With less than two weeks left before the election, many Alabamians are preparing to cast their votes. Many already have.
And many others are planning for whatever comes next, and they aren’t necessarily optimistic.
In a year that has already seen a global pandemic and unrest gripping major cities, some Alabamians anticipate further upheavals, regardless of who wins – in the form of protests or violence, and resulting disturbances to commerce and life.
Though some admit the fears may be overblown, those same fears seem justified after seeing several large scale social disruptions in quick succession over the past few months.
Walk into many gun stores in Alabama, and you’ll hear a familiar refrain: The COVID-19 pandemic, unrest during the summer following the death of George Floyd, and the usual election year surge in sales have moved lots of inventory, in guns and ammunition.
‘A perfect storm’
The Gun Shop of Gadsden in Alabama City has three gun-toting cardboard standup figures in the front window – Dirty Harry, Rick Grimes of “The Walking Dead,” and Winston Churchill, in suit and derby with a “Tommy Gun.” One worker there said 9mm ammunition is hard to get and is going for three times in some places what it might normally sell for.
Gun sales usually increase in election years, said Jeff Stone, owner of Stone Arms Inc. on Mobile’s Airport Boulevard. But what has happened in 2020 has been on a completely different level. Sales began increasing with the onset of COVID-19 and have not stopped.
“Not even comparable. With Obama it was crazy but only for about a week,” Stone said. “It’s been insane since COVID hit. It slowed down about a week before the riots started, then it started right back up.”
The demand for ammunition is too high, he said, comparing it to the run on toilet paper in March.
“It’s a perfect storm – COVID, riots and the election,” he said. “This is completely unprecedented, and it’s everywhere, the whole country.” Many people who come in are looking for small, concealable weapons and AR-15s. The demand extends down to tactical gear, such as bulletproof vests.
“We’re seeing everybody, young, old, Black, white, everybody,” he said.
“We’ve had people that are clearly Democrats that don’t even want to be in here but they see what’s going on, and in their own words, they would never even look at a gun, let alone own a gun, now all of a sudden, they’re looking to buy guns.”
Gene Smith is the co-owner of Hoover Tactical. He said many gun sales are driven by fears of erosion to the Second Amendment, should Democrats win, regardless of how hard it might be to amend the Constitution. Ammunition has been “next to impossible to find for the better part of a year,” while 9mm guns and AR15s remain popular.
“We had a guy come in last week, in his late 30s, had never owned a gun before,” he said. “Before he left, he’d decided on two handguns and a rifle.”
‘I wouldn’t call myself a prepper’
Kelly Love lives in Lincoln with her family on her grandparents’ old home place, a 40-acre spread that used to be a farm. Back in February, when the specter of the coronavirus was still a far-away murmur, Kelly and her mother began talking about getting together provisions – food and supplies – just in case.
“I wouldn’t call myself a prepper, but I’ve done a lot of things to make sure I can take care of myself and my family,” Love said. “We have a garden, animals, we raise hogs, we have meat chickens, we have egg chickens. We have done things that make sure we can take care of ourselves if we needed to.”
Those fears were confirmed once the Great Lockdown started, and later when her son and daughter-in-law called a month later with the news that they couldn’t find meat, milk, or bread at their grocery store. The Loves went to their freezer and unloaded beef they had frozen, along with other necessities.
Not long after that, the family watched television coverage of mass protests and, in some cities, rioting and looting.
Love said she fears that, regardless of who wins the election, the outcome may be so murky or contested that a large portion of the country will never accept it.
“No matter who wins this election, there’s going to be a whole lot of people who are unhappy,” she said. “If they do what has happened all over the country, then you don’t know what’s going to happen. If not, that’s fine.”
If something violent happens, Love said, they also have weapons and ammunition.
Uncertainty about what might happen after the election is affecting other sectors of the nation. Reuters reported that Aon Plc, the world’s largest insurance broker, found that the majority of retail clients it surveyed are considering boarding up stores because they are fear looting around the election.
A Crime Prevention Resource Center report last month stated that during President Trump’s administration, the number of concealed handgun permits soared to more than 19.48 million nationally, which is a 34% increase over 2016. And Alabama has the highest concealed carry rate, with 28.5% of adults holding a permit.
‘Not tied to any specific situation’
Regular citizens aren’t the only ones preparing.
The Alabama National Guard is one of two nationally to be selected to support the National Guard Response Team, which is described as a contingency response unit comprised of military police units specially trained to support law enforcement. The Alabama team can be deployed in the eastern part of the nation, while a team from Arizona will be dispatched in the west.
In a statement, the guard said the team’s creation is “not tied to any specific situation or event.” Since June, governors have requested National Guard assistance for law enforcement support several times. The Guard’s domestic deployments this year under state authorities reached a peak of 86,367 forces in June, according to the Washington Post.
The missions these teams will perform will depend on needs, the guard says, but their duties may include point and area security, manning traffic control points, directing foot traffic, providing security and escort for emergency personnel and equipment, and transporting law enforcement personnel.
Many warnings about unrest are coming not from federal sources, but at the state level. Last month, the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness warned that election tabulation delays, or a protracted challenge, could lead to chaos, according to VOA.
“Incidents of civil unrest resulting in riots, violent acts, and fatalities will converge with election uncertainty, producing confrontations between protesters and counter-demonstrators challenging election outcomes,” the agency said.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which did not comment directly on how it might be needed after the election, released a statement saying it is “prepared at all times to assist with a wide variety of incidents to ensure public safety and protect state property.”
‘Not seen any concrete evidence’
But is there any particular danger of unrest in the wake of the election, contested or otherwise?
Earlier this month, the FBI arrested and charged six men with plotting to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. And members of anti-government paramilitary groups also discussed kidnapping Virginia’s governor during a June meeting in Ohio, one agent testified. And on Wednesday, U.S. officials said Iran is responsible for emails meant to intimidate American voters and sow unrest in multiple states.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, tracks activity by extremist groups online. Alberto Lammers of the SPLC said the organization is not seeing specific allusions online among extremist groups looking to cause unrest.
“The SPLC has been monitoring several extremist groups in the region, but at this point we have not seen any concrete evidence that these groups are planning any disturbance around the general election. However, we know that these groups are very active on several digital platforms and have the ability to organize and mobilize swiftly,” Lammers said.
CNN reported there is evidence that left-wing anarchists are using social media to organize, according to Joel Finkelstein, director of the Network Contagion Research Institute, a nonprofit that tracks extremism. At the same time, right-wing extremist groups use social media memes and codewords to organize offline activity.
The perception of everyday citizens is that the likelihood of “something” happening is high. On Wednesday, under a pristine sky, several people spending the afternoon at Railroad Park in Birmingham said they expect the election will bring some discontent, regardless of which party or candidate claims victory.
Laci Turner, 20, said the political parties are so far apart that unrest seems inevitable.
“You see it on social media,” she said. “With some people, if you don’t agree 100 percent with someone else’s opinion, you’re immediately discarded.”
Jacob Sawyer, 21, said he knows from stock activity how good 2020 has been for gun sales.
“Birmingham is a more liberal city,” he said. “So there’s probably more support for Biden. If he were to lose, you might see something like what happened with the George Floyd protests.”
Angel Digusto, 22, a student, said she plans on “staying inside, and laying low.”
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