Since late February, when Oregon announced its first presumptive case of the coronavirus, Oregonians have been stocking up on soap, non-perishable food and a lot of toilet paper. But, at the Gun Room in Southeast Portland on a weekend in mid-March, owner Shaun Lacasse said they were also buying so many guns that the firearm background check system run by the Oregon State Police couldn’t keep up.

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Normally a background check to buy a firearm takes about 10 minutes. From Feb. 1 to April 5, the Oregon State Police reported a 42% increase in background checks over the same time last year. Nationwide, industry research firm Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting (SAAF) estimates a year-over-year increase in firearm sales of 85% in March.

“I’ve been here my whole life doing this,” said Lacasse, whose father opened the store in 1965. “I’m 52 years old, I grew up behind this counter. I’ve never seen anything like yesterday.”

Related: COVID-19 Concerns Dominate Calls To Emotional Support Hotlines

It’s impossible to know what proportion of the increased sales were from first-time buyers since that data is not collected. But Lacasse said most of his customers were buying their first firearm. And more than a few were nurses and doctors.

Asked what he thought people were scared of, Lacasse answered with a laugh, “Everything. They’re buying guns and ammunition so they can go home and sit on their couch and defend their stash of toilet paper from the pending apocalypse.”

Ultimately, he said, it’s all about feeling good. Buying guns — like buying toilet paper — is a type of pandemic retail therapy.

In front of the Gun Room, Tammy, a nurse and single mom who didn't want to use her last name, was one of many first-time gun buyers.

“I bought a taser, some mace and I purchased a gun,” Tammy said. “A Smith & Wesson revolver, .38 special.”

She’d been thinking about buying a gun for a while but said the chaos in response to the coronavirus convinced her to buy one now.

“I guess you could say there’s a little fear of how other people are gonna react,” Tammy said. “I think we’re gonna see a little bit of looting. Especially if people don’t have the resources they need.”

She paused and reconsidered.

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“I also know the majority of people are gonna be sick,” she said. “They’re not gonna have the energy to be looting and causing violence. I can always bring this back and sell it to them, I’m sure.”

Using a gun for self-defense is extremely rare. A 2015 study found that self-defense gun use occurs in less than 1% of all crimes when the victim and perpetrator encounter each other. But the idea has rooted itself in the American psyche. Two-thirds of gun-owning Americans told the Pew Research Center in 2017 that they own their guns for "protection."

People wait in line at Northwest Armory on March 21, 2020 in Portland, Ore.

People wait in line at Northwest Armory on March 21, 2020 in Portland, Ore.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Across town, at Northwest Armory, 62-year-old Shiuen Yu was waiting in a line with about 40 other people waiting to enter the store. Yu, who is originally from China, was there with a handful of coworkers to buy his first gun. But he’s not a novice. In China he used to hunt and even served in the Chinese Army reserves.

“He knows what he’s doing,” said a coworker, who served as a translator.

Like Tammy, Yu decided to buy a gun because he’s afraid there might be chaos in the coming weeks. But, he said, he’s also afraid of the anti-Chinese racism he’s seen across the country.

And Yu has reason to be concerned. Groups that monitor hate crimes say Asians have faced increased threats because of the pandemic.

Guns, however, present a danger as well. Some experts say they’re concerned about mental health and domestic violence while people are stuck at home.

Related: How To 'Stay Home, Stay Safe,' When It's Not Safe At Home

Shelter in place may be the best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but, according to University of Pennsylvania professor Susan Sorenson, it’s not the safest option for women who are in abusive relationships.

“And it's particularly not a safe option for women who are being abused by someone who has a gun,” Sorenson said. “The person who is most likely to kill a woman is her male intimate, and it's most likely that he will use a gun.”

The coronavirus has brought a menacing bounty of reasons to be afraid and anxious. Fear of getting sick, fear of loved ones getting sick, anxiety of losing jobs and incurring astronomical health care costs are only a few. Research hasn't established any of those factors as sole causes of suicide. But suicide is an impulsive act and it is believed that stressors can exacerbate existing mental health issues and act as a trigger. Accordingly, some crisis hotlines have seen call volume increase nearly 100 fold.

“We know that when there's a handgun in the home people are at higher risk of suicide and suicide specifically by gun,” said Sorenson. “They’re done in a moment of despondency, despair.”

And, she said, the risk of suicide is highest in the first six weeks after a person purchases a gun.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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