FILE - Philip Van Cleave

Virginia Citizens Defense League President Philip Van Cleave

(The Center Square) – The Virginia State Police has processed significantly more background checks for firearm sales this March than it did last March, suggesting an uptick in firearm sales amid COVID-19 concerns.

Between March 1 and March 16, State Police conducted 35,383 background checks compared with 26,616 for the same time period last year. A licensed firearm dealer is required to conduct a background check for each customer who buys a firearm.

Although the large increase in background checks suggests more purchases, the specific number of guns sold is not tracked. Gun shops in the commonwealth, however, have reported more sales than usual.

Dominion Arms Corporation in Manassas sold all of its guns by Saturday and have been selling 10 times more ammunition than usual, manager Marty Orenge told The Center Square in a phone interview.

“[The coronavirus pandemic is] waking up a lot of people who have been asleep,” Philip Van Cleave, the president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, told The Center Square in a phone interview. VDCL is a gun-rights organization based in Newington.

Van Cleave said some police officers are out of commission because they’ve caught the virus and some partners are driving in separate patrol cars to prevent the spread of the virus. Although most people expect the police to take care of everyone, he said it’s not possible in some situations.

In a statement sent to The Center Square, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said these spikes are common and anyone conducting a private sale that is not subject to a background check should take precautions.

“We often see seasonal spikes in firearm sales, but, in addition, it is not uncommon to see increased gun sales based on political or social events and attitudes,” the statement read.

To stop the spread of the virus, Gov. Ralph Northam has placed restrictions on business operations. Some facilities, such as gyms and movie theaters, were forced to close. Other nonessential businesses must limit patrons to 10 at a time. Businesses deemed essential are not subject to the 10-person limit, but Virginia does not include gun stores in its list of essential businesses. The governor said the list is not exhaustive and is subject to change.

Although Northam has not ordered nonessential businesses to close, some states have imposed such orders and have forced gun stores to close. In some cases, such as in Los Angeles County, gun stores refused to close. The Los Angeles County sheriff stopped enforcing this order for gun stores, but this is not the case for the whole country.

Van Cleave said a crisis does not justify restrictions on gun sales. Rather, he said the opposite is true in a crisis: it is never right to restrict firearm purchases in a time of emergency.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Virginia Department of Health reported 391 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, including nine deaths.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus. The disease has caused at least 908 deaths in the U.S., with more than 64,000 confirmed cases in the country. COVID-19 symptoms appear within two to 14 days after exposure and include fever, cough, runny nose and difficulty breathing.

Most people who have it develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually the elderly and those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and West Virginia for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.