The Federal Bureau of Investigation publishes a monthly list of how many federal background checks are conducted on potential gun-buyers as part of its National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Nearly everyone put through this system qualifies. Of the more than 400,540,500 checks that have been done since November 1998, there have only been 4 million denials. Those who are excluded usually have criminal records.
The FBI data is the best available record of U.S. gun sales, even though private sales of firearms, including those at gun shows, are exempted from background checks in some states. (A 2015 survey conducted by the Joyce Foundation and the Fund for a Safer Future found that 50% of the respondents who had bought guns privately in the previous two years had not undergone checks.)
Since 1999, the first full year for which the FBI collected data, gun sales have risen annually. In 1999, 9,183,123 sales were recorded. Last year, the figure reached 39,695,315 — up from 28,369,750 in 2019. In addition, gun sales through the first eight months of 2021 totaled 27,841,219, compared to 26,756,487 in the same period last year. (These are the states where people are buying the most guns.)
Recent 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 pandemic was a major cause.
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,” according to the New York Times, “show that about a fifth of all Americans who bought guns last year were first-time gun owners.” The study also revealed that half of those new gun owners were women, a fifth were Black, and a fifth were Hispanic.
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].”
According to the FBI data, the state with the most gun sales through the first eight months of this year was Illinois at 7,134,095. The state has only 4% of the U.S. population but accounted for 26% of gun sales for the period. In second place, Kentucky had 2,395,658 sales over the same period. That’s more than 8% of the guns sold nationwide, even though the state has only 1.3% of the population. (See where Illinois and Kentucky rank among the most dangerous states in the nation.)
Here are the 50 states ranked by per capita gun sales through August, along with comparable figures for all of 2019 and 2020: