Residents in Southwest Colorado are buying guns in record numbers this year, but finding places to train and practice shooting are in short supply.
Jane Gustafson, co-owner of Good for the Woods, an outdoor retailer in Durango, said a surge in gun sales began earlier this year with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the most part, Gustafson’s customers are buying guns for personal defense, rather than for hunting or other related recreational activities.
Gustafson said many of her customers expressed concern that the United States is headed toward a “socialist” and “non-free country,” and that the federal government is going to take their guns away.
“They tried to make everyone be a little sheep and follow their mentality, and people went, ‘No, that’s ridiculous. I’m going to get what I need now before they take it all away,’” Gustafson said.
Over at Rocky Mountain Pawn & Gun, co-owner Renee Dominey said her customers had many of the same concerns, which were exacerbated with the social unrest that erupted after George Floyd died at the hands of police in May.
“People are wanting to protect themselves from the dangers they bring,” Dominey said. “People are wondering, ‘Is my business going to get attacked? Am I going to get attacked on the street? Is my house going to be attacked?’”
And, Dominey said there was an uptick in sales after the election of Joe Biden this fall.
“The people like their freedom,” she said. “The people want to keep America great, right? So Biden is just a different avenue that people are wondering what freedoms are going to be taken away.”
It is hard to keep guns on the shelves, store owners said.
“People are buying them before we even get them out,” Dominey said. “This year has been a fantastic year for sales.”
But for some of these new gun owners, there aren’t many places to practice in La Plata County, the store owner said.
The Durango Gun Club has two locations: an indoor range on Florida Road just north of the Chapman Hill Ice Rink and an outdoor range on La Posta Road (County Road 213), behind Walmart on the west side of the Animas River.
The Durango Gun Club requires a membership, which carries a $55 a year fee. Joe Perino, secretary treasurer for the club, said about 15 to 20 new members have been signing up a month this year, many of whom are first-time gun owners.
In all, the club has about 1,000 members, and despite the uptick, Perino said space has not been an issue.
“There’s always a place someone can shoot,” he said.
The only free public gun range in the county is the Bayfield Lions Club Art Davis Gun Range at 4499 County Road 223, which is now under the management of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Pat Hayden, a property tech for CPW, did not have the exact number of visitors this year. But he said even in normal years, the gun range sees a lot of use.
“This year, we did have a little bit of a spike in use,” he said.
The range, however, has limited spots for shooting with six benches for rifle practice and two pistol positions. And, the area closes for the winter.
“I don’t believe we do have enough,” Dominey said of shooting ranges.
Historically, public lands have been an option for shooting, but it’s increasingly become less safe as more people recreate.
“The old days of going out and shooting in the woods is something you should not be doing,” the gun club’s Perino said.
Esther Godson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said it’s hard to quantify if more people are practice shooting on public lands.
In general, the Forest Service hasn’t noticed a significant increase in people shooting or associated vandalism, such as shooting signs.
The Pagosa Ranger District, however, has noted an increase in shooting, as well as the illegal shooting of trees and signs, as well as trash accumulation.
“It’s definitely occupying more of their district staff time responding to complaints, policing the shooting and cleaning up,” Godson said.
As another option, many people are turning to private gun ranges to practice, said Tim Gwynn, who runs Red Dawn Shooting Range and Wolverine School of Personal Safety, which is located on about 40 acres off County Road 307, near Durango-La Plata County Airport.
Gwynn, too, has seen an increased interest in learning how to shoot this year, driven by many of the same reasons echoed by local gun store owners.
In 2019, for instance, Gwynn had virtually no clients. Now, however, he’s training about 12 people a month.
“They’re interested because they feel threatened,” he said. “People are nervous about things.”
Gwynn offers a 12-hour course on gun safety and how to properly shoot. Once people become certified and advanced, he allows them to shoot at his private range during off hours.
“We’re blessed to have a constitution that allows people to arm themselves,” he said. “Because it’s getting down to each guy for themselves.”
It’s not unusual for politics to spur a spike in gun sales. The previous annual record of 15.7 million guns sold was in 2016 when it appeared Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would win, according to a report in CNN.
Then, gun sales lulled after the election of Republican President Donald Trump. CNN, however, estimated that more than 17 million guns were sold through the first 10 months of 2020 alone.