Even in Hilo, demand for guns, ammo soars

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Tim Beatty speaks with a customer at the Hilo Surplus Store Thursday in Hilo. The store has sold many essential items to customers, including military cots to the hospital last week.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Sean Stueber talks about sales from the past week in the depleted Stuebs' Guns and Ammo in Hilo on Friday. Stuebs' changed its hours and is now open, for pick ups only, three days a week.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Thomas Toy looks at ammunition while talking with Kean Umeda at S. Tokunaga Store in Hilo on Thursday. Ammo and gun sales have increased significantly in the past week as people prepared to stay home during the statewide lockdown.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Michael Moylan stands in front of nearly empty gun racks on Friday at Stuebs' Guns and Ammo in Hilo. Guns and ammunition have been selling quickly at the shop since the initial outbreak of COVID-19.

As people across the nation stocked up on toilet paper and cleaning supplies in preparation for the coronavirus lockdown, demand for guns and ammunition also spiked in Hilo.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Sean Stueber, co-owner of Stuebs’ Guns and Ammo in Hilo.


“The closest I can remember is in 2012, right after Sandy Hook,” he said, in reference to the elementary school shooting in Connecticut that raised fears of a broad ban on guns.

Stuebs and the S. Tokunaga Store, together the primary firearms stores in East Hawaii, have remained open during the state’s shutdown of nonessential businesses, responding to increased demand for guns from residents.

“They’re worried about home defense,” said Michael Tokunaga, owner of the S. Tokunaga Store. “You never know what can happen, if there could be something like a gas shortage. People would rather be safe than sorry.”

“People are worried about other people who haven’t done enough to adequately prepare for this,” Stueber agreed.

Stueber said peak demand came about two weeks ago, when purchases rose to about five times their typical rate. Since then, Stuebs largely has been out of stock of more common types of ammunition, and traffic at the stores has slowed as the Police Department struggles to keep up with the flood of new permit applications, said co-owner Josh Stueber.

“A lot of the people we had come in are buying guns for the first time,” Sean Stueber said. “I think some of them are getting frustrated that they have to wait four weeks for the permit before they can buy anything.”

Customers at Stuebs and Tokunaga have seemingly favored handguns, shotguns and certain rifles, although Stuebs’ hunting rifle rack was still well-stocked on Friday. Gov. David Ige’s shelter-in-place order prohibits leaving the home for nonessential activities, which potentially includes hunting, although outdoor recreation is still allowed so long as participants maintain social distancing.

However, fishing supplies remain a strong seller, Tokunaga said, adding that some fishermen still rely on their catches for food.

“I would still tell them that, even if the fish are only biting in one spot, that they should use social distancing and stay six feet apart from each other,” Tokunaga said.

Because of the store’s importance to subsistence fishers, Tokunaga said his store qualified as an essential business, while other stores remain open for similar reasons.

The Hilo Surplus Store does not carry firearms, but is popular among “preppers,” said owner Tim Beatty, referring to a community of survivalists who actively prepare to survive for long periods cut off from greater social supply chains in case of calamity.

The Surplus Store has had its own strong run of business in response to the pandemic, with water filters and freeze-dried foods being popular purchases, Beatty said.

“I think when everyone started panic-buying, other people realized there was a need to prepare in case supplies at the stores run out,” Beatty said.

The Surplus Store has attracted more customers than just preppers, however. Beatty said the Hilo Medical Center bought about 60 Army cots from the store in recent weeks.

Like Stuebs and Tokunaga, Beatty said he is making efforts to reduce the number of simultaneous customers and cutting the hours when the store is open.

But Sean Stueber said it may take a while before his store can fully restock. Ammunition can take several weeks to arrive to the Big Island, he said.

After the Sandy Hook incident, it took about six months for the store to fully restock, Sean Stueber said.


“And I think it’s going to be the same thing this time,” he said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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