Gun sales skyrocketed in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic last year. As of the end of December, 39.3 million firearm background checks had been completed since the start of the year, more than in any other full year since state by state tracking began in 1998. Fewer than 28 million background checks were performed in all of 2019.
On a state by state basis, 45 states reported more background checks were done for gun purchases in 2020 than in any other year on record. Background checks rose in 2020 compared to 2019 in every state except for Kentucky, which in 2019 had 4.2 million firearm background checks — by far the most at nearly 1 check per resident.
Because of varying state laws, loopholes in gun sales online and at gun shows, as well as untraced illegal weapon purchases, total gun sales or the total number of guns owned in the United States is not known. However, it is possible to approximate the numbers of gun purchases using background checks tracked by The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). While widely considered the best proxy, because of varying state laws and purchase scenarios, background checks do not represent the true number of firearms sold.
U.S. gun manufacturers help meet massive demand for weapons. Gun manufacturing, tracked by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), is another proxy for gun sales at the national level.
Approximately 7 million guns were manufactured in the U.S. in 2019, compared to 9 million in 2018, 8.3 million in 2017, and 11.5 million in 2016 — the year with by far the most guns manufactured since tracking started in 1986. Rifles dominate gun production, closely followed by 9 mm pistols. Figures for 2020 have yet to be published.