RIVERTON — When in doubt, Wyomingites arm themselves.
That’s the conclusion of the 2020 National Instant Criminal Background Check report, which revealed the highest numbers of firearms background checks since its reporting began – by a long shot – both in Wyoming and nationwide.
“These numbers are insane numbers,” said Rocky Mountain Discount Sports store manager Kevin Hermann. When asked why the arming craze, Hermann said “politics… helps. It does. I think politics is probably the biggest part of it.”
Murdoch’s in Riverton is seeing the rush as well. Sporting goods employee Randy Jevne said ammunition deliveries have been dwindling since November due to huge demand nationwide. Last week, he noted, standard rifle and pistol rounds didn’t arrive at all.
Things were steady in Wyoming until March of 2020 – the notable month in which schools and businesses were closed by state health officers and gatherings were limited, in an effort to mitigate the coronavirus.
Nearly every facet of public life was transformed, and the arming craze began. Between February and March, the state’s firearms background checks jumped 60 percent.
Wyoming’s NICS report for the year 2020 showed 4,984 background checks in January and 5,500 in February. Then in March, 8,847 checks were performed.
The numbers never went back down to the 5,000 range, with April the lowest COVID month at 6,272 background checks. They climbed steadily from month to month, finishing with November and December higher than the other 10 months by a gulf – at 9,719 and 9,736, respectively.
There were 91,384 weapons checks done in the state in 2020, total. That figure left its predecessors in the dust: 2019 showed 61,291 checks for Wyoming. 2018 saw 60,150.
The previous record-holder was the year 2013, in which there were 70,671 checks performed statewide.
Every other state in the nation spiked in March 2020 except Kentucky, which was the only American state in which firearms checks dropped with the onset of COVID shutdowns.
And in the nation as a whole, there were about 39.7 million firearms background checks for the year. That means that even if every person who was vetted bought just one gun, and just one 50- round box of ammunition to go with it, 2 billion rounds would have been sold to the year’s gun purchasers.
Firearm background checks leapt by more than 11 million from 2019 to 2020 nationally, setting a new record for the highest tally in U.S. history.
The NICS database was established in 1998, after which the numbers climbed steadily from 9,000 to about 28,000 in 2019. Never – prior to 2020 – did the database see a jump greater than 4 million checks from year to year.
When guns go, ammunition goes.
Hermann said customers at Rocky Mountain remarked often that the unrest following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, coincided with the sales spikes nationwide.
“If you’re living in the city and you’ve got rioters for weeks, and weeks… you go protect yourself. I hear that a lot,” he said.
The monthslong protests that flooded urban areas were not as pronounced in Wyoming. In Riverton, a few individuals gathered at twilight one summer evening in City Park for a candlelight vigil that was later lauded by police as an exemplary protest. Many held signs; the evening concluded with attendees sitting calmly in the grass.
Still, said Hermann, what affects commerce elsewhere affects commerce locally. If buyers begin hoarding ammunition in urban areas, suppliers rush to replenish those areas, causing a dearth in Wyoming towns and others like them.
And once that shortage is noticed, local people start buying ammunition as often as they can.
Asked when new ammo is expected next to arrive, Hermann quipped, “my standard answer is, the ammunition is on the toilet paper truck. We get it when we get it.”
The manager added that boxes come every two or three days, in lesser and lesser quantities.
“People are having issues,” Jevne echoed from his post at Murdoch’s.
A common question among gun enthusiasts, Hermann noted, is “if the demand has spiked, why can’t factories supply more?”
To which he answered “they are. The factory workers are building as hard and as fast as they can. They are very, very busy.”
The increases in demand put pressure on raw materials suppliers as well as factories.
“And what a lot of factories fear,” said Hermann, citing 28 years of working with ammo companies, “is if they spend the money for a huge plant, get a lot of production going, and then the demand is gone – then there they are with millions of dollars in equipment, and they have to pay for that building.”
Then there’s the primer – thespark plug of the bullet. Hermann said making primers is a highly specialized chemical process requiring a sterile, static-free environment.
“You can’t just go in your garage and make them,” he said. The volatility of primers – and the shortage of people and places that can handle them – bottlenecks bullet production.
Riverton-based custom rifle manufacturer Matt Good, of Cross-Eyed Custom Rifles, said he tried adding ammo production to his line-up, but it didn’t work out.
“The powder suppliers were so busy, they didn’t have room to take on another distributor,” said Good. “That was basically the responseI got from everybody.”
That was a month ago.
“I’m probably not (going to keep trying), just because I’m busy enough with all the gunsmithing and rifle-building.”
Good switched from his day job at High Plains Power Inc. in Riverton in 2016, to make rifles full time.
When asked if his business spiked with the onset of COVID-19 in the country, or urban unrest, Good said “not really,” because he’s always been busy.
After a roughly two-month delay, the Riverton Police Department is finally getting its training rounds.
RPD Capt. Wesley Romero said in November the department ordered its 10,000 pistol rounds and 15,000 rifle rounds required for one year of training and testing.
As of Jan. 15, that order had shipped.
RPD has 28 sworn officers who train with firearms once a month typically and are required to test for qualification twice a year. They practice with American Eagle ammunition.
The duty rounds, which are kept in the magazines carried by officers onto the field, are “rarely” used, said Romero, and are Gold Dot brand. Still, even those must be replaced once a year, to ward off any liability associated with old bullets.
Romero said he wasn’t exactly sure why the ammo shortage had occurred, but COVID-19 shipping delays caused typically by quarantined workers and storehouses could be culpable.
When asked if he was concerned that panic buying created extra competition for the departmental purchase of training rounds, Romero said “No, they (the public) have every right to it as well as we do. So that’s not really a concern for us. Our concern is just running out and not having what we need.”
Despite the roller coaster of his line of work, Hermann was optimistic that things would settle down. “We’re just in crazy times,” he said. “But we’re creative human beings, we’ll make it work.”