. Heller.
“For some time, there was a debate about whether the prefatory clause ‘A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State’ was intended to limit the right to bear arms or if it merely explained why the right is important,” Williams said. “The debate is now largely settled.”
Williams said reformers proposed that the Constitution only protects a right to bear arms in relation to military service. People who took the other position argued the right was not connected to military service. The Supreme Court sided with the latter position.
After this Supreme Court decision, it seems that the debate has shifted. Instead of asking whether individuals should be allowed to have firearms, the debate is focused on whether the government has the ability to regulate and restrict specific weapons from entering the public sphere.
This threat of potential regulation has made some Americans nervous, and conservative politicians say the Second Amendment is under attack, or will be eliminated because of their political opponents. Williams said this is not likely.
“Although the scope of (the Second Amendment) may change, it’s hard to imagine that the right could ever be eliminated entirely,” Williams said.
Though reform may happen in the future, more people are making use of their Second Amendment right. Background checks, first-time gun purchases and training classes are increasing in demand. It remains to be seen whether gun sales will trend downward anytime soon.
“If you haven’t had a gun in 70 years, and are only interested in one because you’re scared, there is no reason to buy one now,” Denning said. “You are going to be fine.”
Despite this, Denning said individuals who have considered buying a gun and want to educate themselves should do so.
“It’s ignorant and foolish not to have a plan for preparation and protection,” Denning said. “You can think all day long that something won’t happen ‘here’ or ‘to you’ but if it does, you’re not going to be prepared.”