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Gun Sales Continue To Boom During The Pandemic

Gun show promoter Ramon Amoureux, right, talks to a customer at a gun show in Caldwell, Idaho, in this 2019 file photo.
Gun show promoter Ramon Amoureux, right, talks to a customer at a gun show in Caldwell, Idaho, in this 2019 file photo.

Gun sales continued to boom in May, the third-straight month with a spike in estimated sales.

Americans bought more than 1.7 million firearms in May, according to estimates from industry analyst Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting. That is down from an estimated 1.8 million firearms in April, but an 80% year-over-year estimated increase.

The FBI says it performed more than 3 million background checks in its NICS database in May, more than 700,000 more checks than it performed in May 2019.

Many states run background checks on gun permit-holders, so background checks cannot be equated directly to gun sales.

Guns sales began to skyrocket in March, apparently driven by fears of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales were up in April, too, according to SAAF estimates.

Georgia State University Law Professor Timothy Lytton studies gun violence and says gun sales are likely being driven by two very different worries. Some people are concerned about heavy-handed government during a crisis and others are worried government services, like police, won’t be able to reach them.

And he doesn’t see the trend in sales going away.

“I think the current civil unrest is likely to stoke both of those fears even further and that we’re likely to see increased sales of firearms continuing on through the summer,” Lytton said.

Two-thirds of gun-owning Americans said in a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center that they own their guns for “protection.”

Higher availability of guns could lead to an increase in violent crime like homicide, according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Advocates and public health experts have also warned of the increased risk of domestic violence and suicide, especially in the midst of the pandemic.

Lytton said one area of concern is the number of first-time gun buyers at a time when many don’t have access to safety training because of the pandemic.

“One of the legacies of this that we might see is we might see additional firearms accidents or misuse of firearms by people who really aren’t well-trained or equipped to use them,” he said.

Most of the May sales were handguns, which are generally used for self-defense. In fact the ratio of handguns to long guns, like rifles, was the highest it has ever been in SAAF estimates, at nearly two to one. That ratio has been steadily climbing since the early 2000s.

And, according to FBI numbers, the vast majority of background checks performed in May took place before protesters took to the streets across the country to protest police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

This story has been updated with additional information. Guns & America’s Heath Druzin contributed to this story.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

Copyright 2021 Guns and America. To see more, visit Guns and America.

Jeremy Bernfeld, Heath Druzin