Uncertainty surrounding the public health crisis, as well as heightened attention to social injustice, may be connected to an extraordinary increase in the number of New Jersey residents seeking approval to own a firearm.

Statistics shared by the New Jersey State Police cite a total of 94,954 firearms applications submitted statewide in the first six months of 2020. During the same time period in 2019, officials handled 26,802 applications.

While many applications may still be going through the approval process, or have been withdrawn for any number of reasons, more than 42,000 applicants had already received the green light for firearm ownership as of the end of June, the State Police said. Out of the 26,802 applications received January through June of last year, less than 700 applications were rejected.

"We did see an uptick every month this year," Brick Township Police Chief James Riccio told the Townsquare News Network. "It seemed to increase when the pandemic hit, but then our greatest uptick was in June."

According to Riccio, "a dramatic increase in civil unrest" following the May police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis seemed to be a contributing factor to the influx of applications.

Throughout the entire year of 2019, police in Brick issued 827 permits or identification cards to residents for ownership of a firearm. As of July 13 of this year, that number was already at 1,379. In June 2019, 48 applications were received by the department. This past June, 520.

"It's your absolute right to purchase a firearm. Just make sure that you're properly trained so that you and your family are safe," Riccio said.

Chris Leusner, immediate past president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police and the current police chief in Middle Township, said the surge in applications added to an already growing list of responsibilities for officers in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. But, he said, many people in New Jersey "felt vulnerable, understandably."

From January 1 to July 13 of 2019, Middle Township police received 107 firearms applications, compared to 332 over the same timeframe in 2020.

When asked whether an uptick in applications and approvals served as a cause for concern, Leusner said that only law-abiding citizens, with no red flags in terms of their background and mental health, can succeed in obtaining the right to own a firearm.

"I don't have any concerns, after the process that we go through here in the state of New Jersey, that that poses a risk to public safety," Leusner said.

According to Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University, the growth of interest among residents in owning a firearm, particularly at the start of the pandemic, was borne out of their desire to have "a little control" during a seemingly uncontrollable event.

"The presence of a higher degree of anxiety in the population as a result of COVID-19 is very well documented, and to me, this is an outgrowth of that," Elias said. "We can have debates about whether that is good reasoning."

Elias believes that most people who put their permit to use and actually purchase a handgun are doing so "defensively," not to "go out and shoot somebody."

"It's an expression of safety and security," he said.

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