The Federal Bureau of Investigation 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. Therefore, the data is the best proxy for U.S. gun sales available.
Gun sales have soared in the past year, reaching 35,758,249 by the end of November. 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: “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 close to 40 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 total sales were 9,138,123.
On Friday, March 21 of this year, Americans bought 210,308 guns. One argument for why sales peaked on this date revolves around the theory that people panicked about their safety as COVID-19 began to infect and kill a large number of Americans. Exactly what owning a gun would do for them remains vague. However, the fifth-highest date for gun sales was Saturday, March 22, with 185,751 sales. Thursday, March 20, ranks sixth with a figure of 185,742. And the 10th highest date of gun sales was Tuesday, March 17, at a total of 180,192.
Are gun sales triggered by specific incidents? The second-largest date for gun sales was November 24, 2017, when 203,086 guns were sold, just after the Rancho Tehama Reserve shootings that killed five and wounded 18 people. But mass shootings may well not be a cause.
For some reason, record gun sales dates have often been around Thanksgiving. On Friday, November 29, 2019, 202,465 guns were sold in America. On November 26, 2016, sales reached 185,713. On November 27, 2015, the number reached 185,345. And on November 23, 2018, sales hit 182,093. Each of these is among the top 10 days for gun sales.
The all-time record for gun sales in a day may well be topped. Gun sales across the United States could reach 40 million this year, which will be by far the annual record, and the number continues to rise year after year.