Gun sales in the United States rose 40% last year to 39,695,315. The figure represents the high water mark in gun sales since the current record-keeping system went into effect. Increases by state varied substantially. In at least one state, sales more than doubled.
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.
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 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. 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.
Last year, people in just two states taken together bought over 10 million guns. In Illinois, the figure was 7,455,065 for 2020, which put it in first place among all states. In Kentucky, the figure for the same period was 3,330,462.
Notably, the figures show that gun sales and population are not related. Illinois had almost 19% of American gun sales in 2020 but has only about 4% of the nation’s population. Kentucky’s gun sales were over 8% of the national total. Its population is 1.3% of the national figure.
Gun purchase behavior continues to be poorly understood but hotly debated, which means the answer won’t be forthcoming. Suffice it to say, the extent of the rise begs a whole series of larger questions about why Americans would buy almost 40 million guns in one year at all.