Americans purchasing record-breaking numbers of guns amid coronavirus

Lois Beckett
Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Americans have responded to the coronavirus epidemic with a record-breaking number of gun purchases, according to new government data on the number of background checks conducted in March.

More than 3.7m total firearm background checks were conducted through the FBI’s background check system in March, the highest number on record in more than 20 years. An estimated 2.4m of those background checks were conducted for gun sales, according to adjusted statistics from a leading firearms industry trade group. That’s an 80% increase compared with the same month last year, the trade group said.

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Nearly 1.2m total gun background checks were conducted in a single week, starting 16 March, breaking all previous records going back to 1998, according to FBI data.

While the number of background checks doesn’t correlate one-to-one in terms of guns sold, the number of firearm background checks conducted through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System is the best available proxy for gun sales in the United States. The figures highlight how the pandemic has created a surge in demand for gun ownership, with some gun stores finding themselves inundated with panic-buyers, including, at least anecdotally, many Americans purchasing a gun for the first time.

The record-breaking week of 16 March was when California residents were photographed lining up by the dozens outside local gun stores, as the Bay Area and then California as a whole announced the first emergency stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the United States.

Friday 20 March broke records for the highest number of firearms background checks conducted nationwide in a single day: 210,308.

Americans can buy multiple guns from a licensed gun dealer with a single background check, meaning that the number of checks conducted does not reflect the total number of guns sold.

In most states, private citizens can also sell guns to each other without a background check, and these private sales are not included in the FBI’s numbers. There is no way to track how many guns were bought and sold in private sales over the past month. Some states also allow residents who have a license to carry a concealed firearm in public to buy guns without a background check, another category of gun sales not included in the FBI’s statistics.

Federal firearms background checks are also conducted for reasons other than gun sales, including for validating permits to allow people to carry a concealed firearm in public, and, in California, for ammunition sales.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade group for the American firearms industry, produces regular “adjusted” estimates for gun background checks that subtract out background checks that the FBI tags as related to concealed carry permit applications, or to period checks by officials to make sure permits are still valid. This produces a lower number that is a closer proxy for gun sales.

The trade group’s adjusted numbers for March are still “simply eye-popping”, Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the industry group, wrote in an email.

People wait in line to purchase guns and ammunition in San Bruno, California. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The second-highest week of total firearms background checks on record was 17 December 2012, the week after a mass shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, left 20 children dead, and sparked fears that the United States would pass sweeping national gun control measures.

More than 950,000 firearms background checks were conducted that week, though US lawmakers ultimately failed to pass any additional gun control legislation after resistance from gun rights activists and many Republican politicians.

While the FBI statistics do not include any information on what kind of purchasers are driving the spike in gun sales, some gun sellers have said they are seeing increased numbers of new gun owners.

“Retailers have been telling us that the overwhelming majority of those buying firearms over the last month have been first-time gun owners,” Oliva, the spokesman for the firearms industry trade group, wrote in an email.

American gun control advocates said they found the statistics on record-breaking numbers of firearms background checks concerning, and urged Americans to think twice before panic-buying a gun, particularly if they had never owned one before.

Concerns have also been raised about children sheltering at home in houses where they might have access to guns, as well as the risk of gun suicide, which amount to approximately two-thirds of US gun deaths each year.

“We need to prepare for the increased risk of more firearms in untrained hands,” David Chipman, a senior policy adviser at Giffords, a leading gun violence prevention expert, said in a statement. If you didn’t think you needed a gun prior to March of this year, you certainly don’t need to rush out and get one now.”

Activists said that the number of guns sold in the past month could have been even higher, if some cities and states had not told gun retailers to close during stay-at-home orders, deeming them non-essential businesses. However, some of these orders have been changed under pressure from gun rights activists, particularly after the Trump administration included firearms manufacturers, retailers and shooting ranges as part of the national’s “essential critical infrastructure workforce”.