U.S. gun sales in the first five months of 2021 surged 26% to 19,188,494. This makes it among the largest figures since sales were first recorded in 1998.
The increase is part of a trend. Sales of guns in the United States rose 40% last year to 39,695,315. That represents the high water mark in annual gun sales since the current record-keeping system went into effect. Increases by state in May and for the first five months varied substantially, as has been the case for years.
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. 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 340 million checks that have been done since 1998, there have only been two million denials. Therefore, the data is the best proxy for U.S. gun sales available.
The New York Times points out that pandemic gun sales are largely over. People who already own guns have started to buy more. However, there is a new group of buyers. “New preliminary data from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center show that about a fifth of all Americans who bought guns last year were first-time gun owners.” More these buyers are people of color and women, as well.
NPR commented on another trend “Most often, the first-timers are purchasing a semiautomatic handgun, outpacing the second-most-purchased firearm, shotguns, by 2 to 1, according to NSSF [National Shooting Sports Foundation].”
Growing civil unrest may have prompted people to buy guns for personal and family protection, many social scientists have posited, although this remains a matter of debate. Another theory is that chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic was a major cause. A 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.”
The gun sales increases in May and first five months should not be taken as unusual, nor should the rise in sales from 2019 to 2020 be viewed as an anomaly. They have increased most years since 1999. Sales first topped 25 million in 2016, 20 million in 2013, 15 million in 2011 and 10 million in 2006. In 1999, the first full year the FBI kept data, sales totaled 9,138,123.
The state with the most gun sales through the first five months was Illinois at 5,285,820. The state has only 4% of the population but accounted for 27% of gun sales for the period. In second place, Kentucky had 1,328,162 sales in the first five months of 2021. That is over 7% of the guns sold nationwide, even though the state has only 1.3% of the U.S. population.