It was only her second time at the gun range, but it didn’t matter.
Seventy-two-year old Kay Cawman already knew what she wanted for a weapon. She knew what felt comfortable in her hands – the weight, the grip and the kind of kick it gave – despite her arthritis.
Like many others her age and older in Philadelphia, Cawman is buying a handgun for the first time for several reasons. The main one is self-defense. After a year that made her generally nervous, she says she felt the time was right.
A registered nurse from Salem, N.J., she traveled to the Delaware Valley Sports Center in Northeast Philly earlier this week to take her second lesson with an NRA-certified instructor and get more comfortable with her soon-to-be purchase.
In Philadelphia and across the Commonwealth, gun sales surged in 2020. A global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, peace protests-turned to violent riots and overall uncertainty about the future are all factors, experts say. With many businesses closed, workers laid off and people struggling to pay their bills, more and more Philadelphians are justifying the purchase of a firearm.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade organization for the gun industry, there were more than 1 million background checks into people seeking to buy guns in Pennsylvania in 2020, compared to 714,413 in 2019. For first-time buyers like Cawman, she understands the reason for the increase.
“It’s just a very unpredictable world,” she said during a recent interview with PW.
“With the civil unrest that is happening, is it going to be that much harder to purchase a gun in the future? The laws change, and I didn’t want to wait any longer.”
“The reason why a lot more Philadelphians are purchasing firearms more than ever is because of the fact that they realize they need to protect their family and themselves.” – Tony Filippello
Tony Filippello, owner of Delaware Valley Sports Center, has been in the gun sales business since 1992. He said never before has he seen more women and seniors buying weapons for themselves than over the past six months.
“The reason why a lot more Philadelphians are purchasing firearms more than ever is because of the fact that they realize they need to protect their family and themselves,” he said.
“You have a national agenda for defunding the police. They realize that the city law enforcement agencies may not be there for them and they’re scared.”
Filippello says they’re selling so many: “We can’t keep the guns on the shelf.”
“With the civil unrest that is happening, is it going to be that much harder to purchase a gun in the future?” – Kay Cawman
Last year proved to be the highest volume year in the history of the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS), which state police use to determine a person’s eligibility to purchase a gun. Between the first and third quarters of 2020, numbers steadily rose, and so did the number of gun purchase denials, subsequent investigations and arrests resulting from those investigations. (Numbers for the fourth quarter were not yet available as of press time.)
According to a state police news release, the increase in activity began when Pennsylvanians began learning about the COVID-19 pandemic in early spring. The state ran 406,151 background checks in the third quarter of 2020 – the most ever in any third quarter.
“It is common to see spikes in PICS activity surrounding major news events and before elections, and that was certainly the case in 2020,” said Ryan Tarkowski, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Police.
But not everybody is buying their guns at federally licensed dealers, as one gun control advocate points out.
“In Pennsylvania, you can buy a semiautomatic – really any long gun – without a background check if you get it from a private dealer,” said Marybeth Christiansen, Pennsylvania State Chapter Leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
“The data shows the increase in gun sales has led to an increase in all forms of gun violence – homicides, suicides, domestic violence shootings, unintended shootings. The shame of it is households that have a gun make it two times more likely that the owner will die from gun violence.
“It is common to see spikes in PICS activity surrounding major news events and before elections, and that was certainly the case in 2020.” – Ryan Tarkowski
“There are reasonable ways to limit gun violence that fully protect the 2nd Amendment that would be important at this time at the pandemic with increased sales.”
Yet a boost of first-time buyers has been a huge part of many gun shops’ customer base this past year. Bob Dulee, an NRA-certified instructor with Delaware Valley Sports Center, teaches gun safety five days a week.
“Guns are being used in self-defense successfully to deter and stop crime often without a shot even being fired,” he said.
Although he and owner Filippello still get their regulars who come in looking to add to their inventory – buying for sport, hunting, or collection – Filippello said something different he saw in 2020 was the number of women and seniors looking for firearms.
“[These are] women who have never, ever thought about owning a firearm or women who would never think about owning one when their husband was alive – are buying firearms to protect themselves. They come in here scared and I will not let them leave until they get a lesson and they learn how to shoot,” Filippello said.
“I have a group of women – they’re maybe 60 and older. They come once a week in various groups and they shoot. I remember when they couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. Now, I would put any one of these women against any competitive shooter – that’s how good they are. Some of these women are in their 80s and early 90s. They’re shooting aces.”
For Cawman, who lives alone, she said she just wants something that will make her feel protected in her own home.
“I plan on going to the range several more times to try out which gun feels right,” she said.
“For me, it’s about security and taking care of myself.”