May-June 2021

The gun owner next door

Montgomery County residents applied for nearly twice as many handgun licenses in 2020 than the year before—and the surge in demand isn’t slowing down

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Jay Guan, a longtime gun owner, at his home in Clarksburg. Photo by Erick Gibson

On election night last November, Mike (not his real name) was sitting in his convertible at a traffic light near the Connie Morella Library in downtown Bethesda when he heard a loud crash. Then another. And another. “What’s going on, Dad?” his teenage daughter asked. He was on the phone with her at the time and she heard the commotion in the background.

A man who looked like he was in his 20s was knocking down metal newspaper stands on the sidewalk nearby and shouting profanities at no one in particular. When the guy saw Mike look his way, he made a beeline for Mike’s car and started yelling expletives at him. Mike had the top down. Cars were backed up at the red light ahead, so he didn’t have the option to run it.

“He was only a few feet away, and I just froze,” Mike says. The encounter lasted about a minute; when the light turned green, he drove away. “Things are crazy these days. …You really have to be prepared for the worst.”

Five months earlier, Mike had become a first-time gun owner—one of thousands in Montgomery County since the pandemic began. Maryland State Police data shows that applications from Montgomery County residents to buy handguns in 2020 nearly doubled from the year before. From April through November 2020, county residents filed nearly 7,300 applications for a handgun license; there were fewer than 3,500 applications filed during that same eight-month period in 2019. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a firearms trade group based in Newtown, Connecticut, says approximately 40% of the firearms purchasers in the U.S. in 2020—some 85,000 in Maryland—were first-time buyers. With this surge in demand, the county’s three firearms retailers are having trouble keeping weapons on the shelves and ammunition in stock. County police Chief Marcus Jones says the run on ammo has even made it challenging for police to practice at area shooting ranges.

A middle-aged attorney and business owner, Mike says the rioting and looting at Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights last May is what propelled him to get a firearm. He didn’t witness the protest, but it occurred a mile from the house he shares with his wife and two kids. “Everyone says this area is so safe,” he says, “but then why was downtown Bethesda boarded up for so long?”

A week after the violence—part of a spate of riots in D.C. following last May’s police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis—Mike started visiting shooting ranges and bought two handguns from Atlantic Guns in Rockville because he couldn’t decide which one to get. “If you manage to find a gun in stock, you can’t even think about it—it will be gone within an hour,” he says. Because of Maryland regulations, it took nearly three months before he could bring his guns home. He first had to find an available seat at a four-hour Handgun Qualification License (HQL) class that the state requires for the purchase of a handgun. Then he had to have his fingerprints taken, pass a background check, pay a handful of license and registration fees, and wait for Maryland to approve him and email him his permit number. After that, he had to bring the paperwork to the store and begin Maryland’s mandatory seven-day waiting period before bringing his handguns home. He secured them in a locked closet in storage safes that open with his fingerprints using biometric scanning technology.

Mike didn’t have a handgun with him at the time of the incident in Bethesda—he didn’t yet have a permit to “carry” one. He got his Maryland Wear and Carry Handgun permit in January, after taking a 16-hour class and meeting the required criteria, but hasn’t yet brought a firearm with him except when he goes to the range. Also known as a concealed-carry-weapon permit, it allows him to carry a concealed handgun with him in a holster or in his car. Even if he’d had a handgun with him at the time, he says he wouldn’t have drawn his weapon unless his life was in immediate danger. “Your first duty as a gun owner is to retreat whenever possible,” he says. Still, the incident confirmed for him the reason he decided to become a gun owner: to protect himself and his family if something happens and no one is around to help.

Since the arrival of the pandemic, Jonathan Bennett, owner of United Gun Shop in Rockville, says he’s sold guns to doctors, lawyers, even high-ranking politicians who’ve lobbied for tighter gun restrictions. “It’s been folks across the entire political spectrum,” he says. “There’s no longer a valid stereotype of who a gun buyer is.”

Chief Jones says it’s a “culmination of events” that are contributing to the gun-buying rush. “Looking at COVID, looking at racial events, political unrest. …I think you put all these things into this big pot and I think…people are fearful.” He’s seen the increase in new gun owners firsthand: Friends of his bought guns for their wives last year. “I’ve heard of people that I never would have thought would have bought a gun but they went and bought a gun in 2020.”

“I have to respect the fact—the Second Amendment, that individuals have as much right to purchase a handgun as anyone else,” Jones says. “[But] from a law enforcement perspective, we’re seeing more guns in our community than we’ve ever seen before, by individuals who legally are not able to possess them. …Whether they are being stolen out of people’s homes or being sold illegally—some sold on the black market—that’s what troubles me more than anything, that we know there are more of these guns out in the community that potentially can lead to more violence.”

Nationwide, a rise in gun ownership also means an increase in suicides, says Andrew Patrick, director of political communications for The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV), based in D.C. Most years, suicide accounts for nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths in the U.S., he says. But anecdotal evidence from past crises—“when people have lost jobs, had financial struggles”—suggests that firearm suicides increase dramatically during times of stress. “Guns don’t make you safer,” Patrick says. “The presence of a gun always makes a situation more dangerous.”

Since the pandemic began, Jonathan Bennett, owner of United Gun Shop in Rockville, says he’s sold guns to doctors, lawyers and high-ranking politicians. “There’s no longer a valid stereotype of who a gun buyer is,” he says. Photos by Erick Gibson

In early March 2020, Clarksburg resident Jay Guan stopped at a Rockville bakery and saw a line of people “snaked around the parking lot” to get into Atlantic Guns next door. It was the week before the start of Maryland’s stay-at-home order; gun shops had been deemed essential businesses and would remain open. “Everyone was in such a rush to buy firearms and ammunition,” says Guan, a longtime gun owner.

A volunteer with the county’s Chinese American Parent Association, an advocacy group for immigrant Chinese families in Montgomery County Public Schools, Guan had started seeing “gun chatter” online on the Chinese social media app WeChat and in some of his Chinese Facebook groups. “A lot of people on social media were asking how to get a handgun, how to take an HQL class,” he says. “There were a lot of instructors in the groups who were answering their questions.”

Talk of the “China virus” caused the initial gun-buying rush within the Chinese community, Guan suspects, and the riots around the country during the spring and summer made Asian Americans even more nervous. Historically, he says, many of the small businesses impacted most by inner-city violence are owned by Asian families. “The Chinese community,” Guan says, was “borrowing from [the experiences of] some of the Korean shop owners during the [1992] Rodney King riots and looked at this as a history lesson.” James Stowe, director of the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights, says when COVID-19 began, leaders in the Asian American community told him that more Asian American residents were buying guns out of concern for their safety. “The rise in hate and fearmongering makes people very uneasy,” he says.

A member of the Gaithersburg-based Victims’ Rights Foundation, Guan says “[Asian] people feel even more vindicated in their decision to be arming up” following the shootings at three Atlanta-area spas this March that claimed eight lives, including six victims of Asian descent. According to Guan, after the shootings, video footage went viral on WeChat of a young woman with a handgun in a shootout with three armed assailants at her suburban Atlanta home. In the footage, from 2016, the woman, who is Asian, fatally shoots one of them while the other two flee. “[The victim’s] own home-surveillance video captured the entire thing,” Guan says. When the video first surfaced five years ago, Guan says it inspired many Asian Americans to purchase handguns for protection. He thinks the video’s resurgence on social media, along with the Atlanta shootings, will only strengthen an already active gun-buying community.

Liz Banach, executive director of Baltimore-based Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, says her focus is on making sure that gun owners are storing their weapons properly—away from children and anyone who might be suicidal. She’s also concerned with the number of illegal weapons in the state. According to data from a March 2021 report on Maryland firearms crimes released by the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services, between October 2019 and September 2020, nearly 80% of the violent gun crimes in Maryland were committed with illegal firearms; more than half of those that were traceable came in from other states. Many were brought in from Virginia, which does not require a permit to purchase a handgun, only a background check.

“Background checks don’t stop guns from being diverted to the black market, but permits-to-purchase do, because that gun is tied to you through fingerprints and a license,” Banach says. “It’s highly unlikely that people who have permit-to-purchase licenses are going to divert their guns into the underground market.”

Baltimore City and Prince George’s County together accounted for more than 60% of Maryland’s gun crime cases, according to the report. Montgomery County accounted for less than 2% of gun crimes in the state—and less than 2% of the illegal guns confiscated—even though it’s Maryland’s most populated county.

With the surge in demand for guns, Montgomery County’s three firearms retailers (including United Gun Shop, pictured here) are having trouble keeping weapons on the shelves. Photo by Erick Gibson

Ten months into the pandemic, on a blustery Saturday in late January, there’s a 45-minute wait to get into Atlantic Guns’ new location on Frederick Road. Visitors park in a lot on the side of the shop, put their names on a list at the front door, and wait in their vehicles until someone texts them to come in. Social distancing requirements account for some of the queue—only 10 customers are allowed in at a time, and at least twice that many people are waiting.

At United Gun that same afternoon, there’s no line to get in, but the shelves that normally display firearms for purchase are nearly bare. Shoppers are chatting with store clerks or handing over forms. “You’d never believe how many people in Montgomery County are getting guns for the first time,” says Bennett, who was a police officer for 15 years before buying the shop in 2019. “But no one wants to talk about it because of the stigma here in owning one.” Local celebrities—“people you’ve definitely heard of”—have asked him if he’ll open his store early or stay late so they can be in and out with their purchases unseen. “I always tell them no,” he says.

Most first-time buyers prefer a handgun for personal and home defense, Bennett says. But some will buy a shotgun or rifle if they don’t want to spend time and money taking an HQL class and paying the licensing fees (the class and fees can total more than $200), or if handguns aren’t in stock. Maryland requires a permit to own a handgun, but “long guns” like shotguns and rifles do not require a license or a training class, just an FBI background check.

The term “firearms” applies to weapons like handguns that require state licensing as well as long guns like shotguns and rifles that don’t.

Montgomery County doesn’t track the number of firearm owners living here; Maryland only tracks handgun purchases. But the NSSF says twice as many Marylanders submitted to a background check to buy a firearm in 2020 than in 2019. And demand in 2021 isn’t abating: Two and a half times more Marylanders submitted to a background check for a firearm in January 2021 than in the previous January, two months before the pandemic.

That’s in keeping with national trends, says Mark Oliva, the NSSF’s director of public affairs. In 2020, a record 21 million people bought a firearm in the U.S., a 40% increase over 2019. This past January, with the insurrection on Capitol Hill and the inauguration of President Joe Biden, was the busiest January on record for gun purchases—with 1.9 million guns sold nationally.

“It started with the pandemic shutdown,” says Oliva, a retired U.S. Marine who works out of the NSSF’s D.C. office. People were worried that police wouldn’t respond to 911 calls because of concerns about infections, and then there was the early release of inmates to mitigate the spread of COVID in prisons, he says. “People noticed these things and started buying firearms for their safety.” Combined with the notoriety of last year’s police killings, the rioting that followed, and growing calls to defund the police, “2020 was one big confluence,” Oliva says.

Jones, Montgomery County’s police chief, says he never heard any concerns from residents that police wouldn’t respond to 911 calls, but Maryland did offer an early release program to curb the spread of COVID in prisons, and “there was talk [in Montgomery County] about opening up our jails to some degree,” he says. “I could see that some people probably took that into consideration and thought their neighborhoods could be more dangerous.”

Early last fall, Jacqueline Kahn drove from her home near Rock Creek Park to an elegant estate in Darnestown to teach five women how to shoot a handgun. She brought with her a PowerPoint presentation, textbooks and, of course, weapons. Three of the women have kids who play soccer together—including the mother whose house was serving as their classroom. The other two reached out to Kahn separately to take a women-only class in basic handgun and self-defense fundamentals.

Kahn, a rape survivor and Second Amendment advocate, has been teaching firearms classes for eight years. Her website, glockwomen.com, lists dozens of programs she offers, from introductory sessions to courses for people who want to become gun instructors. Since the pandemic, she’s gotten a lot more inquiries from mothers of young children in the county who are concerned about home defense. In 2020, 40% of all gun buyers in the U.S. were women, double that of most years, according to the NSSF’s Mark Oliva.

“People are coming to me saying they want to have an option if something goes really wrong really quick,” Kahn says. “Even though we have a really responsive police force, there are only so many of our finest in blue, and people are doing the math—in the time period that it takes for a serious threat to our lives, to our children, to our families, we don’t always have the option of waiting for 911 to get to you.”

Kahn says she has participated in several events in the county since last spring where she’s encountered two or three clients from the same neighborhood who didn’t know she was training anyone else in the area. “Of course, I don’t say anything,” she says. “Everybody, I think, feels that their neighbors may not approve, but yet their neighbors have already called me and are taking the courses. There seems to be a reputation in Montgomery County where people are not proud that they are taking steps to be responsibly armed.”

Since the pandemic, she’s also seen an uptick in interest from local religious organizations and has added to her website a four-part class entitled Self Defense for Home and Congregations. “I’d been invited to train religious leaders before and help them get their permits, but the difference is they came to me or I discreetly went to their home—I wasn’t invited in through the front door of their building,” Kahn says, “and now I’m invited in through the front door.”

A Potomac rabbi who requested anonymity said a group of about 10 congregants asked him last fall to offer a firearms class at his synagogue so they could be trained, armed, and able to protect others during Shabbat services. “They didn’t want us to be the third ‘P,’ ” he says, referring to synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh in 2018 and Poway, California, the following year. The rabbi arranged for a gun instructor to come, but the outcry among other congregants against having people with weapons in the building was so strong he canceled the class.

“The Jewish community has valid concerns—there are documented events of hate crimes [around the country], and they are on very high alert,” Jones says. In Montgomery County, he says, 92% of all religion-based bias crimes in 2020 were against Jews. Even before last year, many synagogues in the area installed security cameras and gates, and began hiring off-duty police officers for extra protection.

Sarah (not her real name) is an Orthodox Jew and a member of another Potomac synagogue. She’s trained in Krav Maga, the self-defense and fighting system created by the Israel Defense Forces, and she volunteers with her shul’s security team. Mostly, she patrols the area with a walkie-talkie and looks for suspicious activity. If she encounters anything troubling, she notifies the police officer on duty who’s been hired by the synagogue. A divorced mother of grown children, she took an HQL class early in the pandemic at Engage Armament, a firearms store in Rockville, and bought her first handgun after seeing “all the rage and tension and increased hate” on the news. “The smallest things are triggering people these days—like that woman in New York, that ‘Karen’ who had her dog off leash and went crazy on that guy in Central Park—tensions are just running too high.”

For now, Sarah practices at Gilbert Indoor Range in Rockville twice a month and stores her gun in a safe in her bedroom. She keeps her ammo in a separate safe nearby. “I have two packs of bullets,” she says. “I don’t have a need to stockpile.”

On Feb. 9, more than 100 community leaders and residents joined a town hall Zoom to discuss the future of policing in Montgomery County. County Executive Marc Elrich called the meeting to go over the recommendations of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force he appointed in August. Among the task force’s recommendations: a 50% cut in police patrols in neighborhoods that have seen the highest percentage of minority arrests, and trimming the police budget so more money can go toward hiring crisis managers and social workers.

About 15 people signed up to comment—nearly all to request that the police force be significantly scaled back or defunded. One woman, who is white and said she’s lived in Bethesda for about 10 years, pointed out the racial disparity in the number of police department traffic citations, arrests and use of force incidents in the Black community. “You do not reward a police department with that kind of disparity by increasing their budget,” she said.

Only one speaker, a 44-year-old Black mother of two young children, said she fully supports the county’s police force and wants to see its funding increased. She’s worried for her children’s safety if the police aren’t visibly patrolling her neighborhood’s streets. “Recently we’ve had an increase in homicides and carjackings in the county—they’ve gone way up from the prior year,” she said. “How are we—you guys—going to address this if your goal is to reduce the police presence?”

According to county police, there were 12 homicides in the county between January and March of this year; in all of 2020 there were 17. “It’s a challenging situation,” says county council Vice President Gabe Albornoz, who adds that “four to five times” more residents tell him they want to reduce funding for police as those who tell him they want the police budget to increase.

Albornoz chairs the council’s health and human services committee and serves on the public safety committee. “I’m not surprised we’re seeing higher levels of gun purchases in communities that feel more vulnerable—for a variety of reasons,” he says. “That’s oftentimes why people purchase weapons in the first place, because they feel vulnerable—it’s something we’re going to have to pay more attention to.”

He’s particularly troubled by the rise in “ghost guns”—weapons that can be made with materials purchased online and are becoming popular with gang members. Ghost guns don’t have serial numbers, so they can’t be traced to crimes. In 2020, county police say they confiscated 51 ghost guns—more than double the number seized in 2019.

As for the rise in first-time legal gun buyers, Albornoz says, “That creates a whole other set of issues—in some cases it creates more problems than you are trying to solve.” He says that accidents involving guns in a home are far more likely than the odds of encountering an armed and dangerous home intruder.

“If you’ve got a gun in the house that’s unsecured, I promise you there’s going to be a story soon in Montgomery County with a 3-year-old who’s getting that gun and shooting themselves or a sibling,” Banach says. Her organization has introduced legislation in Maryland to strengthen safe-storage requirements for gun owners to make them more accountable if a child or teenager gains access to a gun and causes harm to themselves or someone else. “My goal isn’t to keep people from buying guns,” she says. “My goal is to keep people from killing other people or themselves with guns.”

United Gun’s Bennett begins all of his HQL classes with a video of a police officer teaching gun safety. The officer brags to his students about his years of experience, then he accidentally shoots himself in the foot. Bennett likes to show the video as a setup to his next slide: the cardinal rules of gun safety. Rule number one: Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.

Sheets of graffiti-covered plywood separate Bennett’s makeshift classroom at the Tactical Airsoft Arena in Rockville from the area set aside for shooting practice. Last year’s surge in first-time buyers, combined with social distancing regulations, led him to start renting the cavernous space off Southlawn Court every Wednesday evening for classes.

“How many of you have zero experience with guns?” Bennett asks his students one evening in late November. Ten hands go up in a class of about 22 people. Among the novices: an Asian couple taking notes in the front row, a woman in high-heeled boots sitting alone in the back, a trio of young Black men, and a Filipino couple who’ve brought their 21-year-old son. An older white couple say they are “almost beginners” but have experience with hunting rifles.

The Filipino mother plans to buy a revolver, she says. Her husband has picked out a 9 mm semiautomatic for himself. Her son has yet to decide. She and her family live in Rockville, but she’s hesitant to say much more—she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s buying a gun. “I could lose my job,” she says, fearing that she could be branded a “right-wing radical” by her boss. But without a firearm she doesn’t feel safe. “The police can’t protect us anymore. They are too scared—every time [the media] shows a viral video of something going wrong, policemen lose their jobs.”

At another HQL class a few months later, a soft-spoken 52-year-old Black woman asks one of Bennett’s co-instructors what a “magazine” is. She knows nothing about guns, she says, and she hates the idea of owning one. But her 22-year-old son is about to move away—he came to live with her during the pandemic—and she’ll be alone in her home. “I only know two of my neighbors,” she says. “I haven’t decided for sure whether to get [a firearm], but I think it will make me feel safer.”

Nationwide, gun purchases by African Americans rose 58% from 2019 to 2020, according to the NSSF. “Black folks have a complicated history with firearms,” and this year has been particularly difficult, says Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando, who is Black. “In the era of Trump and COVID and this fear of ‘I can’t trust the government to protect me’ and ‘I can’t get access to food’ and the police are stretched…and the high-profile cases of police actually killing Black people throughout the summer, [there is] this even more exacerbated feeling of isolation,” he says. “Some people fortified their homes, or stocked up on things, or didn’t go outside, and certainly some people bought guns.”

At 4:30 p.m. on the Saturday after Inauguration Day, there’s about an hour wait to get into Gilbert Indoor Range. Because of the pandemic, the only shooting range in Montgomery County can use just 13 of its 25 lanes for target practice. With demand higher than ever, multihour waits have become the norm.

When gun instructor Harry Stevenson started working at the range two years ago, most clients were longtime gun owners who came there well versed in state and federal gun laws and took gun practice, training and safety seriously. Now, he says, he’s seeing more people who “have never wanted to touch a gun in their lives and they hate guns but who think Armageddon’s coming so they want to jump on the bandwagon and get a gun.”

One new gun owner who took an introductory class at Gilbert’s last spring says “5% was learning how to shoot, and 95% was learning how not to kill yourself or somebody else.” He recalls two women in his class giggling while the instructor was talking. “They kept picking up their guns when the instructor said not to touch them and putting their fingers on the trigger when the instructor explicitly said not to,” he says. “Finally, the instructor threw them out of the class.”

It’s frustrating, Stevenson says, to see so many people that haven’t done their research. “That’s really dumb because you’re just going to have this gun in your house and you’re not going to know how to use it, and you’re just going to pull it out to scare someone and you’re going to get killed because of that,” he says, “and now they’re going to take your gun and now that gun’s on the street.”

Lilly (not her real name), a Montgomery County mom who is native Chinese, says she bought her firearm early in the pandemic. Shortly before schools were closed for in-person learning, her two preteens started coming home saying they’d been taunted by classmates who blamed them for bringing COVID to America. She worried for her family’s safety. She had a little shotgun practice as a kid in China but never wanted to own a gun. “[On the news] I saw all the shootings in the schools and said, ‘I hate guns,’ ” she says.

That was before she and her husband learned on social media how easily they could buy a shotgun. They ordered their firearm online, had it delivered to a local gun shop, and picked it up after their background check cleared. They kept it in their basement for nearly a year. After the Atlanta shootings, they brought it upstairs. Now it’s in their master bedroom closet, hidden behind the clothes. They haven’t told their children it’s there.

“I know guns are high risk and we have small children at home,” Lilly says. “But I feel like we have to have a gun at home. Everyone in our community has a shotgun now. It makes me feel safer knowing it’s there.”

Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news, and as the associate producer of an Emmy award-winning documentary. She lives in Potomac.