After standing in line at a Pittsburgh-area sporting goods store for more than an hour, not knowing what he would say to the sales clerk, the self-described “liberal Democrat from New York City” bought a gun. He said it was an impulse buy, not a “panic.”

His purchase last week occurred during a nationwide rash of firearm sales to people who had never considered gun ownership until becoming rattled by concerns about COVID-19’s impact on America’s social infrastructure. Last week, many southwestern Pennsylvania gun shops ran out of stock. Owners said they sold firearms of all types to many first-time buyers.

“The stock market is tanking. I’m well-read enough to know that puts the onus on people to feel differently about how commodities are traded and how people will act,” said the gun-purchasing anesthesiologist, who lives in Fox Chapel and works in Pittsburgh.

He asked that his name be withheld due to concerns about how friends and neighbors might react to his self-defense solution.

“Right now, people are hoarding toilet paper. The bigger issue is if we get to the point where the system breaks down [and] medicine and the medical system cannot support the population,” he said. “That was my thought process.”

Others had the same idea. Firearm sales jumped in a matter of days, industry experts said. Sales generally rise during election years, but The Associated Press reported that in February gun sales had outpaced those in 2016 by nearly 350,000., an online ammunition supplier, reported that from Feb. 23 to March 4 sales spiked 68% over the previous 11 days. The increase was greatest in North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas.

The FBI processed three times the volume of firearm background checks on March 16 compared with the same day in 2019. The Pennsylvania Instant Check System operated by the state police processed 1,359 transactions on March 17, 2019. Between system crashes on the same day this year it processed 4,342 transactions.

It could be months before figures are released breaking down the percentage of first-time gun buyers whose purchases were processed in March. Pennsylvania gun shop owners who were questioned during the COVID rush said many of their sales were made to people buying their first firearm.

“I didn’t see it coming,” said Gooch Ionadi, co-owner of the Smoke n’ Guns tobacco and gun shop in Oakmont. “The panic that it’s struck on people is unbelievable.”

Todd Edmiston, owner of A&S Indoor Pistol Range in Youngwood, Westmoreland County, said on Wednesday he was selling out of some supplies and seeing a lot of new customers.

“More first-time handgun owners,” he said. “A lot of people asking about self-protection and questions we don’t usually hear, asking if we provide training.”

On Wednesday at Keystone Shooting Center in Mars, Butler County, owner Ty Eggemeyer said the percentage of customers buying their first gun was “extremely high.”

“Most of what’s selling is for self-defense and protection,” he said. “Mostly handguns. Our home-defense shotguns, wiped out.”

Interest in classes and training at Keystone was strong.

“People who don’t own guns are scared. They’re scared of government action and what’s happening in the economy,”  Mr. Eggemeyer said. “They’re thinking they must now protect themselves.”

Hannah Richardson, a Virginia-based administrator of firearm expos, said her vendors might meet a new class of customers if the Showmasters Gun Show opens on schedule April 4-5 at Monroeville Convention Center at Monroeville Mall.

“I do believe we’ll have a different clientele coming to the show,” she said. “This all has opened people’s eyes to how fragile our system really is, the importance of being self-sufficient. They really should just know how to handle a firearm.”

There has been no panic in the streets, no grocery store riots in Pittsburgh or nationwide. Jay Aronson, a professor of science, technology and society at Carnegie Mellon University, said that if COVID-19 continues to strain conventional social structures it would be understandable to see people reacting differently.

“They could go one of two ways,” he said. ”Hunker down and protect themselves and their families against real or imagined enemies, or stand together with the neighborhood and take a more communal stance.”

Last year, Mr. Aronson’s students studied the types of firearms used, and not used, by domestic terrorists. Not a gun owner, he said the research made him feel less anxious about firearms.

“I think the way you respond [to guns] depends on your political sensibilities, risk tolerance and the way you see fellow people,” he said. “I don’t think our society is as communal as it was long ago, for lots of reasons. We’ve been pushed down the road of everyone for themselves and less down a path of mutual aid.

“To the extent that people are choosing to purchase guns [during COVID] shows they are feeling alienated from society. They say they’re protecting their family, but they’re feeling like there’s a sudden breakdown in order.”

COVID, Mr Aronson said, may make America “take a deep breath” and decide what it wants to do about guns.

The Fox Chapel doctor said his .22-caliber handgun is still in its box and locked in a safe. He has fired guns before, he said, but with shooting ranges shuttered during a statewide closing of “non-life-sustaining” businesses, he’s not sure how he and his wife will learn how to use it. And he hopes they never have to use it.

“I’ve been an anesthesiologist for nearly 20 years, and there are times I’m in the hospital five to seven days a week, and can’t be home to protect my family,” he said. “That’s why I bought it. I’m a Democrat who believes in social welfare for people, health care for everyone. But when you start to say the health care system could break down, we’re in big trouble. I don’t know how people will react at that time.”

John Hayes: 412-263-1991,

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