For the third quarter in a row, the Pennsylvania State Police are reporting a new record in the point-of-sale background checks required before most gun sales, meaning that record interest in firearms sparked by the civil unrest after the George Floyd killing and a contentious election last year has just kept soaring into 2021.
In the first quarter of 2021, the Pennsylvania Instant Check System completed 427,450 background checks. That’s up 40.2 percent from January through March 2020. State Police said previous records for PICS activity were 420,581 background checks, set from October through December of 2020; and 406,151 checks from July through September last year.
Background checks don’t equate exactly to sales; some would-be buyers are barred from buying.
But more importantly, rules exempting private sales of long guns (including rifles, shotguns and semi-automatic military style rifles) are exempt from the requirement. Some national studies suggest more than 20 percent of all legal firearms sales occur outside the background check system.
But they are considered a good barometer of the market, and that means, for now, things are running hot.
The main cause for that may be the results of last year’s election, several dealers reached by PennLive said Tuesday.
“No doubt it’s our new president. He’s the best gun salesman out there,” said John Lehman, explaining that with President Joe Biden – who supports several popular gun control measures – in the White House and the Democratic Party holding thin majorities in both houses of the Congress, many people see gun rights under attack.
“They’ve already made it public,” Lehman said, referring to two bills passed in early March in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Joel Koehler, operator of Eagle Arms in Breinigsville, Lehigh County, agreed that gun politics is a driving force.
“Of course people are concerned. They want their Second Amendment rights not trampled,” Koehler said. “I’ve been in the business 45 years. I’ve seen this happen under every Democratic Administration from Clinton. Obama. They’re our best salesmen.”
With the Democratic Party holding the White House and thin majorities in both the houses of Congress, the chance of tighter gun restrictions being imposed at the federal level is perceived by many gun owners’ rights groups to be greater than it’s been in a more than a decade.
In separate votes that fell largely along party lines, the bills passed by the U.S. House last month would require background checks for all gun buyers, and extend the time the F.B.I. has to vet those flagged by the national instant check system.
The background check measure would extend the required point-of-sale checks to people buying firearms at gun shows, and to people guns. Those categories of sales were never included in the check system, which must come back clean before the buyers can take possession of the weapon.
The second bill would extend the three days given the F.B.I. has to complete a check by an additional week, to 10 days.
Despite being popular with voters, the measures face uncertain futures in the Senate, where Republicans have more enough votes to block the bills unless Democrats decide to roll back the chamber’s filibuster rule, which permits opponents of any measure to keep debate open unless at least 60 senators vote to end discussion and move to a final vote.
Lehman said his customers aren’t waiting to find out. Some of that may speak to the broader cultural wars at play in American society, he thinks.
“I have no doubt it’s politically driven. People are afraid of their rights being taken away, so they’re going to exercise ‘em while they got ‘em. It’s a major conversation with everybody at the gun shows,” said Lehman, 72, whose J&S Arms dealership is based in Jersey Shore, Lycoming County.
“Everywhere you look somebody’s restricting something…. It’s just everything from anti-police to anti-gun to anti-anything.”
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