The rate of Allegheny County residents applying for licenses to carry firearms has nearly tripled in the last month. The Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office typically issues between 40 to 80 licenses or renewals per day, but as of Oct. 21, the office has issued between 250 and 300 per day, according to Chief Deputy Kevin Kraus.
The rise comes despite limited office operations due to the coronavirus pandemic. Applicants must register for an appointment online to prevent crowding at the Sheriff’s Office. As of the end of October, though, some morning walk-in appointment slots have opened up. Since then, Kraus said the lines have been unprecedented.
“There’s definitely a spike in the number of people wanting to get new licenses that haven’t had licenses in the past,” Kraus said. He estimated two-thirds of applicants are doing it for the first time.
While the surge in numbers could be attributed to some backlog due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, Kraus said he has noticed a few common themes on applications.
“We hear different issues: self-defense, the unrest in the country, and certainly the transition of power in the White House,” he said. Historically, gun sales spike near a presidential election, especially when a Democrat wins the White House.
But for Renee Boswell, a Pittsburgh resident in her late 40s, owning a firearm had more to do with President Donald Trump than President-elect Joe Biden. She said social media comments have gone from aggressive to threatening during Trump’s term in office. She felt like owning a gun might help her feel safe when comment threads spill into real life.
“The division is so strong you could cut it with a knife,” she said. “So much hate is out there, it’s scary… Even with Wendy Bell saying, ‘Shoot ‘em on sight.’ You’re like ‘Wow, you have a news person saying shoot ‘em on sight.’ It made me feel like I needed to protect myself,” she said. Conservative radio host Wendy Bell was taken off the air at KDKA Radio in September after she suggested park rangers shoot people who deface public monuments.
Boswell has never owned a firearm before and her recently obtained license is her first. She says more Black women like her are becoming interested in getting protection.
“Moms are afraid for their family. There are a lot of single moms out here as well that want protection,” she said.
Lynn Craig, a 50-year-old Forest Hills resident, recently joined a group of friends in getting licenses to carry. She said the group, which typically gathers for dinners at restaurants, is made up of five Black women. Craig said they talked about getting licenses to carry in the wake of multiple police shootings of Black men this year and the civil unrest that followed. She said she had been curious about protection since President Trump took office.
“We already had racism. But I feel that he made it comfortable for people to do and say whatever they wanted,” she said. “Even during this election, I’ve seen things on Facebook that really disturbed me.” Craig pointed to an August shooting at a protest near Bedford, Pa. where 50 people were making a cross-country trek to protest against police brutality. The same group passed through Pittsburgh days earlier.
Both Boswell and Craig noted plans to complete safety courses as part of their belief that owning a firearm and a license to carry is a heavy responsibility. Pennsylvania law does not require applicants to undergo firearm safety training. Boswell thinks that should change.
“People need to go to the [gun range],” she said to learn how to use a firearm. “I know I’m going to be responsible and go to the range… to me it’s an uneasy feeling to know that people are buying guns without looking into [training] first.”
Firearms sales are also up across Pennsylvania. According to Ryan Tarkowski, communications director for the Pennsylvania State Police, 2020 is on track to be the highest volume year in the history of the Pennsylvania Instant Check System. PICS provides a background check on individuals attempting to purchase a firearm, receive a firearm through a transfer or apply for a license to carry a firearm.
The PICS system experienced record demand during the third quarter of 2020 (July 1 through September 30). A total of 406,151 background checks during that time period were completed. The highest total previously was 369,807, set in the first quarter of 2013.
In the month of October alone, 145,337 total background checks were completed by the PICS. From January through the end of October, 1,170,683 background checks associated with firearms were completed in Pennsylvania.
“It is not uncommon to see spikes in firearm sales around elections, when people think there may be changes coming to firearm-related laws,” Tarkowski said. “Significant events like the pandemic and well-publicized civil unrest in the summertime have also traditionally driven firearm sales and corresponding PICS activity.”
In Allegheny County, pandemic restrictions are still in place and officials request license applicants book an appointment online. The earliest availability for an appointment is April 2021. For now, the office continues to offer walk-in appointments on a first come, first served basis on weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon.