Federal background checks nearly doubled in Puerto Rico last month as the island territory continues its post-storm recovery.
Dealers processed 2,303 applications through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in November — a 45 percent spike over 2016, the gun industry’s busiest on record, and a 77 percent increase over October.
The industry uses NICS as a barometer of sales, though the measurement isn’t exact. A deeper dive into FBI data reveals applications for handgun transfers comprised the bulk of the checks completed last month, with 1,926 residents submitting applications. Dealers submitted another 257 for long guns, according to federal data.
A review of the last three months, from September through November, shows background checks totaled only two additional over the same time period in 2016. The data suggests the sudden spike accounts for a recovery from disruptions gun dealers may have faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria — a category four storm that devastated the island when it made landfall Sept.20.
Puerto Rico’s gun laws remain some of the strictest in the U.S., with an extensive may-issue concealed carry permitting system that costs upwards of a $1,000 in fees. State officials restrict ownership per resident to two guns — each with police registration required — and an annual ammunition budget of just 50 rounds. Replacing spent rounds requires police authorization.
Cities and other localities impose their own rules, too, according to the National Rifle Association.
The federal regulations were lifted from June 2015 through November 2016 following a court battle over the constitutionality of Puerto Rico’s gun laws. The temporary reprieve created an effective permitless carry in the territory until an appeals court ruled to restore existing regulations late last year.
Despite its tough restrictions, violent crime plagues the island. The murder rate in Puerto Rico in 2016 averaged nearly three times higher than that of Miami-Dade County — a lingering side effect of Puerto Rico’s $74 billion debt crisis and widespread unemployment, including losing 30 percent of its police force over the last five years.
When Hurricane Maria hit in September, leaving behind a defunct power grid and thinly-spread resources, daily life for many of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents devolved into chaos. As of Nov. 30, about one-third of the island remains without power, according to a report from PBS News Hour.
The Federal Emergency Management Association has spent $230 million assisting families impacted by the storm. The agency’s Disaster Relief Fund contains nearly half a billion in reimbursements for local authorities to help rebuild the island.
“We were in really dire shape before the storm,” Puerto Rico Secretary of Public Safety Héctor Pesquera told the Miami Herald in October of police staffing levels. “Now, certainly, we’re not going to be in any better position. In fact, it’s going to be the opposite.”
Haniel Pomales, a resident of Playa Punta Santiago, told the Daily Mail law enforcement abandoned him and others stranded in the resort town. The locals nicknamed the area Apocalypse Beach after Hurricane Maria tore it to shreds, leaving it vulnerable to looters and others looking to exploit scant police coverage.
“My brother’s friend is a cop, his advice was arm yourselves with whatever you can find and do what you need to do,” he said during an interview with the newspaper 10 days after the storm blew through. “If you had signal you could try calling the cops but they won’t come. He said that if we shoot someone we should just leave their body in the street and they will come and pick it up in the morning.”
Luz Collazo Pagan, a 55-year-old lawyer from Toa Baja — a town of 88,000 residents on the island’s northwestern coast — showed a New York Times reporter the binder full of legal documents she said she uses to help her neighbors buy guns, as part of her family’s efforts to keep people safe after the storm.
Other residents abandoned the island entirely. Florida Gov. Rick Scott told CNN in October more than 73,000 residents fled to his state. The Florida Division of Emergency Management told PBS News Hour last month that number has swelled to over 200,000.
Guns.com reached out to several gun associations and dealers for comment without success.