Gun sales across the country are surging and in Florida, there have been several record-setting days in the past few weeks. Tallahassee-based Red Hills Arms is struggling to keep up with demand and its owners say as is the case with other gun stores, it's seeing a boom in first-time buyers.
The walls of Red Hills arms are usually lined with shotguns and semi-automatic rifles, the glass cases, full of handguns. But on a Thursday morning, there are just a few handguns left, and gaps on the wall where guns used to hang. Store owner Katie Shelfer says she's been juggling the inventory around to make it look fuller, in order to keep people from panic buying.
Usually, there is a surge of gun sales around times of natural disasters, mass shootings or when gun reform legislation has been proposed. But this time, Shelter says, is different.
“Everyone needs something for home defense. That’s what they keep stressing. Home defense, home defense, home defense, " she explains. " You can’t get any one answer out of anyone it’s just really this overarching sense of anxiety and just kind of, everything feels kind of ominous. Everything’s closed, their lives have been altered, some more than others.”
Shelfer says her team has been emphasizing gun safety and taking time out to teach these new owners how to handle the weapons. The store gives away gun locks for free. But she’s also turned away some who made the staff feel uncomfortable. Shelfer says owning a gun isn’t for everyone.
“You have to go seek training, and some people, they just don’t know the fundamentals of firearm safety. And we’re like, 'I just don’t know if this is the right time or right tool for you. You need to go out and seek training first'. We’re not going to sell you a firearm if…you seem to be unsafe with the firearm, you can’t manipulate the slide…or you’re waiving the gun around in the store.”
Shelfer says she's had to turn away some potential customers. Her store is being restocked, but deliveries are taking weeks instead of days. Her experience isn't unusual right now.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, demand for background checks has surged amid state-mandated store closures, a quickly-rising unemployment rate, school shutdowns, local restrictions asking people to stay at home, and curfews. Law enforcement agencies across the state have also announced they're trying to curtail arrests.
Governor Ron DeSantis recently expressed concerns about implementing statewide lockdown which mostly Democrats, have called for.
“I definitely think some of the measures that have been done…when have they been done in Florida before?" DeSantis said. "This is really something we haven’t seen in a long time. And some people think the governor should be a dictator and order everyone to prison their home. I don’t think that would be an effective approach but it’s certainly not warranted in certain parts of the state.”
The growing number and types of restrictions are raising questions about how far governments can go.
“The primary responsibility for protecting public health rests with the states. And the Supreme Court has long recognized that states have what’s called the police power, which is the power to take steps to protect the public health, safety and welfare," says Florida State University Law Professor Michael Morley.
Turns out, much of what’s happening now dates back to a 100-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
“So quarantine laws, isolation laws have long been recognized as an aspect of the police power. Over a century ago, in a case called Jacobsen vs. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court has said this police power includes the authority, in the case of infectious disease, to even mandate vaccinations," Morley says.
Obviously, it hasn’t come to that. There has been talk of using hotels to be used as hospitals as quarantine centers, and the mechanism for that is the takings clause in the Constitution—otherwise known as Eminent Domain.
“The takings clause of the U.S. and state Constitutions lets the government step in, take the property…and then the property owner is entitled to the fair market purchase value or the fair market rental rate for the property."
Morley says these decisions are being driven by the need for social distancing to slow the spread of a new disease there's no vaccine for. He argues the consequences of not taking action, could be worse than what he views as temporary inconveniences. Yet those same precautions are the ones stoking fears and leading people to panic-buying toilet paper, food products, and guns.
The FDLE usually performs around 2,000 background checks a day this time a year. This month alone, the department has processed about 5,000 background checks per day amounting to more than 142,000 thousand checks performed so far, with several days breaking records.