Four months ago, as protesters marched through the city demanding justice for George Floyd, Vena Petty was standing at a market in Burbank when she spotted an older white man glaring at her.
“It’s all your fault!” he hissed, adding an expletive.
Petty — who is Hawaiian, Black and Chinese — was standing quietly by herself at the time, so she’s confident he targeted her as a woman of color.
She tucked the memory away, but it resurfaced after President Trump during a debate told the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group, to “stand back, and stand by,” and again two weeks later, when Sen. Lindsey Graham made a comment, which he later said was sarcastic, about “the good old days of segregation.”
By then, Petty was convinced.
That afternoon, the 56-year-old, who was laid off from her temporary job at a film studio in March, visited Redstone Firearms in Burbank, determined to start the process of buying her first gun — something small, she said, to keep in her home. She hoped she would never need to use it, but believed that having a gun might give her some comfort in a world that felt increasingly out of control.
“Who knows what will happen?”
While the days leading up to most presidential elections carry a certain frenzied, exhausted energy fueled by attack ads and nonstop robocalls, this election cycle has felt abnormally anxiety-inducing for many Americans.
“We’re certainly in the middle of a perfect storm,” said Dr. Esther Sternberg, research director at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Humans respond physiologically to stress — we sweat, our hearts race — and those responses, Sternberg said, are essential for our survival.
“It gives you the energy to fight or flee.”
And, in a sense, that’s precisely what some Americans are now doing.
Some voters — those with the means and flexibility to do so — have channeled their pre-election stress into finalizing plans to move out of the country depending on who wins in November. Others have ramped up their campaigning efforts and some, like Petty, have spent recent weeks researching the steps behind buying a gun. Thousands of Californians, including many first-time buyers, purchased firearms in 2020 — a spike attributed to fears over the pandemic, but also, in part, to people’s fears of “government collapse,” according to a recent survey conducted by researchers at UC Davis.
And the worries are bipartisan.
In the days after Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate, Google searches for the phrase “Move if Biden wins” spiked, and after the first presidential debate, searches jumped for “Will Biden take away guns.”
In a viral video clip produced by the Young Turks, a progressive news outlet with a massive YouTube following, a couple wearing red MAGA hats said that if Biden wins, they plan to move to Panama. If Trump wins, a company executive who lives in L.A. County and asked to be identified only by her first name, Michele, said she plans to move to southern Portugal.
She long hoped to retire abroad, but the prospect of a second Trump term sped up her process, she said, adding that part of her feels bad, as if she’s abandoning the U.S. She believes the nation’s checks and balances have begun to erode, and she worries about what could happen in the days after polls close.
“I do see a lot of chaos potentially, from both sides,” she said. “I just don’t want to go through four more years of chaos.”
And she’s not alone.
Erendira Abel, who founded Baja Expat Services, a company that helps Americans with the process of relocating to Mexico, said that while she doesn’t bring up politics with her clients, a few of them, including Maria Denzin, 75, have cited it as one factor in their decision for moving south.
Denzin, who worked for Boeing for years, recently rented out her home in Palm Springs. She and her husband are now building a new place in Rosarito, Mexico, she said, and renting there in the meantime.
The main motivation for their move was monetary — their savings will go much further in Mexico — but for Denzin, a self-described “old hippie” who marched for civil rights decades ago, it was also about the man in the Oval Office.
“If, in fact, Trump wins the election, we will never return to the United States.”
Earlier this year, before Biden’s lead widened in the polls, Denzin turned to her husband, panicked over the possibility that Americans might reelect Trump.
“I’m so embarrassed.”
“I agree,” he said, and the couple hatched a backup plan: If things didn’t work in Mexico, they would move to Canada, where her husband has dual citizenship.
“The shine has really dimmed on America for me,” Denzin said, adding that she has gotten more set in her ways in recent years. She dropped contact with a couple of people after learning they intended to vote for Trump again — something she doesn’t think she would have done years ago.
“I do Facebook and I have my friends and it’s all about Dump Trump,” she said. “I’m much more one-sided. I don’t think that’s a good thing, by the way, but I get physically sick. I watch Fox News and I feel ill.”
Back in L.A. County, Raquel Derfler, who lives in Palmdale, has spent much of her recent free time campaigning for Biden and congressional candidate Christy Smith.
The 51-year-old mother says she became more politically active after Trump was elected in 2016. She began volunteering for an immigrants’ rights group, and in recent months she has text-banked and sent postcards about Biden to potential voters. She now uses her rare outings — trips to the grocery store — to urge women she recognizes from the community to register to vote. Unless Biden wins by a landslide, Derfler worries that Trump will refuse to concede.
“My fight instinct has kicked in,” she said. “I’m fighting to save democracy.”
On a recent weekday afternoon at Redstone Firearms, the shop Petty visited, Geneva Solomon — who owns the gun shop with her husband, Jonathan — zipped around the room with an iPad. She greeted a man through the door and took down his number, telling him they’d text him when they were ready.
Wait times at the shop these days are sometimes as long as three hours, she said, noting that sales have more than doubled since March, spurred by a combination of fears, she believes, about the pandemic, civil unrest and a gun law recently signed by Newsom that called for some firearm models to be removed from the state’s safe-for-sale list. Although the shop makes a point of not being political — she doesn’t want customers to feel like they have to choose sides, she said — Solomon, 38, said customers sometimes share their views.
Some people vent frustrations with Democratic politicians, saying they fear it will eventually be almost impossible to buy a gun in California, and others tell her that during the shutdowns and recent protests they wondered whether the police could truly protect them and their homes. In recent months, Solomon said, she has met several new customers, many of whom are Black, who told her that they’d never considered owning a gun before, but now wanted to learn more.
One of those customers was her niece, DeJonaé Shaw.
For a long time, the 31-year-old nurse, who lives in Upland, was afraid of guns, but her fears slowly faded after visiting the range with her aunt and taking safety courses. She considered buying but put it off.
Then, early in the pandemic, while in line at the supermarket, she watched as someone ran a cart over a child in a rush to buy hand sanitizer. It felt lawless, she said, and people were treating each other like dirt.
“I never thought I’d see that,” she said. “Living in America, we’ve become complacent, with a façade of protection our government gives us.”
A few days later, she purchased a Smith & Wesson handgun and although she hopes not to need it, it’s a comfort to have, she said, especially as election day nears. Like Petty, she was struck by Trump’s comment about the Proud Boys during the first debate, and by his statement urging his supporters to “watch very carefully” at the polls. It made her think about the long history of voter disenfranchisement and oppression of the Black vote in America.
This election cycle has been disappointing, said Shaw, a registered Democrat, who said her views don’t align with the party’s on all issues. A Bernie Sanders fan who also liked Elizabeth Warren and Marianne Williamson, Shaw said she now intends, somewhat begrudgingly, to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket.
“How are we in this situation again?”
It would be another lesser-of-two-evils decision, she said, after eight of the most stressful, anxiety-filled months of her life.