STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Americans are buying more guns than ever before. People worried about the pandemic sometimes buy guns. People worried about protests in this country sometimes buy guns. And by one estimate, people have bought 3 million more guns than normal since March. Almost half of all those sales are to first-time gun owners. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Mandy Collins is 38. She lives in Little Mountain, S.C., with her husband and three kids. And she just spent $450 on a powerful handgun.
MANDY COLLINS: I purchased the SIG Sauer P365. It's a 9mm pistol.
ARNOLD: She's never owned a gun before. Her husband doesn't have one either. But as the pandemic hit back in March...
COLLINS: With all the toilet paper gone and everything, people just started acting kind of crazy. And so I just, you know, I guess the fear of the unknown and letting prisoners out of prison and I just - I decided that I wanted to go ahead and just purchase one.
ARNOLD: Some states have released prisoners who are near the end of their sentences or deemed not dangerous. Collins says she was going to take a gun safety class first. But when she tried to buy ammo, it was sold out, just like the toilet paper, so she just bought a gun right away.
COLLINS: Then after, you know, seeing all the riots and the lack of arrests, I am so glad I did.
ARNOLD: David Chipman is a former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the ATF. He's now at the gun control group Giffords. And he says we hit a new monthly record for gun sales in March. And...
DAVID CHIPMAN: You can see again when George Floyd was murdered and then the lawful protests and the looting and rioting that followed as well, again, saw an enormous spike in gun sales.
ARNOLD: Chipman says that lasted all the way through June. The government doesn't track sales, but it does track background checks to buy guns. For handguns in June, those nearly tripled from a year ago. Phillip Levine is an economist with Wellesley College who just wrote a report looking at Google searches.
PHILLIP LEVINE: The search term buy gun is a really good indicator of gun sales.
ARNOLD: He also looked at other Google searches that contained racist language. And in his analysis, racial tensions are driving at least some of the surge in sales. The gun industry disputes that.
LAWRENCE KEANE: I would reject the premise that people who are buying firearms are doing so because they're racist.
ARNOLD: Lawrence Keane is the general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. It's a gun industry trade group. He says more people are buying guns just because all the uncertainty and unrest has them concerned about their safety. Now, usually when gun sales spike, it's because gun enthusiasts think that stricter gun control might be coming, so they go out and they buy more guns. But something different is happening now.
KEANE: We've surveyed retailers who tell us that about 40% of their customers are first-time buyers.
ARNOLD: Kevin Cummins runs a firearms training school in St. Louis. He says he's certainly seeing all kinds of people showing up to take classes.
KEVIN CUMMINS: I had a, you know, lady yesterday, she was a nurse at a hospital. And she had just recently purchased a firearm and did not know how to load the firearm, didn't know anything about it, was scared to death of it.
ARNOLD: Millions of people suddenly owning a gun for the first time - that has former ATF agent David Chipman worried that many won't get good training. He says when gun sales spike, so do accidental deaths. And he says guns should only be used as a last resort in a life-and-death situation. People should not be waving them around, like he sees in YouTube videos. He says that can provoke violence.
CHIPMAN: I was taught that you don't pull your gun unless you intend to use it.
ARNOLD: And then there's Kevin Cummins, who, even though he runs a firearms school, he tells people before you get a gun, get a can of pepper gel. That's like pepper spray, but it won't blow back on your own face. He says 95% of the time, that's going to be a much better way to protect yourself. Still, the industry group says 2020 is on track to be the biggest year ever for gun sales in America. Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.