SALT LAKE CITY — Are guns the new toilet paper? Is ammunition the next hand sanitizer?

With the spread of COVID-19 stoking panic buying across Utah, gun stores in Salt Lake City are seeing a sharp increase in sales.

“It just happened overnight,” said Darin Kendall, spokesman for Impact Guns, a firearm retailer based in Ogden. “Product was just flying out of here so fast.”

The FBI conducted roughly 2.8 million background checks in February, the second-highest number recorded since the agency began compiling data in 1998. And the online retailer reported a surge in ammunition sales starting Feb. 23 — coincidentally the same time Google Analytics reported an increase in the search term “coronavirus.”

“It’s kind of natural that when people start thinking about food storages they start thinking about protecting their family and then they automatically think about firearms,” said Kendall, who believes the spike in sales is a result of both fear surrounding the spread of COVID-19 and the government’s response.

“When they started talking about shutting down cities, when you hear people saying things like, ‘Hey, the government’s going to start taking control of more things’ ... people start getting a little bit paranoid,” he said. “That always drives people to buy guns.”

The sheer volume of customers forced Impact Guns to reallocate staff, pulling website and warehouse employees to work on the sales floor.

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“It was to the point of us having to change our strategy on processing customers and other things because we had so many people coming in,” said Kendall.

Gun stores across the Wasatch Front had similar stories, including 1st Cash Pawn and Gun in Salt Lake City. Troy Thompson, the store’s owner, said the majority of recent customers were first-time gun buyers.

“I’m assuming it probably is the biggest sales month we’ve ever had for firearms,” said Thompson, who told the Deseret News certain ammunition in his store, like 9 mm rounds, is out of stock. “People are concerned or nervous about how long the situation is going to last. Things are going to be kind of up in the air.”

Thompson said the demand is affecting his supply chain, with many suppliers now out of stock. He echoed a concern also expressed by Kendall, that a prolonged ammunition shortage could be imminent.

“They’re out of everything right now,” he said. “We try to order stuff every day and it’s just limited as to what we can get and mostly nothing’s available.”

Sai Tatafu and Robert Perterson shop for ammunition at Impact Guns in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Many are buying guns and stocking up on ammunition during the coronavirus pandemic. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“All of our suppliers obviously got hit very quickly with dealers placing a lot orders,” said Kendall. “I do see possible shortages on some of the ammunition just because the actual manufacturers are going to have to react.”

Shortages aside, customers streamed into Impact Guns’ Salt Lake City location on what one employee called an “extra busy” Tuesday.

“I had to get in before everyone started taking all the stuff I can afford,” said Joshua Wheller, an Impact Guns customer who bought a firearm Tuesday for self-defense. “Everyone’s going crazy about this virus and just grabbing everything.”

“I couldn’t believe how fast it was all going,” said another customer who asked not to be identified. “I would’ve bought twice as much (ammunition), but it was too expensive.”

At Walmart, some shelves in the ammunition section were completely bare as customers browsed through the aisles to see what was left. Although America’s largest retailer has made recent efforts to reduce gun-related sales, like stopping the sale of handgun ammunition, in September CNN reported Walmart still had about a 20% market share of ammunition sales.

“This is what I expected,” said Chris Davis as he browsed through what was left of rifle ammunition at the Walmart on the corner of 1300 South and 300 West. “I’ve been in a couple gun stores right before all this panic happened, and it was already starting.”

Zack Seifert decides to buy a shotgun as he is helped by store manager Jason Luhr at Impact Guns in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Many are buying guns and stocking up on ammunition during the coronavirus pandemic. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News