As fears of the coronavirus have increased dramatically in recent weeks across the U.S., so have sales of handguns, shotguns, tasers, pellet guns, and pepper spray, many to first-time buyers of these products, retailers say.

Accurate consumer firearm sales figures are hard to come by, but statistics from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which cover all types of guns ranging from pistols to shotguns, are often used as a proxy for the gun market.

While that measure is imperfect—guns sold by unlicensed sellers don’t require a background check—those checks leaped to an all-time high last month. The FBI processed 3.7 million background checks in March, the most ever for a single month since the system was established in 1998, and a 41 percent rise compared with March of last year. There were 210,308 background checks on March 20th alone, the highest day on record.

Sales started picking up in early March, and then went "through the roof," says Sean Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Firearms in Greenwood, Ind. “I think a lot of that’s just got to do with people panicking. I’d say about 60 percent of the people who purchased this last week or so were first-time gun owners.” 

More on the Coronavirus

Sales of stun guns also have increased during the coronavirus outbreak, according to Axon, which makes brand-name Taser products. David Nance, CEO of Sabre, a manufacturer of pepper spray, says that purchases of his company’s products on Amazon have doubled. Byrna, a manufacturer of pellet guns, reports that its sales jumped 500 percent.

With anxiety levels high because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic toll, millions of children at home because schools are closed, and parents distracted by work and worry, Americans are facing a situation that has some public health experts concerned.

“Under the current conditions—where people are sheltering at home with enormous financial uncertainty and living in close quarters with resources being scarce and unemployment rates going up—I fear you’ll see an increase in firearm accidents, injuries, and deaths,” says Matthew Miller, M.D., professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University in Boston, and an expert on the effects of guns on public health. 

Guns are the second leading cause of death among children, with the first being car accidents, according to a 2018 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Consumer Reports spoke to gun-safety experts, firearms industry groups, gun store owners, and public health officials to understand the current market and to advise consumers about what they need to know about safe weapon storage. 

One recurring message: While the ownership issue of guns and other home defense measures is controversial, there is widespread agreement that if you’ve purchased a gun or another weapon, proper storage and safety techniques are critical.

That includes the National Rifle Association, which describes itself as America’s “preeminent gun rights organization” and advises on its website to “Store guns so they are not accessible to unauthorized persons.”

The best practice is to secure all firearms in locked storage, with ammunition stored and locked separately, says Bill Brassard, senior director of communications for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry group. The American Academy of Pediatrics echoes that advice.

Brassard says a common criticism of gun locks and safes is that they could slow response time in a self-defense emergency. But “many lockboxes open very quickly, providing access to the gun owner, while still being inaccessible to a child,” he says.

The Case for Gun Storage

Research shows that gun owners do not always safely store their guns. A 2018 study from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that 54 percent of gun owners report that they do not keep guns in a safe, locked into a gun rack, or stored with a trigger or other lock.

This despite studies that have shown gun safes and other storage precautions save lives. Gun deaths from suicides and accidental shootings among young people could be decreased by almost a third if just 20 percent more households with children locked up their firearms, according to a May 2019 study in JAMA Pediatrics written by Northeastern’s Miller and colleagues at Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital.

Previous research from Miller found that roughly three-quarters of first and second graders know where their parents keep their firearms and that about a third say they’ve handled the weapons. 

Safe gun storage could also help prevent what the data show is the biggest risk: suicide. Of the 39,740 American firearm deaths in 2018, 61 percent were suicides, compared with 35 percent homicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other firearm deaths included unintentional shootings and legal interventions such as shootings by law enforcement.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, attempted suicide by gun results in death 85 percent of the time, compared with 3 percent for other common methods.

Proper firearm storage can make a difference, experts say. “Most suicidal acts are impulsive,” says Edmond Shenassa, Sc.D., an associate professor of family science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in College Park.

“Not having immediate access to guns, which are the most lethal and irreversible means of suicide, most certainly reduces the likelihood of the gun being used to self-harm.”

How to Safely Secure and Store Weapons

There are a number of ways to secure a firearm. Federal law requires that any handgun sold by dealers or manufacturers include a locking device such as a gun lock—though those requirements don’t apply to other types of firearms.

These locks typically use a cable or a bolt connected to a padlock to immobilize the firearm’s inner mechanics. For people who obtained their gun through a private sale or from friends or family, the National Shooting Sports Foundation provides gun locks to local law enforcement agencies to distribute to the public free of charge through its Project ChildSafe program. (Local police departments can provide details.)

According to Brassard, cable locks fit most guns but might not work on some firearms, such as double-barrel or break-action shotguns. In those firearms, a trigger lock can be used to prevent the gun from firing. But Brassard recommends a cable lock whenever possible because it requires the gun to be unloaded when it’s installed, adding an extra layer of safety.

However, his group encourages gun owners to use a lockbox or a safe because a gun lock wouldn’t stop someone from stealing a weapon. Many storage units can be bolted down for extra security. And they can be small enough for a single handgun, or big enough for long guns or several firearms.

Safe Gun Storage
Firearms, pepper spray, and other weapons should be stored in a locked safe.
Illustration: Chris Philpot

Gun storage devices use a variety of locking mechanisms as well, including keys, mechanical or electronic combination locks, and biometric fingerprint readers.

According to Project ChildSafe, prices for a lockbox range from $25 to $350. Gun owners who need a full-sized safe with space for multiple firearms, including rifles and shotguns, will typically pay between $200 and $2,500. There are also storage devices for vehicles, which cost between $250 and $1,500.

Similar storage advice applies to other weapons and home defense products. Axon, the manufacturer of Taser products, recommends “taking all necessary precautions to keep the device out of reach of children, including storing in a gun safe or other safe place.”

The same goes for pepper spray or other weapons. “Consumers are safest when they store all their weapons, including pepper spray, stun guns, and knives, in locked places out of the reach of children, as they would with poisons and medicine,” says Shenassa at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

Currently, there are no federal safety standards for gun safes. The industry relies on voluntary standards set by groups such as ASTM International and UL, and standards for gun safes set by the California Department of Justice. 

Several products have been recalled, including the Alpha Guardian Stack-On Sentinel gun safe and Harbor Freight Tools electronic handgun safes. If you are purchasing a gun safe secondhand, check the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s site to make sure it hasn’t been recalled.

Some experts prefer safes with functions such as biometrics because they ensure that only the gun owner or an authorized user can open the safe and because they can be opened quickly. 

Others, like Dave Goetzinger, a gun-safe security enthusiast in Eugene, Ore., recommend a handgun storage safe “made with a lot of steel with a heavy mechanical push-button lock.” 

During the ongoing coronavirus crisis, with many physical stores closed, some retailers are still selling gun safes online. Liberty Safe, a gun-safe maker, for example, says it plans to continue shipping during the pandemic, as do some smaller operations, such as Titan Vault, a manufacturer of high-security gun safes based in Oceanside, Calif.

Editor's Note: This article, originally published on March 25, 2020, has been updated to include more recent figures from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.