It’s not quite 40 million guns. The number is even higher. The FBI released its annual report of all recorded firearm transactions (not individual firearms sold) and the final tally stands at a whopping 39,695,315.
That last lil’ tidbit is important: These data only represent the number of inquiries submitted through the National Instant Criminal Background Check system (NICS). Each time a Federal Firearm Licensee (FFL) sells a firearm to any individual, the buyer’s background gets checked through this database to confirm he or she can, in fact, legally possess a firearm. NICS only records the buyer and not the guns they’re purchasing. Thankfully, federal law still prohibits the creation of a national firearm registry. That means the number of individual rifles, shotguns, and handguns sold is not recorded. And, since almost any number of firearms can be purchased in one transaction with a single NICS check, the number of guns sold in 2020 likely far exceeds forty million.
To put these data in perspective, last year’s transactions contributed more than 10 percent of all firearms currently and formerly owned in the country (about 372,700,000) since NICS began reporting in 1998. According to the Small Arms Survey, approximately 857 million firearms were estimated to be owned globally in 2017, an increase from 650 million estimated in 2006. That means Americans also contributed nearly 5 percent more to the current tally of firearms owned across the world. Accounting for average annual increases in firearm ownership over the last three years, The United States likely pushed the global number of guns owned in 2020 to over one billion. That’s one firearm for every seven-and-a-half people on Earth.
Even with the maelstrom that was 2020 swirling over Americans’ heads, a shift in firearm ownership had to occur to drive such unprecedented gun sales. After all, existing gun owners can only prepare for Doom’s Day with so many barrels and bolts. And a shift did occur, as the National Shooting Sports Foundation summarized late last year:
“This is a tectonic shift in the firearm and ammunition industry marketplace and complete transformation of today’s gun-owning community,” said Lawrence G. Keane, NSSF Senior Vice President of General Counsel. “These first-time buyers represent a group of people who, until now, were agnostic regarding firearm ownership. That’s rapidly changing, and these Americans are taking hold of their God-given right to keep and bear arms and protect themselves and their loved ones.” According to NSSF data, about 8.4 million first-time gun owners joined the Second Amendment’s club, representing 40 percent of all sales conducted last year. These new gun buyers spurred a 71 percent increase in NICS checks over 2019’s total transactions.
Surveys also revealed that 58 percent of purchases were among African American men and women, the largest increase of any demographic. Women comprised 40 percent of those 8.4 million buyers who visited a gun dealer for their first time. The proverbial starting pistol that started a fervent race to gun stores’ shelves fired its shot in early March, preceding a record-setting 2.3 million NICS checks performed that month as Coronavirus tightened its grip on the country. The panic-buying that followed did not let up, with each following month setting near-consecutive records for guns sold. By June, sales were up 145% nationally compared to the same time last year.
But it wasn’t only Coronavirus that spurred a national embrace of the Second Amendment. The death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by a police officer after being pinned to the ground in Minneapolis, spawned national protests and rioting that culminated in violence across major urban centers. Armed mobs confronted police, razed buildings, and targeted bystanders and small businesses. Many responded in kind, like the owners of a Cleveland restaurant who held off rioters at gunpoint. Election season took center stage in the middle of it all, and with it came the cyclical anti-gun arguments that polarize left and right candidates. It ushered in a renewed discussion about Red Flag laws, a set of legislative proposals which allow law enforcement to confiscate firearms from individual who may be suspected (often without evidence) of posing a physical threat to themselves or others. These laws often allow any member of the public to report a gun owner to authorities, wherein the burden of proof is placed on the gun owner after their weapons have been taken.
Then Democratic-candidate-for-President Joe Biden unleashed his draconian set of gun control promises on the campaign trail, promising to quite literally ban the online firearm industry, reinstate a federal assault weapon ban, and institute national Red Flag laws. “Upon being elected, I will give the United States Congress 100 days to get their act together and have the Courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws. And if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action,” Biden remarked before clinching the nomination for the country’s highest office.
Coronavirus’s death-grip on the country is beginning to loosen, as vaccine production accelerates and millions of Americans receive inoculations. Now, President Biden and his unmatched stance against gun rights has taken center stage. Gun sales are up again, and the industry is struggling to meet the demand. Gun lobbies and dealers across the country are reporting critically low supplies of firearms and ammunition. In Virginia, where pro-gun protests spawned last year while Governor Ralph Northam worked to pass a series of gun control measures that included a ban on AR-15s, Virginia Citizens Defense League member Philip Van Cleave says, “It’s so hard to find ammunition right now. You can go to a big store that used to stock massive amounts and you are lucky if they have anything on the shelves. Prices are double and triple what they were just a few months ago. Firearms are hard to find. They are still available, but not like they were and the prices have gone up on some of those.”
Van Cleave commented on the protests and violence that have swept the country, too: “Crime is crime — that’s why we believe people should carry a gun for self-defense — because it doesn’t matter how the criminal got the gun. All that matters: he’s about to kill you and are you going to let him kill you or are you going to fight back and save your life?”
In Fort Worth, Texas, Intrepid Shooting Sports owner Chris Mayhall says continued protests, and now the new administration, are largely driving the continued demand for guns. “People that live 60 miles away from any kind of population center were buying AR-15s because they were really worried that there was going to be some mob headed down there,” Mayhall said. “Pretty much every election season is like this. People are very concerned that their rights are going be taken away from them.”
Barack Obama’s election in 2008 sparked a gun-buying spree as many feared he would start a ‘war on guns,’ even as the former President’s advisers at the time said gun legislation would not be a high priority when he took office. With President Joe Biden and his sweeping anti-gun proposals, Mayhall agrees: This time is no different.