Right-wing media irresponsibly cheered the coronavirus-related gun buying surge

Firearms are used far more often for criminal purposes than self-defense and that trend is emerging in high-profile coronavirus-related gun incidents

Conservative media encourage COVID-19 related gun purchases

Citation Media Matters / Molly Butler

Many right-wing media outlets and figures have used the novel coronavirus pandemic to encourage people to buy more guns, framing the purchases as necessary for self-defense. Academic research has long indicated that firearms are far more often used in criminal incidents or in acts “against the interests of society” rather than to prevent crimes, and news headlines about high-profile coronavirus-related gun incidents have fit this pattern. 

A record-breaking surge in gun purchases was documented in both March and April. According to data from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS) -- a metric that can be used to estimate how many guns are being purchased -- March saw the highest number of background checks in a single month since the system was created in 1998. The FBI conducted 3.7 million background checks that month, up 12% from previous single-month high in December 2015. The trend continued in April, when the FBI conducted about 3 million background checks, making it the fourth highest month on record.   

During the pandemic, reports of domestic violence have also increased across the country. At least 18 law enforcement departments said they saw a rise in domestic violence calls during March. Just in the second half of March, 1,765 callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline said “their abusive partner was leveraging COVID-19 to ‘further isolate, coerce, or increase fear in the relationship.’” Introducing firearms into a home where there is domestic violence is a significant factor that drives intimate partner homicide. 

Tensions during the pandemic have also led to a steady stream of gun violence related to COVID-19. In May alone, a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan, was fatally shot because he wouldn’t let a customer enter the premises without a mask; a Waffle House employee in Aurora, Colorado, was shot and injured after he confronted a customer who was not wearing a mask; and three McDonald’s employees in Oklahoma City were shot when a customer opened fire after being told the location’s dining center was closed due to the pandemic. A May 5 event to honor nurses in Pennsylvania “was marred when a gun-waving SUV driver crashed a parade.” Earlier in March, a man at a Sheetz gas station parking lot in Pennsylvania fired at the vehicle of another customer who confronted him for allegedly coughing without covering his mouth. 

There have also been at least two threats of mass shootings related to the coronavirus. A Texas law firm employee was fired earlier this month after he went on a Facebook rant threatening to shoot any Whole Foods employee who enforced the store’s policy of people wearing a mask inside the store. Another man in Sebring, Florida, was arrested in April after authorities said he threatened to start shooting people at a Publix grocery store because not enough were wearing masks.  

Several individuals, some of whom had guns in their possession, have been arrested for making threats related to the coronavirus pandemic, including against public officials responding to the outbreak. 

During this time, conservative media outlets and figures have irresponsibly defended people buying more guns, in some cases even encouraging them to do so in order to protect themselves from a theoretical breakdown in societal order. 

  • A March 15 column by Breitbart’s pro-gun writer AWR Hawkins promoted the claims of people who said they were buying guns because of the prospect of civil unrest. 
  • During the March 18 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson said during a segment about coronavirus-related gun purchases that “if the public believed their leaders would protect them, they wouldn’t be buying guns,” adding later that “if there was ever a moment” to invoke the Second Amendment, “it’s now.” 
  • In a March 19 article, Hawkins fearmongered about Democrats supporting gun regulations during the pandemic, writing, “At times like these, Americans of every walk of life realize their safety, and their family’s safety, is in their own hands.” 
  • During the March 24 edition of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, host Laura Ingraham said that while Democrats are attacking Americans’ Second Amendment rights, “people are worried about their own security during this health care crisis.” 
  • During the March 25 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson claimed that gun store closures in some areas were preventing people “from defending themselves.” Carlson’s guest, radio host Buck Sexton, said, “Let’s all be honest, it’s going to get very sketchy in the weeks ahead. There is real concern about some civil disorder, especially if the economy gets very, very rocky, and people should be able to defend themselves.” 
  • During the March 26, edition of Todd Starnes' ToddCast, Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee said mayors should direct their constituents to buy guns because “if people get desperate and they go to the store and they can't buy toilet paper, they may bust into your house to get yours.”
  • During the March 30 edition of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, right-wing grifter Dinesh D’Souza said, “There is a rational fear of the epidemic, but there’s also a rational fear of what happens when civic order breaks down. When there is a certain level of economic collapse, then things go haywire." D’Souza also mentioned the release of some prison inmates due to COVID-19 concerns and said citizens are demanding to know how they can protect themselves against them with guns.
  • On April 1, Students for Trump co-founder Ryan Fournier tweeted that “2.5 million guns” were bought in March, before adding, “God bless the Second Amendment.
  • An April 8 article on The Federalist acknowledged that “we are far from an apocalypse” during the current pandemic crisis but claimed that owning a gun during this time is a “rational insurance policy against danger,” adding, “There is a lot of irrational fear directed toward firearms as inanimate objects.”   
  • In an April 15 Washington Examiner article, the Cato Institute’s Trevor Burrus wrote that while society may not break down during this pandemic, people are worried about protecting their families and “it could be better to have [a gun] and not need it than need it and not have it.”   
  • On May 12, Fournier tweeted that “during this pandemic” Democrats are “shredding” the Second Amendment before writing, “I stand with the millions of law-abiding gun owners who are standing up against these tyrants.”

While heightened tensions, anxieties, and fears during a global pandemic are surely natural, many in right-wing media are capitalizing on those feelings to push a scenario we know to be dangerous. As research from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center has shown, states with a higher rate of gun availability experience a higher rates of gun homicide, suicide, and fatal accidents. In other words, where there is easier access to firearms, there is more gun violence.