Gun sales in the United States reached a record level last year, with the biggest increases in background checks for firearms overlapping with months of social and political unrest, according to industry and government data.
Industry data and firearms background checks show nearly 23 million guns were purchased in 2020, according to Small Arms Analytics, a consulting firm based in Greenville, South Carolina.
That’s a 65% increase compared with 2019, when 13.9 million guns were sold, according to Small Arms Analytics.
Since there is no national gun registry, firearms industry publications and background checks are the best sources for gauging sales.
FBI background checks on gun buyers increased all year, but the biggest jumps – March, June, July and December – overlapped with periods of political and social unrest. Background checks don’t correlate directly to the number of guns sold.
In March, the FBI conducted more than 3.7 million background checks – a month that overlapped with the start of the pandemic lockdowns. That’s more than 1 million additional background checks than were conducted in March 2019.
During the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, background checks surged again: to 3.9 million in June and 3.6 million in July. That compares to 2.3 million background checks in June 2019 and 2 million in July 2019.
And the political uncertainty after the presidential election overlapped with a jump in gun background checks in November, at 3.6 million, and December at 3.9 million. That compares to 2.6 million in November 2019 and 2.9 million in December 2019.
The jump in gun sales also continued into 2021. In January, as rioters stormed the US Capitol and a new administration took office, the FBI was swamped with 4.3 million requests for background checks – up from 2.7 million requests last January. Those checks are initiated by gun sellers.
The requests for background checks slowed to 3.4 million in February, but that’s still up 23% from February 2020.
There were also striking increases at the state level:
–A record number of Georgia residents got firearm background checks in 2020:
904,035, up nearly 68% from the year before.
–In Michigan, January background checks increased 155% from the previous January.
–New Jersey saw a January over January increase of 240%.
‘It just seems like we live in chaos’
At gun stores and gun ranges business is booming.
Atlanta resident Syra Arzu, 38, wanted to buy a Glock pistol. But the store was completely sold out, so she settled on a Smith & Wesson.
The single mother of three young children says she never felt the need for a gun, until now.
“It just seems like we live in chaos and this is giving me some kind of control over that chaos,” Arzu said.
Once Arzu got hers, her friend was convinced to purchase one of her own. And another friend who accompanied Arzu to the gun store picked up his new gun last week.
“So you’re welcome, gun industry,” Arzu said.
Ken Baye, owner of Stoddard’s Range and Guns in Atlanta, said he’s seeing a different kind of customer these days: new shooters.
“We see a lot of women come in, a lot of couples, people with children,” he said. “We’re really seeing pretty much every walk of life.”
Philip Smith, founder of National African American Gun Association (NAAGA), says many of those buying guns today are people who five years ago would never have imagined they’d own a firearm. Covid-19, he says, was the game changer.
“That was something that had people, regardless of color, regardless of your social background, your economic status, you said to yourself, ‘OK if we don’t have food next week, what are we going to do to protect ourselves and our families?’”
NAAGA is seeing steady growth of about 800 to 1,000 new members a month, Smith said.
Other recent gun sales increases
The previous record of 15.7 million guns sold in a calendar year was set in 2016, when many gun aficionados feared former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would win the White House.
Dabney Evans is worried about numbers of a different kind: homicides, suicides and injuries. An associate professor of global health at Emory University, she says studies show that more guns mean more deaths and injuries resulting from them.
“If we look at the global picture, we know that we have much more higher rates of gun ownership in the US than in other countries, and we also know that we have even higher rates of violence and unintentional injuries due to gun ownership,” Evans said.
Evans says if people want to arm themselves, these days the best way would be to wear a mask, wash your hands and get a vaccine.
Arzu already follows that advice, but still feels better with a gun in her home, which she keeps locked in a safe.
“It’s like a security blanket,” she said.
CNN’s Chauncey Alcorn contributed to this report.