Special Report

2021 Gun Sales Reach 24.9 Million: Here’s the Top State

U.S. gun sales in the first seven months of 2021 surged 13% to 25,125,896 from the same seven months last year. This makes it the largest first seven months of the year figure since sales were first recorded in 1998. Illinois, the state with the most gun sales through the first seven months, accounted for nearly 27% of total sales. 

The increase is part of a trend. Sales of guns in the United States rose 40% last year to 39,695,315 — setting yet another high-water mark in annual gun sales since the current record keeping system went into effect. Increases by state in July and for the first seven months varied substantially, as has been the case for years. Gun violence also varies by state. Here are the states with the most gun violence.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation tracks background checks 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 350 million checks that have been handled since 1998, there have only been 2 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. While people who already own guns have been buying more, 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 of these buyers are people of color and women.

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].” Some states, however, have more strict regulations about the type of gun, license, and background checks required. Here are the states with the best and worst gun laws.

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 July and first seven months of 2021 should not be taken as unusual, nor should the rise in sales from 2019 to 2020 be viewed as an anomaly. Gun sales have increased most years since 1999. Annual 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 seven months was Illinois at 6,707,482. The state has only 4% of the population but accounted for 27% of gun sales for the period. In second place, Kentucky reported 1,984,388 sales in the first seven 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. Still, Illinois and Kentucky are not among the top 10 most dangerous cities in the country. 

Here are 2021 gun sales by state, including the District of Columbia and some territories.

To determine how many guns are purchased in every state, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed firearm registrations in every state between Jan. 1, 2019 and July 31, 2021 from The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)

The background check data is widely used as the best available proxy for gun sales, but checks and sales are not equal. According to the NICS: “These statistics represent the number of firearm background checks initiated through the NICS. They do not represent the number of firearms sold. Based on varying state laws and purchase scenarios, a one-to-one correlation cannot be made between a firearm background check and a firearm sale.” 

We also examined 2019 firearm-related deaths data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.