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Michael Cargill, the owner of Central Texas Gun Works in Austin. [MIGUEL GUTIERREZ JR. /KUT]

Ricochet

The Coronavirus Has Gun Sales Soaring. His Fear Is Selling to the Wrong Person.

The surge in firearm sales has posed new challenges for Michael Cargill, a gun store owner and safety advocate who tries to screen each new buyer.

The line outside the door at Central Texas Gun Works on March 12 took owner Michael Cargill completely by surprise. The day before, business had been flowing as usual: a steady stream of two or three customers at a time stopping in to the small Austin store to browse, buy, or sign up for gun licensing and safety classes.

But as the coronavirus threat grew and leaders across the country began pondering stay-at-home orders, that stream of buyers turned into a flood. Many of the new customers seemed hurried and tense. Typically, said Cargill, customers have done some research before they visit, and have a sense of what kind of gun they want to buy. Now some said they would take anything that could protect them. “That scared the hell out of me,” Cargill said. 

Since long before he opened his gun shop in 2011, Cargill, 51, has been an advocate for gun safety and education. His interest in firearms began during a stint in the U.S. Army, where he was an expert marksman, charged with securing and maintaining his unit’s weapons. While he was still enlisted, his 70-year-old grandmother, whom he had lived with as a child, was attacked and raped at a bus stop in Florida. After that, he made her a promise: He would make sure the people he loved knew how to own and use firearms safely, so that they would never be so vulnerable again.

More than half of Cargill’s commercial space is used as classrooms, where gun owners learn how to keep and handle firearms safely. Whenever a first-time buyer comes into the store, Cargill makes sure that he or an employee stresses the importance of safe storage, maintenance, and training.

Cargill says he relies on the power of observation — however imperfect — in order to sell guns safely. He monitors every conversation and every transaction in his small showroom. Wearing an earpiece that connects to audio monitors hidden in different crevices, he listens to his salespeople talking to customers and tries to ascertain whether they could be dangerous. He and his staff make eye contact with every customer. “There’s something in a person’s eyes that can tell you that something’s going on and they shouldn’t have a gun,” he said. 

Worrying signs for Cargill include people who seem rushed, people who don’t know anything about guns and don’t appear interested in learning, people who don’t seem to care what kind of gun they buy, and people who don’t have a ready response when a staff member asks how they plan to use the gun. In extreme cases, if they feel something is off, Cargill and his staff rely on code. If one of them makes an agreed-upon hand sign or says a predetermined word, the others step in to help resolve the situation. 

One time, Cargill made the local news after a man came into the shop acting angry and erratic. He asked for a huge supply of ammunition, and said he was going to go to a nearby hospital to shoot everyone there. The staff responded calmly, but they signaled Cargill, who pressed a silent alarm that summoned the police. Cargill deliberately stalled the man, calling him back into the store to ask for another form of ID. Later, Cargill learned that the man had been a patient in a local psychiatric ward, and had been released due to overcrowding.

Another time, Cargill got an uneasy feeling from a customer who was acting agitated. The man’s background check was delayed, and he called the store constantly to check whether he had been cleared to pick up the gun. Cargill called officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to alert them to his concerns. When they investigated, they found that the buyer was an extremist who was plotting a mass shooting

Though he places lots of faith in his instincts, Cargill places almost no faith in gun laws. If someone calls the store to say they are worried that a family member might try to buy a gun and use it to take their own life, Cargill says he won’t make the sale. But he was a vocal opponent of a red flag law introduced in the Texas Legislature, which would have allowed a family member, police officer, or other concerned person to petition a judge to temporarily remove guns from someone who is at risk of hurting themself or someone else. Cargill said such a law was unnecessary, since the state public health code already allows police to take into custody anyone who is a danger to themself or others. Supporters of the legislation, which never got as far as a hearing, said it would have given concerned people power to temporarily take a gun from someone in distress without locking them up. 

Still, Cargill admits his instincts are not foolproof. Last year, he sold an assault-style weapon to a man who, three weeks later, took the gun, by then outfitted with a bipod and scope and loaded with a 30-round magazine, to a public park. It was not clear what he intended to do with the gun, but the man was arrested and charged with deadly conduct for abandoning the rifle in the park and unlawfully carrying a handgun. The results of the background check that Cargill’s staff initiated were delayed, but after three days Cargill sold the man the gun. Under Texas and federal law, that’s perfectly legal. At the time, Cargill told CBS Austin there was “nothing strange or anything like that. Just a regular person who was purchasing a firearm.” 

In early April, Cargill said business was still brisk. Gun stores in Texas have been deemed essential businesses, and there is always a long line outside his door. To keep customers safe from the virus, he sets up chairs six feet apart, so people can keep a healthy distance as they wait. Every hour, staff members clean the chairs and door handles with disinfecting wipes. 

Cargill defies stereotype: He’s a Republican, an African-American, and he’s been in a committed same-sex relationship for more than 20 years. Perhaps because he is impossible to fit into a box, he attracts customers of varied races, ethnicities, and political persuasions. An affable guy who takes disagreements in stride, he wants his store to welcome all types. And he wants first-time buyers to feel comfortable asking questions. 

But Cargill’s credentials as a defender of the Second Amendment are entirely consistent. He vehemently challenged a gun ban at Austin City Hall and defended a state law that would allow college students to bring firearms onto campus. He also sued the ATF after the federal agency banned bump stocks. He champions these issues as the host of a weekly local radio show about guns and run rights called Come and Talk It

Even with those credentials, he’s not always embraced by conservatives. The Travis County Republican Party resisted making him a precinct chair after some members questioned whether his sexual preference went against the party’s platform, which calls homosexuality “a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that have been ordained by God in the Bible.” Eventually, he was voted in anyway. He’s run for City Council and county constable, but has never been elected.

When Cargill started teaching gun licensing and safety classes years ago, his mother and stepfather were among his first students. The skills he taught them came into use in 2016, when Cargill’s stepfather awoke at 4 a.m. to a sound coming from the second-floor bathroom of his Snelville, Georgia, home. Opening the door, he found a man crawling through the window in the dark. He fired a single shot at the man’s face, and the intruder fell backward onto the roof and died. Cargill’s mother called 911, and then she dialed her son in Austin, who advised her to put the gun on a table by the front door and contact an attorney. 

That incident, more than anything else, makes Cargill feel justified about his life’s work. “I made a promise to my grandmother that I would make sure no one else close to me would experience what she went through. And I kept that promise, and because of that my parents are still with me today,” he said. But though police found that the shooting was justified as self-defense, Cargill says there was still an emotional toll. “For the first 30 days, they could barely eat,” he said. “Every noise would send them crouching and looking around for an intruder. When my mother called me and said she wanted to buy a huge amount of ammunition, I told her it was time for her and my stepfather to see a therapist.” They did, and four years later they are still gun owners.

As the coronavirus spread across the country, demand for guns hit record levels last month. The FBI’s background check system, widely regarded as the best available proxy for consumer demand, reported a record number of screenings. In March, there were 3.7 million such screenings — a 12 percent increase over the previous single-month record of 3.3 million, which was set in December 2015. 

The long lines have made it harder for Cargill to do his usual gut check on every customer who passes through his store. But in some cases, there have been obvious problems. A few customers were so stressed that they started yelling at him or his employees, telling them to hurry up or lashing out when they said something was out of stock. “I will just say ‘Have a nice day,’ and show them the door,” Cargill said. “If you’re yelling at me, I’m not going to sell you a gun.” 

He’s also concerned that social distancing guidelines have made it hard for him to offer first-time buyers a spot in an introductory class. At first he reduced class slots from more than 30 students per class to about nine, to ensure that the students could remain far apart. Now, a county shelter-in-place order has forced him to cancel classes altogether, which frustrates him immensely. “Our beginner classes are four to six hours long. There’s no way I can give people all that information standing at the counter.” To make sure he and his staff aren’t overwhelmed, he’s been closing four hours early, at 2 p.m., every day so they have time to return phone calls and file paperwork. 

Among some customers, the mood is still tense. In typical times, Cargill said, he might turn an off-putting customer away once a month. These days, it’s happening every few days. 

He said most gun background checks have been coming back immediately, but when they are delayed, the FBI tells him that the record-high gun sales mean he should be prepared to wait for nearly a month before they can deliver a definitive answer about each buyer. Cargill said he usually waits three days for a background check to clear before releasing a gun, which is consistent with federal law. Now he’s decided he won’t release firearms unless the FBI takes even longer than it has estimated to run the check. Fortunately, he said, the FBI has yet to exceed its estimated time and put him in that position. 

So many things about the gun business are different right now, he said. “This is something we’ve never experienced before.”