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Michigan is on a record-setting hot streak for firearms background checks

A man standing next to a gun rack full of rifles and shotguns
Tyler Scott

It looks like people are buying a lot more guns (and ammo, when they can find it).

More than 120,000 firearms background checks were processed in Michigan in January. It’s the highest number of any month on record. In 2020 there were more than a million firearms background checks processed – another record high.

FBI records on background checks date back to 1998. They’re a rough indicator of gun sales in the U.S., though it’s impossible to know exactly how many guns are bought and sold each year. For example, buying a long gun from a private seller in Michigan doesn’t require a permit or a background check. The background check figures provide a rough indicator of gun sales, but they are not the same thing.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade group, estimates there were millions of new gun buyers in the U.S. last year and, citing their own surveys, say a significant number of first-time gun buyers are women and Black customers.

The tense political atmosphere and economic uncertainty because of the pandemic gets a lot of the blame/credit for the apparent surge in firearms sales that’s seen in the record-setting number of firearms background checks in Michigan over the past 13 months.

“The uncertain social and political climate has instilled a lack of confidence,” said Mike Abbott, who was selling vintage long guns this weekend at the Old Time Gun Show in Redford. “Are we going to have laws that protect us or do we defund the police and ask them to be counselors in the social area?”

Abbott says he’s seen first-hand how hard it is to find ammunition lately. He thinks some of the more violent and destructive protests last summer after the death of George Floyd led to some people looking to arm themselves, despite the fact that the vast majority of protests across the country and in Michigan were peaceful. More hunting licenses were sold in Michigan last year too, as people look for things to do amid a pandemic and job losses.

It’s been widely reported that many Michigan gun shops have been busy, and some people are buying guns for the first time. A clerk in the firearms section of Jay’s Sporting Goods Gaylord Location told Michigan Radio in a recent telephone call that the “shelves were pretty bare” of both guns and ammo.

“To me, the people that are making the ammo shortage are the people that are out there saying, ‘Oh my god they’re going to take away our guns,' and these people go nuts,” said Carl Winkler, who had part of his antique bayonet and pistol collection at the show in Redford.

Man with bayonet collection at a vendors table
Credit Tyler Scott
Carl Winkler collects and trades antique bayonets, and vintage military gear.

“There’s people with thousands of rounds in their basement just going to waste because they’re so damn scared someone's going to take it away.”

Winkler calls himself a liberal and says he’s in the minority at gun shows. He says he thinks all pistols and semi-automatic rifles should be required to be registered, but he’s glad people like him are easily and legally able to trade antiques, military memorabilia and long guns.

Last year, Michigan saw heavily-armed protestors demonstrate on the state Capitol grounds several times, and inside the Capitol building itself once. The men accused of plotting to kidnap and kill governor Gretchen Whitmer allegedly met at one of these protests. Open carry of firearms has now been banned in the state Capitol building. And after the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the Department of Homeland Security says there remains a heightened risk of violence by domestic extremists in the United States.

But that’s nothing new, according to Delores Tyburczyk, a Black woman who was selling vintage handguns and long guns at the Old Time Gun Show on Saturday.

“Domestic terrorism has always been here,” Tyburczyk said. “That’s what America was founded on. So how do you get rid of something that’s like an institution itself? I’m not going to worry about it.”

Tyburczyk, who declined to be photographed, says at the gun shows where she travels with her husband selling vintage handguns and long guns, she hasn’t noticed a rush of first-time buyers.

The Old Time Gun Show in Redford drew a crowd that skewed toward the older hunter/sportsman type, but it was far from entirely made up of old white guys. There were younger groups of women and men together; a few Black families or couples; some children carrying caramel corn bought from a vendor in the corner of the VFW hall hosting the event. Adherence to the face mask requirement was near universal.

“When you come [to gun shows], these aren't aggressive people,” Abbot said. “These are just friendly people that have their eyes open and they want to be prepared. And a lot of us are hobbyists that are interested in collecting.”

Tyler Scott is the weekend afternoon host at Michigan Public, though you can often hear him filling in at other times during the week. Tyler started in radio at age 18, as a board operator at WMLM 1520AM in Alma, Michigan, where he later became host of The Morning Show.
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