LAYTON — Alexandra Anderson, a 26-year-old mother of two young children, never considered getting a concealed carry permit until last spring, when unrest and violence dominated news headlines and made her feel uneasy.
Her fears began when Ogden police officer Nate Lyday was killed in the line of duty on May 28.
"I have a lot of law enforcement friends and so that hit pretty hard," Anderson explained through tears at her kitchen table in Layton.
Two days later, what began as peaceful protests in downtown Salt Lake City calling for justice in the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, turned violent. A Salt Lake City police car was overturned and set on fire.
"It makes me emotional because you know, it's just people that put their lives out there to protect us," Anderson cried. "It's hard when things do get out of hand on both sides. But, at the end of the day, we're all people and there's no need to bring that violence."
That was her tipping point. Although her husband has had his permit for years, the young mother decided to enroll in a concealed carry course. She completed it in July.
"We're not always going to be together. You just never know," she explained. "I would do anything for my babies."
Stephanie Barrick felt motivated to purchase her first firearm after noticing more crime in her West Jordan neighborhood.
"Unfortunately, that couple that was killed was just a few blocks from here," Barrick said, referring to the murder of 31-year-old Tony Butterfield and his wife, Katherine, 30, on April 18.
"I never thought about getting one until one of the last times we were robbed, and they dropped their gun in our driveway," she added.
Barrick got her permit too.
First-time gun buyers on the rise
"We've seen more first-time gun buyers come in this year than we've ever seen in 10 years," said Neal Currey.
Currey owns Ready Gunner – a gun shop and range in Orem.
"2019 was our biggest year we've ever had for gun sales. In 2020, we beat that number before we even hit June 1," Currey said. "I'm not the only gun store doing well. There's, you know, 20,000+ gun stores across the U.S. and everybody is selling guns like crazy."
There's an increasing demand for guns and ammunition.
"Inventory with all the manufacturers – everybody's backordered, you know, months and months. Some are even years," Currey said. "Seventy-thousand rounds gone in 48 hours, and that's rationing it at two per person."
Background checks for firearm purchases in Utah are the highest they've been in nearly a decade. Since Jan. 1, the state has documented 893,714 checks for people buying guns.
That's a 203% increase over the past four years, and 2020 isn't over yet.
The federal data, published by the FBI, calculates the number of background checks submitted through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
In Utah, these background checks are tracked per transaction, not per firearm, meaning, there could be well more than 1 million new firearms purchased in the state so far this year alone. It is impossible to know the exact number because the state of Utah does not have a firearm registration database and does not track sales.
There are additional requirements for those who wish to obtain a concealed carry permit.
What's fueling gun buying?
So, what is fueling the increase in firearm sales in Utah?
Some experts point to political anxiety.
In Sept. 2018, just before the midterm election, there were 18,221 background checks done in Utah. In Sept. 2020, 114,660 checks were completed. That is a 529% increase, and the largest increase of all 50 states over that time period.
Compare that to Sept. 2016, the last presidential election year, when only 19,914 federal background checks were conducted in Utah.
University of Utah law professor Amos Guiora said a spike like this comes as no surprise when you consider the divisive nature of American politics, with the presidential race front and center. From fears about Antifa to random acts of violence by followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory to a plot to kidnap the Michigan governor, Guiora said the country's rhetoric is "increasingly problematic."
"It's geared to rile the base and delegitimize the other," Guiora explained. "It's a thin line between rhetoric, incitement and violence."
Teddy Hodges, of Herriman, has been around guns his entire life. His most recent permit application was in August.
"I purchased a new home shotgun for protection," he said.
Although Hodges admitted the upcoming presidential election may play a role in Utah's rising numbers, he believes the pandemic was a major contributor.
"Retaining and having a supply of ammunition to carry out hunting activities, if it needs to be to support my family, that's a concern," Hodges said.
For him, firearms are a part of being self-reliant.
"Having basic household supplies, cleaning, toiletries, food. We saw that in March, April, May [and] June," he said. "We're one simple act away from catastrophe, and so it's going to be upon you, upon your neighbors and upon your city and local government to help when those things happen."
The data supports his idea, too. Utah saw 18,984 more background checks in March 2020 than in March 2019.
States with some of the highest annual background check data can be found on both coasts and everywhere in between. So far in 2020, states that have already passed 1 million background checks in just nine months include:
California — 1,183,460
Florida — 1,386,486
Illinois — 5,600,703
Indiana — 1,203,353
Kentucky — 2,364,376
Pennsylvania — 1,030,898
Texas — 1,730,278