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Gun sales surge because of protests, pandemic

When Mark Schlofer watches the news in the morning, he can often tell what kind of day he’s going to have.

The owner of Eastern Arms, a gun and tackle shop on Route 903 in Albrightsville, Schlofer points to the two major problems in this country as to why he has sold hundreds of shotguns and handguns in the past four months.

In 2012, Schlofer set up shop at his new location on Route 903 near St. Luke’s Urgent Care. Business was slow. Selling hunting and fishing licenses to the local population was the main exchange and tourists would buy fishing and hunting supplies, but then the first of three national tragedies would bring droves of customers to his counter looking to buy firearms and ammunition.

Sandy Hook effect

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20 first-graders and six employees were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

“Because of the concern that the gun used in the shooting would no longer be manufactured, my sales of AR-15 rifles surged immediately after Sandy Hook,” said Schlofer. “The demand was so high, I had to do all I could to keep up with the inventory.”

For a period of six months, sales of rifles and ammunition remained strong, but once the school intruder tragedy became news of the past, Eastern Arms & Outfitters fell back on selling shotguns and rifles for the various hunting seasons and from April to November, they catered to bait and tackle fishermen.

Pandemic panic

When, schools closed due to the coronavirus, “That was the beginning of mass hysteria,” he said.

“Toilet paper was gone. Ground beef was gone and suddenly, home defense became a priority with a lot of people. We actually closed our stores for one day thinking we weren’t essential and we didn’t want to risk losing our license to sell firearms, but since we also have a federal license to sell and to transfer, we were permitted to open the very next day.”

Schlofer sold hundreds of 9 mm and .45-caliber handguns as well as home protection shotguns, which are shorter in the barrel than hunting shotguns so that users can maneuver the weapon easier through doorways and tight spaces. He explained that most shotgun owners keep the weapon loaded on the tops of bedroom closets where young children can’t reach. Handguns are mostly stored inside a lockbox in a nightstand by the bed.

“We had customers who were stockpiling their already large collection of firearms. We had some who wanted to buy shotguns to supplement their handguns and we had customers who never owned a gun and came in with recommendations from friends and family members.”

Schlofer estimates that 75 percent of his gun sales in the first week of March were from new customers, many coming from as far away as Lancaster, Philadelphia and New Jersey.

George Floyd effect

Before the pandemic surge of sales had slowed, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis started another spike in Schlofer’s business as people worried about defending themselves from social violence.

“We sold by appointment only and we were busy from opening to closing every day with unprecedented sales.”

Schlofer estimates that from March through Memorial Day, he has sold 1,000 firearms between his Albrightsville and Quakertown store. His problem is keeping a supply of inventory he buys from wholesale distributors.

Brett Hoch, owner of Ed’s Sport Shop in Tamaqua, agreed that inventory supplies of handguns, home protection shotguns, and AR-15 rifles have been an issue at his store due to increasing demand.

“We have about one-third the inventory we usually carry,” said Hoch, who estimates his store has sold several hundred firearms in the past four months.

Abel Boyer of A.F. Boyer’s in Slatington has been working 12 hours a day.

As of Friday, he had submitted 300 background checks in four days.

He estimated his sales to be well into the thousands, with many first-time buyers.

Sales dilemma

Schlofer has a checklist of approvals and clearances a customer must pass before a firearm can be sold. He begins with a conversation to judge a would-be buyer’s capability to handle a home protection weapon properly.

“We are especially concerned with people who have never shot a gun of any kind. We explain handling and operation in great detail before we place the firearm in their hands. There have been times when we refuse to sell because the person awkwardly holds the gun or looks frightened by it. It would be like letting a 14-year-old kid drive a car with no license. We get complaints from turning customers away, but we stay true to our word and advise them to take a firearms training course and then come back.”

Once the customer passes the initial conversation, federal and state clearance paperwork must be completed.

“The clearances must get through the state police first. Some applicants lie on the forms, but background checks usually catch them. We can be very suspicious that a gang member with a criminal record may send in a girlfriend with a clean record to buy a gun. She’s usually very nervous and will even call her gang boyfriend to ask him questions while she is standing in front of us.”

Hoch has also seen a lot of first-time gun buyers, many in their 40s and 50s. He directs the less proficient to also seek training.

“Many indoor gun ranges are opening back up,” Hoch said.

Next surge in sales

With a presidential election just months away, Schlofer sees another spike in firearm sales, especially if one candidate campaigns for stronger gun control.

“In 2016, Hillary Clinton wanted stricter gun laws and people who feared they wouldn’t be able to buy more guns came running into our stores.”

Once again, fear, panic and loss of the right to bear arms turns into profit. Schlofer takes his end of the responsibility very seriously, knowing that a gun he sells could kill someone by accident or by intention.

“I have to try to be a psychologist and assess someone’s ability to handle a firearm properly. Our checkpoints are near bulletproof, excuse the expression, but no system is perfect.”

He expects that when everything calms down, people will come in to sell him back their guns for extra cash they might need.

Gun shops are reporting more interest from first-time buyers. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS