Gun sales in the U.S. surged immediately after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. One theory was that people believed they would have to defend their homes as the virus spread. Another theory was that social unrest later in 2020 made people uneasy about their safety. The trend did not last, and gun sales dropped sharply this year – again with no ready explanation. What is not in question is that gun purchases in some states have been sharply higher than in others.
Gun sales peaked in 2020, with the FBI processing 39,695,315 firearm background checks, up 32% from 2019. Sales dropped only slightly in 2021, with 38,876,673 background checks. The decline in 2022 has been dramatic. In some months, there were only 60% background check requests of the checks in the same month last year.
While not all background checks end in a sale, the figures are staggering, and yet they pale in comparison with gun ownership. By most estimates, there are 400 million guns in circulation in the U.S. Gun violence in the U.S. is also among the highest on a per capita basis than in any other nation in the world. The Gun Violence Archive reports that gun deaths in America have reached 37,951 so far this year. Many experts link the wide distribution of guns to gun violence, although this is hotly debated. (Here are countries with the most gun deaths per capita.)
Gun sales by state, as estimated by firearm background checks, can be expressed as raw numbers, but this yardstick can be misleading. A better measure is background checks per 1,000 people in a state. By this measure, while California has the fifth-most total background checks so far in 2022, it has among the fewest checks per capita. Kentucky, meanwhile, leads the list when ranked based on checks per capita.
There is no explanation why some states have higher gun sales than others. States with low population density tend to have comparatively high gun sales, on a per capita basis. These include Montana, Idaho, Alaska, Utah, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Regardless of the sales pattern, the FBI will process close to 30 million background checks this year, meaning gun sales remain high. And while this may be lower than in the past two years, figures are still extraordinary. (Here are the 33 senators with perfect scores from the american gun lobby.)
Using FBI data from its National Instant Criminal Background Check System, 24/7 Wall St. ranked states based on gun background checks in the first 10 months of the year per 1,000 people in each state. Population data came from the Census Bureau and are one-year averages for 2021.
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