Gun Sales Surged in 2020. What We Know About First-Time Buyers and Whether This Changes the Future of Gun Policy in America.
By Sophia Young, Research Associate, Brady
It’s been over a year since the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic and cities and states began implementing stay-at-home orders across the country. Since then, we’ve experienced so many abnormalities that “unprecedented” was named the People’s Choice 2020 Word of the Year by Dictionary.com users. One of those abnormalities — the unparalleled surge in gun sales — gained significant media attention in particular throughout 2020.
It began in mid-March with long lines outside gun stores paralleling those for toilet paper outside of grocery stores, as uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic and fears of social unrest led to extensive panic purchasing. In March alone, Brady estimates that Americans purchased 2.3 million firearms, an 85% increase over the same month in 2019.
This trend continued throughout April and May, resulting in delays in processing background checks and raising concerns among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) operations were overwhelmed. Then, protests against police brutality and various riots across major US cities during the summer fueled by the police killing of George Floyd sustained the firearms purchasing phenomena. Firearms dealers saw empty shelves coupled with a 145% year-over-year increase in sales during the month of June. The year ended with a contentious presidential election in November, an event that historically has led to spikes in gun sales out of fear of changes in firearms policies. However, November and December had the lowest rise in year-over-year gun sales compared to all other months of the pandemic. Further, anecdotes suggest that this year’s election-related fears had much to do with a concern that the results of the election — regardless of the outcome — would spark violence. All in all, Brady estimates that there were 20.6 million firearm sales in 2020, a 64% increase over the 12.6 million estimated sales in 2019.
One of the first questions that come to mind after seeing this data is whether there have been any demographic shifts in individuals who are purchasing firearms and how many of these 2020 firearm purchasers are first-time gun owners. The answer to this is complicated. The government, by law, does not collect data on gun sales, nor any personal data on the individuals making those purchases. This is due to the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 that prevents the establishment of any federal system of registration of firearms, firearm owners, or firearm transactions. From a research standpoint, this is important to know because it means that any information we have about demographic breakdowns of the gun-owning population in the U.S. comes from self-reported survey data. One of the most recent national surveys assessing gun ownership in the United States was conducted by Pew Research in 2017, finding that 43% of U.S. adults live in a gun-owning household, while 30% of adults personally own a firearm.
In order to assess how many people became first-time gun owners during the pandemic, we must rely on new state and national survey data. Preliminary findings from a preprint of a California survey (fielded in July 14–27, 2020) of 2,870 California adults reveal that about 47,000 of the 110,000 people who acquired a firearm in California in response to the pandemic were new owners. This means that about 43% of people who purchased a firearm in response to the pandemic in California before July 27th did not previously own a firearm.
In May 2020, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) fielded a rather less scientifically rigorous survey of 175 NSSF retail members asking “In your opinion, what percent of your customers in the first four months (January — April 2020) were first-time gun buyers?” The retailers reported that about 40% were first-time buyers. Additionally, in July the NSSF fielded another survey of about 100 NSSF retail members asking “To the best of your knowledge, during the first half of 2020, what was the overall demographic makeup of your customers?” and “For any demographic that you had an increase, please specify the percentage increase.” The retailers reported an estimated 52% increase in sales to white Americans during the first half of 2020, a 58% increase in sales to Black Americans, a 49% increase in sales to Hispanic Americans, and a 42% increase in sales to Asian Americans.
Keeping in mind that the estimates from the NSSF are based on retailer’s best estimates of the makeup of their clientele, rather than using a more meticulous sample of gun owners themselves to determine the demographics of new purchasers, it is abundantly clear that there is a very sizable (and growing) population of new gun owners in the United States. Not surprisingly, this information has led to speculation about whether this increase in new gun owners will affect public opinion on gun-related policy in the United States or whether this new group of gun owners will become a significant voting bloc.
It’s quite likely that such questions are motivated by the assumption that gun owners are opposed to the vast majority of gun laws, especially those that might delay access or fully prevent access to firearms under certain circumstances. But this is a misconception.
According to a 2019 survey fielded by researchers from Johns Hopkins majorities of gun owners support a range of reasonable gun-related policies aimed at preventing fatal firearm injuries.
The survey found that 85% of gun owners support requiring a background check on all gun sales to ensure a purchaser is not legally prohibited from having a gun. The majority of gun owners also support extreme risk laws: 66% support authorizing law enforcement officers to temporarily remove firearms from individuals determined to pose an immediate threat of harm to themselves or others and 72% of gun owners support allowing family members to ask a court to temporarily remove guns from a relative believed to be at risk of harming themselves or others. These numbers may be surprising to those who recall the rise of “Second Amendment sanctuaries” a movement of a very vocal minority of gun owners who, since 2018, have attempted to prevent newly passed state firearm laws — like extreme risk laws and expanded background checks — from being enforced in their communities. But it goes to show that the narrative that any gun law will restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens does not actually seem to resonate with the majority of the gun-owning population.
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In fact, support among gun owners for various evidence-based policies to reduce fatal firearm injuries extends even further to licensing laws, which would require an individual to obtain a firearms license from a law enforcement agency before purchasing a gun. These laws have support from 63% of gun owners.
An analysis of data from The 2019 Lawful Use of Guns Survey has similar findings: the majority of gun owners supported policies aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of individuals at risk for violence. Among the 2,086 gun owners surveyed, 75% supported universal background checks, 81% supported extreme risk protection orders, and 79% supported firearm prohibitors for domestic violence offenders.
That being said, additional research is needed to understand the motivations for obtaining a firearm for the first time during 2020 and whether these new gun owners view various firearm-related policies differently than those who owned firearms before 2020. Further, future research should investigate whether the 2020 gun purchasing surge shifted the demographics of gun ownership in the United States.
However, the fact that many more individuals have purchased or are purchasing a firearm for the first time does not mean that public opinion will sway significantly on firearm-related policy. In fact, there is evidence that suggests the 2020 gun sales surge did not significantly shift voters’ opinions on gun policy. Post-election polling released by Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords shows that the majority of 2020 voters support a range of gun violence prevention policies.
The extensive polling from Everytown and Giffords consists of a survey of 1,400 voters across the nation as well as 1,000 voters from 45 congressional battleground districts. The survey was fielded in early December 2020. The results reaffirm previous survey data on gun policies from recent years and show that there is still overwhelming support among voters for various firearm-related policies aimed at reducing gun violence: 93% of voters support background checks on all gun sales, and over 80% of voters support enacting a federal extreme risk law as well as creating grants to help states implement them. Additionally, recent polling by Morning Consult and Politico found that 84% of voters, including 77% of Republicans and 82% of Independents support requiring background checks on all gun sales.
In 2020, we experienced a plethora of unprecedented changes to the way we work, socialize, shop, travel, and vote. Like these changes, the tremendous increase in gun sales was truly atypical. But public support for gun violence prevention measures remains sustained despite the increases in the number of new gun owners.