In the early weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., Americans were sent into a panic. People were becoming ill. Grocery stores were being left with empty shelves. Entire cities were being shut down. All of it, because there was an unknown fear hanging overhead.
Hidden beneath that surface fear, was a growing desire to ensure safety no matter what. That desire drove people — by the millions — to gun shops as they looked for a simple way to ward off any threats of something they could see and didn’t understand, experts suggest.
“Ordinarily, this time of year is the low season of firearms sales,” says Jurgen Brauer, chief economist at Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting, adding the COVID-19 crisis and political unrest changed that. “Instead, it turned out to be the best-selling season ever,” Brauer says.
Background checks are at an all-time high, according to the FBI. The agency’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) shows almost 14,000,000 checks were done between March and June, the highest in its 22-year history. June’s 3,931,607 checks were a 136 per cent increase from 2019.
“The increased sales don’t represent the spreading of gun ownership to a larger fraction of the population,” says Gary Kleck, professor emeritus of criminology at Florida State University. Background checks only account for the individual purchasing a weapon, while the purchase could be for multiple guns. “They’re in effect, no more widely available than they were before,” says Kleck.
As the health crisis deepened in America, gun sales flourished. The National Shooting Sports Foundation says roughly 40 per cent of firearm sales in the first quarter of 2020 were to first-time buyers. One study from the Brookings Institution estimates the number of firearms sold during that time was likely 3,000,000 more than it would have been normally.
When President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in March, gun sales spiked once again. Data shows that in the 12 days following that declaration, daily sales hovered around 120,000 per day, peaking at 176,000 on March 16.
The political unrest that followed the shooting death of George Floyd further added to American’s need to feel secure, Kleck said. Protests took over dozens of cities, sometimes for weeks on end. That escalated tensions in an already fragile society, and according to Kleck, reinforced the right to bear arms because “it’s linked to self-protection. It’s survival related.”
This second surge in sales was different because it was linked to a protest movement.
In 2008, gun purchases were driven by a fear that the incoming president, Barack Obama, would increase regulations on gun ownership. In 2020, the surge was linked to anxiety about civil unrest.
The monthly spike in firearms sales may have been a slight boost for a struggling economy, however, it has become worrisome for gun control advocates. A surge in purchases is often seen during, and after deadly incidents.
The Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 led to 3,000,000 additional gun purchases but also contributed to at least 60 accidental deaths. Research from the University of California shows that in the first quarter of 2020, almost 800 incidents of gun injuries were reported. The report indicates that injures include shootings, homicides and suicides, but does not provide a data breakdown.
“Gun violence is a public health epidemic,” says Adam Garber, executive director at Ceasefire PA, a Pennsylvania-based gun violence prevention organization. Garber says he understands that people are fearful, but he says “buying a gun will not make you safer now, nor in the future.” He also pushes back on studies that show gun violence does not increase with gun sales.
The Trump administration has promised to crack down on the growing rate of gun violence in some American cities. Federal law enforcement personnel have been, or will be, dispatched, despite city leaders’ — mainly Democratic — opposition to the action. Critics argue using armed agents will create an even deadlier situation.
Kleck says the phrase “a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun” exists “only in the mind of Donald Trump,” adding that the increase in sales “only adds to disorder.” Kleck says this is an attempt to appease his base. The impact could further embolden protesters who are already looking for less police involvement in American cities.
Gun control advocates are eager to see any kind of political shift in Washington after the 2020 election, hoping it will get them closer to enacting stricter gun laws in a country that suffers from more gun violence than any other on earth.
“When there’s a gun present in numerous situations, (it’) more likely to become deadly,” says Garber.