Support Just the News

Help Fund Honest Journalism

Donate

Gun-buying activity shatters records in 2020 amid lockdowns, riots, presidential election

FBI saw largest yearly increase of background checks in 20 years.

Updated: December 27, 2020 - 9:16am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Gun-buying activity shattered records in the U.S. this year, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation recording both the highest number of background checks in its history and the highest increase of checks year-over-year in over two decades. 

Last month was the busiest November on record for FBI background checks in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, according to the Bureau's month-by-month data. Background checks were up 40% from the prior November, with over 3.6 million checks performed throughout the month. 

That number would be remarkable during any other year. Only one other month in NICS history prior to this year, December 2015, has broken three million. Yet November was only the fourth-busiest month for background checks during 2020 overall. In June, the FBI recorded 3,931,607 total checks, nearly topping 4,000,000 checks in a month for the first time and handily beating the previous monthly record of 3,740,688 checks set in March. 

The June record-breaker came amid widespread rioting, violence and unrest throughout the country driven by Black Lives Matter-led protests following the death in late May of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd while in the custody of police. 

Escalating murder rates in cities nationwide also likely played a role, with experts pointing to the fallout from COVID lockdowns, economic shocks and crime policies as possible explanations for the rising number of killings. 

Overall, the FBI has recorded 35,758,249 background checks so far this year, a provisional number that is already 26% higher than last year's total of nearly 28,400,000. That's the second-highest percentage increase in the 21-year history of the NICS. (The only larger increase came in 2000, the first full year of the program's existence, when checks increased by nearly 1,000% as the system became fully incorporated into the U.S. gun economy.)

That number is certain to grow even larger: The present total of checks in 2020 does not include December's numbers. Historical data indicate that December's checks tend to be elevated relative to the rest of the year. 

Though each individual background check does not necessarily represent an individual buyer (many gun-buyers will purchase several guns in a year, while many others will fail their background check), the gun industry has reported significant first-time customer activity this year.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation reported in June that gun retailers estimated 40% of their sales during the first four months of the year went to first-time gun owners, and that nearly half of those first-time buyers were women, both notable upticks.

"The main purchase driver among the group was personal protection, followed by target shooting and hunting," the group said. 

Peyton Galanti, a spokeswoman for Colonial Shooting Academy in Richmond, Va., said her organization has observed similar activity. 

"Gun sales have been high and steady this entire year, even during the [COVID-19] shutdown," she said, claiming that the market has been driven by "first-time gun buyers" and "people who never thought they'd own a gun."

"Our classes have been sold out months ahead and, until about this week, range time has also been way up all year," she said. 

Mark Fiacable with the digital retailer Florida Gun Site echoed those remarks, stating that the website had seen a "big increase" in activity this year.

High gun-buying and gun-owning activity has even been observed in areas of the country where it has historically been low. The New York Post this week reported that gun-permit applications in New York City were up threefold since March relative to last year, though the approval rate of those applications was significantly lower both in relative and absolute terms. 

The NYPD approved applications at a rate of 14% this year compared to 70% last year, the Post reported, signing off on just 1,087 applications compared to 1,778 last year. New York City is famous within gun circles for its notably restrictive gun ownership policies, a distinction it shares with numerous other large cities nationwide.