Special Report

This Is the Year Americans Bought the Most Guns

Since the FBI started to keep its National Instant Criminal Background Check System in November 1998, gun sales in the U.S. have steadily risen almost every year. They may have started to taper off, at least temporarily, as the will probably be down slightly in 2021 over 2020. But 2020 was the year Americans bought the most guns. (And these are the states that sell the most guns.) 

The total that year hit 39,695,315, up 40% from 2019. In 1999, the first full year the FBI kept data based on the number of background checks, sales were only 9,138,123. They topped 10 million in 2006, 20 million in 2013, and 25 million in 2016.

The FBI tracks gun sales and publishes a list of how many are handled through its 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 350 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.

In 2021, gun sales plunged in November, down 25% from the same month in 2020 to 2,217,458, according to the NICS. The annual U.S. total for the first 11 months of 2021 is flat with the same period last year at 35.7 million. Based on data for the past several months, after several years during which U.S. gun sales rose, capped by a 2020 surge blamed mostly on the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest, the rise has therefore tapered off in 2021. (See the states with the best and worst gun laws.)

Click here to see how many guns Americans bought each year since 1998

It is not clear why sales have started to fall. However, the reason for the surge last year into the first half of 2021 has been analyzed closely. According to The Guardian, about one in five new gun sales are to first-time buyers. The composition of gun buyers also has changed. CNN reports: “In 2020, half of all gun buyers were women, researchers say. One-fifth were Hispanic, and one-fifth were Black, according to the Northeastern University & Harvard Injury Control Research Center.”