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The pandemic has been a bonanza for the gun industry, with people waiting in line outside to buy supplies, such as those seen here at the Martin B. Retting, Inc. gun store in Culver City, California on March 15, 2020.Patrick Fallon/Reuters

In the centre of town, the shopping mall, movie theatres and restaurants are all dark and empty, shut down by the fight against the novel coronavirus.

But business is steady at Atlantic Guns.

The state of Maryland has designated firearm retailers as essential services, and residents of this Washington suburb are eager to load up on weapons and ammunition in case they have to fight off looters made desperate by the pandemic.

“The cops won’t go after petty crime when they’re dealing with coronavirus. If you don’t protect yourself, who’s going to do it for you?” said Anthony Rubio, 35, as he bought shotgun shells one morning this week. “There’s a lot of knuckleheads out there.”

Such a scene is the norm in this country. While three-quarters of Americans are subject to stay-at-home orders and a broad swath of businesses is shut down from coast to coast, gun stores remain open in at least 41 states. The Trump administration has added firearm makers, retailers and shooting ranges to its list of “essential critical infrastructure,” giving them the same status as hospitals and pharmacies.

In fact, the pandemic has been a bonanza for the gun industry. The federal government processed more than 3.7 million background checks in March, the largest one-month total ever. Online retailer Ammo.com has reported a 777-per-cent spike in revenue since late February.

Gun lobbyists have flexed their muscles to keep the good times rolling. They have sued the government of California, the country’s most populous state, to stop authorities there from closing stores. And the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSA), a lobby group for the gun industry, has claimed credit for convincing the White House to declare the industry essential.

It’s all adding to fears that the epidemic of gun violence in this country will get even worse: Children are being exposed to unsecured guns in the home, gun-control advocates warn, and jittery first-time gun buyers could mishandle their weapons – all while a country of shut-ins is seeing a rise in domestic violence.

With hospitals already struggling to handle the rising wave of COVID-19 cases, there will be few resources available to deal with gunshot wounds.

“Increased stockpiling of guns and ammunition is already problematic, and then you combine that with the lack of capacity and beds and medical professionals that are able to provide health-care assistance,” said Jasmeet Sidhu, a gun violence researcher at Amnesty International. “This is a situation like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

Philadelphia, for instance, saw a 22-per-cent rise in shootings in the four weeks ending March 22, despite a drop in other crimes. Police in Seattle logged a 21-per-cent increase in domestic violence calls last month. Several states have reported children shot accidentally in recent weeks, including a three-year-old boy killed in Lexington, Ky.

The United States already has an extraordinarily high rate of gun deaths for a developed country. A University of Washington study counted 37,200 in 2016, a rate of 10.6 for every 100,000 people. Canada had a rate of 2.1. The United Kingdom and Japan, which have some of the world’s toughest gun-control laws, were at 0.3 and 0.2 respectively.

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Some states, such as Texas, have explicitly decreed that gun stores will stay open. In Pennsylvania, the Governor initially ordered the stores closed but changed his mind at the urging of three justices of the state’s Supreme Court. In Virginia, the Governor is prohibited by law from shutting down the sale or carrying of guns during an emergency.

Only five states – New York, Massachusetts, Washington, New Mexico and Vermont – have closed stores down.

Others fall into a grey area. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom left it to local officials to decide what to do. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva closed the shops but changed his mind after being hit with a lawsuit by the National Rifle Association. San Jose and other cities in Northern California have pressed ahead with closures and are also facing a suit.

The NRA argues that closing down gun stores violates the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which it says protects the right to keep and bear arms.

“The challenges we all face because of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, or any other such emergency, does not, cannot, and must not justify or excuse government infringements upon fundamental human rights,” reads the suit against San Jose.

NSSA spokesman Mark Oliva said his members have told him that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of people buying guns amid the pandemic are first-time owners. But he brushed off concerns that this would exacerbate violence on the streets or in homes.

“I am concerned for the woman who doesn’t have a gun to defend herself against domestic violence,” he said.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health, however, showed that victims of domestic violence are five-times more likely to be killed if there is a gun in the house. Presented with these findings, Mr. Oliva said, “I disagree with that,” but conceded that he had not read the study.

At Vienna Arsenal, a gun store in a small office complex in northern Virginia, the queue of customers stretched out the door and down the hall one recent afternoon. Staff, some wearing handguns on their hips, moved amid racks of tactical rifles. They refused to speak with The Globe and Mail. “Do you see the lineup we’ve got?” said one clerk.

Back in Silver Spring, at least one patron of Atlantic Guns judged the rush for weapons a little absurd.

“People should be lining up for hand sanitizer, but they’re buying guns,” said Demiyo Jones, a 27-year-old security guard.

Still, he said he agreed with the decision to keep the stores open, in case other essentials run out and people start breaking into homes to steal supplies.

“If this pandemic goes on for a while and people get desperate," he said. "God forbid.”

Christopher Mio and Meghan Hoople found themselves jobless and wanting to help in the wake of COVID-19 isolation in Toronto. After flyering their neighbourhood with a free-of-charge offer, they received an outpouring of support and requests from people in need.

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