Charlotte, N.C. — Every morning, a small aircraft flies over the sky, waking up Charlotte, N.C. It drags a flag with two images: on the left, the image of an aborted fetus, on the right, a Black Lives Matter sign. It is a stark reminder of some issues that both united and divide people here.
The streets are mostly soundless. The noise of a few cars and commuters waiting for the bus break the deafening silence. The sidewalks that were full of delegates and staffers at the Republican National Convention’s first day, held at the Spectrum Center on Aug. 24 in Uptown Charlotte, are now empty again.
As a few people have breakfast at diners that are shyly reopening after businesses shut down due to the pandemic, the consequences of coronavirus are still profoundly influencing the daily life of residents in the city, which has a population of over 800,000 and is known as the banking center of the south. The city is 35% Black, but has a significant gap in earnings between Caucasians and Black households.
‘The pandemic combined with the economic crisis, and the upcoming elections, is the perfect storm for self-defense.’
This scene is a long way from recent violence in the city. In June, two people died of gunshots and 12 were injured after an hours-long Juneteenth gathering turned violent. Juneteenth is a celebration marking the end of slavery in the U.S.
Several shooters fired over 100 rounds at a busy intersection in the northwest part of the city, police said. Seven people were hospitalized with gunshot wounds and five were injured when hit by cars.
In 2016, following the fatal police shooting of a black man, Keith Lamont Scott, there were more violent protests, and clashes with police. At that time, the-then Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor and Republican, condemned the protests, and declared a state of emergency. McCrory was succeeded by a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, in 2017.
There has also been a spate of homicides in Charlotte this year and, last year, Charlotte had the worst rate of homicides since 1993. Last month, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Chief Johnny Jennings said, “What we need is cooperation, and all of the crime-stoppers tips in the world don’t help us if it’s hearsay.”
The city was then hit by the pandemic. As of Monday, North Carolina has reported 166,127 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and 2,692 deaths, with overall testing positivity hovering at 7.4%, according to Johns Hopkins University. What’s more, four people who were involved with the scaled-down Republican National Convention meeting in Charlotte tested positive for coronavirus, according to county officials, said this month.
But there is another data point worrying the local population: The rise of gun sales.
Recent research by The Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning think tank, said nearly 3 million firearms had been purchased in the U.S. since March when the public-health crisis caused the shutdown of businesses in major cities across the U.S.
And the day gun-shop owners started seeing their business growing? Friday, March 13, when President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency. The Brookings Institution database shows that U.S. firearm sales increased over the following two weeks after that day, reaching 176,000 orders on March 16.
“The announcement suddenly scared people,” said Larry Hyatt, 72, the owner of Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte. “They were afraid of civil unrest, not sure about the future, not reassured over food supplies. Their first instinct was to face the crisis by buying a gun.”
“The pandemic combined with the economic crisis, and the upcoming elections, is the perfect storm for self defense,” added Hyatt, whose father opened the Hyatt Gun Shop in 1959 when he was a 12-year-old boy. Sixty-one years later, with more than 7,000 guns and a 20,000-square-foot space, his gun shop advertises itself as one of the largest one in the U.S.
In Charlotte, most people know the Hyatt family and its store, where rifles hang from the jade-green walls and Caucasian, Latinx, and Black Americans walk shoulder to shoulder, asking questions about firearms, and buying new ones.
‘I am a raging pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-everything social liberal, as far left you can get in this country,” he said. “But I am also a proud pro-Second Amendment supporter.’
While there is no official data on gun sales in Charlotte over the last three months, business owners like Hyatt claim they have seen an increase in sales. “In February, we used to sell an average of 30 guns a day. Now, it is at least 100 a day,” Hyatt said.
Since the pandemic started, his buyers have changed. “Recently, we have seen more single moms who are worried about the idea of de-funding the police, and more Black Americans who have never had guns before,” he said. “Most of them are first-time buyers.”
Gun culture has long been prevalent in the South. A study from RAND, a nonprofit think tank, published last April, estimated that Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi were among the states with the highest average rates of gun ownership between 1980 and 2016. In North Carolina, however, the estimated share of adults living in households with guns fell from 57% in 1984 to 35% in 2016.
Amid a pandemic that’s taking a toll on people’s health and livelihoods in 2020, concerns about public safety and law enforcement are growing. Homicides have risen this year. According to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department database, the city has seen a 4% increase in homicides in the second quarter of the year compared to the same time last year.
“Residents are afraid of other people and out of work. Some are getting desperate and arming themselves against the unknown,” said Jonathan Lee, a 46-year-old Uber driver, who was born in Boston and is living in Charlotte.
‘If the government takes your gun away, they can do whatever they want to do. This is why it is important to have it.’
Lee considers himself a supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and a Democratic voter, but his experience in Las Vegas, where he lived for a few years before moving to Charlotte, changed his mind about gun rights.
“I have seen a lot of crime in Nevada, and there were home invasion episodes, too,” he told MarketWatch. “You needed to count on a personal way to protect yourself,” he recalled of those years. It was scary.”
As he drove near Nations Ford Road — which runs through one of the city’s four worst violent-crime hot spots, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department — Lee gave more details on his political position. “I am a raging pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-everything social liberal, as far left you can get in this country,” he said. “But I am also a proud pro-Second Amendment supporter.”
“If you want to protect somebody you care about, you may have the right to have a gun at your home,” he said.
Presidential elections play a role in firearm sales. After Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, the gun industry grew by 158% over the next four years, according to a report by The National Shooting Sports Foundation. In 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, who advocated more control over firearm ownerships, gun sales fell.
‘We are definitely not just guns and violence’
Others say this focus on guns and protection here is overstated. “There is also a lot that unites us as a community. We are definitely not just guns and violence,” said Emma Way, 26, managing editor at Charlotte Agenda, a local media company founded in 2015 in Charlotte.
“The city is very torn,” she added, “there are divisions, and we see it when we post something on our social media.”
If Uptown looks like a ghost town, a young and dynamic district full of bars and new stores tells a different story two miles south.
“This neighborhood looks to be almost immune from the pandemic,” said Way, who moved here from Delaware four years ago.
‘There is also a lot in common that unites us as a community. We are definitely not just guns and violence.’
Indeed, Charlotte has kept growing over the last 20 years. In a report published last fall, U.S. Census Bureau data showed that Charlotte was the 9th fastest-growing large city in America in 2019, and earlier this year, 44,000 people moved to the metropolitan area of Charlotte, up 1.7% on the previous year.
“Our city has always been resilient and tried to learn from challenges,” said Mohammed Jonathan, 61, President of Charlotte Hospitality & Tourism Alliance.
Born in Iran, he moved to Charlotte in 1977. “It became my new home, and I can tell you that going through several recessions and crises, our hospitality industry has always come out better after economic struggles.”
Jonathan considers the pandemic as both a dramatic event, but also a valuable moment of reflection, for the hospitality industry. “It is a moment to understand where we are and what we can do,” he said.
Major corporations are still investing in the city. On July 1, Centene Corporation, a multi-line managed care enterprise, announced it chose Charlotte as the new East Coast headquarters. It said it would invest $1 billion and generate 3,200 jobs over the next 12 years. The deal includes a $388 million state grant, according to the Charlotte Ledger. The company speculated that the project could eventually employ 6,000 workers.
That news provided new hopes for the future of the city. “When you see a corporation investing a billion dollars for a facility, generating 6,000 new jobs, you have to be out of your mind to not being excited about the future,” added Jonathan. “We have a lot to be looking forward to.”
Karen Brand, director of communications of Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, said that its organization is focusing on the recovery planning efforts “to come out of the pandemic fully ready to return to generating economic impact soon.”
“We always rely on our colleagues at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to provide guidance and leadership on the safety of our residents and visitors,” she said.
But some Charlotteans also have to be worried about the recent wave of violence on their streets.
“If the government takes your gun away, they can do whatever they want to do. This is why it is important to have it,” said Steve Widows, a Donald Trump supporter from Charlotte.
Wearing a striped shirt and an NRA hat, he showed up near the Spectrum Center on the first day of the Republican National Convention to celebrate Trump’s arrival. “I never bought a gun because I am a Christian. I would not do anything even to defend myself,” he added while tightening a copy of the Bible to his chest.
‘The neighborhood is changing, as is its reputation. It is an incubator for change and empowerment.’
After the pandemic started, however, and protests over George Floyd’s death in police custody spread out across the country, Widows became one of the residents of Charlotte who decided to buy a gun for the first time.
“It is like war, it is war, and these people are going to take your things away. They are going to take over the country, and that makes the spirit in me to take the gun and say to them, ‘No, you are not going to do it,’” added Widows.
But for people like Larry Hyatt, who clearly has a vested interest in gun sales as the owner of a gun store, he expects his 40 employees will probably have to work overtime after election night, regardless of the result. “If Trump wins, we may have some riots against him, and people would react by buying guns. If Biden wins, we may have a remarkable rise in sales, too. So this is a big issue,” he said.
His shop offers training classes for first-time gun buyers, and every class is booked full until the end of September. “I think they are buying guns in fear of what can happen in November,” Hyatt said.
What is happening in Charlotte is a good reflection of what is going on in the country overall, said Ricky Sing, a resident of the Historic West End, home to Charlotte’s oldest surviving middle-class African-American neighborhoods.
“The neighborhood is changing, as is its reputation,” added Sing, who is one of the founding leaders of Charlotte Lab School, a private school. Born in Brooklyn, he moved to Charlotte ten years ago, and he does not want to leave the city now.
“It is an incubator for change and empowerment,” he said. “It is incubating and empowering youth, it is incubating and empowering people of color, it is incubating and empowering alliances.”
Even taking into account the recent violence here and the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Sing remains undaunted. “My view has not changed, I still believe it is a city where you can grow and develop.”