The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tracks gun sales and publishes a list of how many are handled as part of its National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Each month, the figures are reported by state. Nearly everyone put through this system qualifies as a buyer. People who are excluded usually have criminal records. Of the more than 300 million checks that have been done since 1998, there have only been 1.5 million denials. The data is, therefore, the best proxy for U.S. gun sales available.
Gun sales have soared in the past year. They have reached 32,131,914 through October. That is more than the 28,369,750 for all of last year. Growing civil unrest may have prompted people to buy guns for personal and family protection. Another theory is that chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is a major cause. A new UC Davis School of Medicine study about fear of violence reports that: “The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated persistent structural, economic, and social inequities in the conditions that contribute to violence and its consequences.”
Who is buying these guns? A New York Times analysis shows that buyers cut across almost all demographic groups. Gun ownership has continued to be a flashpoint across the country, as the debate about who should own a gun and what kind of guns should be lawful continues, as it has for decades.
The rise in gun sales from 2019 to 2020 is not an anomaly. The number of gun sales has increased most years since 1999. At the current pace, 2020 sales will reach over 35 million. Sales first topped 25 million in 2016, 20 million in 2013, 15 million in 2011 and 10 million in 2006. The first full year the FBI kept data was 1999, when sales were 9,138,123.
Another sign of the prevalence of gun ownership in America goes well beyond federal government figures. A study by the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey estimated that Americans own close to 400 million guns. That does not include guns held by the military or police forces. This is the highest per capita gun ownership in any nation, by a very wide margin. Recent research from Pew shows that 22% of Americans say they own a gun. Another 40% say someone in their household does.
The rate of gun sales is by no means uniform from state to state, nor is the growth level. Among all states, Illinois has posted the highest sales so far this year, by far, at 6,074,299. That is almost 18% of U.S. gun sales in 2020, although the state has less than 4% of the nation’s population. At the current pace, well more than 6 million guns will be sold in Illinois this year.
Kentucky ranked second in sales at 2,545,801, which is just shy of 8% of the U.S. 2020 gun sales figure this year. Kentucky has 1.3% of the U.S. population.
By a similar measure, sales in California this year are relatively low at 1,334,819, which is 4% of the national figure. Almost 12% of Americans live in California.
Nationwide, at the current pace, gun sales will be up 25% this year compared to 2019.