The height of the summer is usually a quieter time for gun retailers. Trends over the past two decades show that gun purchases rise in the lead-up to Christmas and through winter, and subside in the summer months. But 2020, once again, has defied normality.
June 2020 marks a new all-time record for the number of initiated background checks for firearm sales, with 3.9 million checks—a figure 71% higher than that of June 2019, and 103% more than in June 2018. Of the top 10 weeks with the most background checks ever requested since the FBI established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), in 1998, seven are now from 2020, including all four weeks of June.
Background checks are required in all states when someone buys a firearm from a licensed dealer; it’s a simple process of filling out a form at the counter and usually receiving an immediate approval or denial. There are exceptions, though. Private sellers, including at gun shows, are not required to perform background checks on buyers. Some states, including North Carolina and Georgia, don’t require background checks when customers have concealed carry permits. While the background check figure doesn’t translate directly to gun sales—in fact, the government is prohibited by law from keeping a publicly accessible sales database—background checks are the best metric for predicting purchases.
Gun shop owners can attest to the recent uptick and the sustained increase since March, when coronavirus lockdowns first began in the U.S. The increase raises questions about why so many more people are suddenly buying guns, especially as gun violence is growing. Fourth of July was one of the most violent weekends in recent history; at least nine children under the age of 12 were fatally shot across the country. And, in an ongoing pandemic, which has heightened fears of civil unrest, the threat of gun violence is likely to linger.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Don Lankford, the owner of Southern Survival, a gun store in Opelika, Alabama, of the recent surge. His shop did six months’ worth of business in June, he tells Fast Company.
Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting (SAAF), a firearms market research group, estimates June sales at 2.4 million, an increase of 145% over its 2019 June estimate. Brady: United Against Gun Violence, a gun control advocacy group, estimates 2.2 million. While SAAF doesn’t release its estimation methodology, Brady tells Fast Company via email that it adjusts for carry permits, background check denials, the likely concurrent increase in private sales, and other factors.
Larry Hyatt, who owns Hyatt Guns in Charlotte, North Carolina, says that this June was a clear outlier. His store has been running for 61 years, and the month broke all records. “It doesn’t fit any pattern that we’ve ever had,” he says.
Hyatt links the surging demand to the pandemic and the upcoming election—election years typically drive up gun sales—and says that Black Lives Matter actions and the debate over defunding the police in June may have also been a factor. He says his customers have expressed concern about institutions breaking down; new Black customers say they fear they won’t have the police’s protection if they need it, and others say they want to protect their homes and businesses from looting. “I’ve never seen worry like this before,” he says.
“I think the short answer is rising insecurity,” says Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland and the author of five books on gun policy. Now that COVID-19 infection rates are increasing in states that are more prone to gun ownership, people may be channelling their fear of the pandemic’s economic effects into gun purchases. Hyatt and Lankford both noted there’s also a fear of “riots,” their term to describe the Black Lives Matter protests, though Spitzer says that’s a bit disconnected from the reality. “The amount of actual disorder and rioting, as opposed to legal demonstrations, is really tiny,” Spitzer notes, “and it’s certainly not occurring in places where people tend to be gun owners.” Lankford says there have been only a few demonstrations in his small Alabama town, but he’s worried about the unrest spilling over from Atlanta, 90 miles away. Rob Wilcox, deputy director of policy and strategy at Everytown for Gun Safety, criticized gun companies in a statement for “fear mongering about protests” to sell more guns.
This idea of buying a gun for self defense resonates with what both shop owners have seen. Sales of hunting or target shooting guns haven’t seen as much of a jump as handguns—for which SAAF estimated a 177% increase in June sales year-over-year—and AR-15s, which Hyatt says are “probably the most desirable for self-defense.”
These purchases may be more symbolic, as tokens of defiance, than sinister, Spitzer suggests. “A subset of gun owners express themselves, both politically and emotionally, by gun purchases,” he says. The question is whether the surge in sales will translate into violence in the near future. In a situation like this, he says, it’s possible that the guns may simply end up in closets or drawers at home.
More guns, more gun violence
But already, gun violence has been soaring this summer. As lockdown restrictions have loosened and states have begun to reopen, homicide rates have gone up—in some cities, outpacing past years. Chicago, which saw 87 shootings over the Fourth of July weekend, 15 of which were fatal, is on track to hit its 2016 murder record of 778 deaths. May 31 was the city’s most violent day in 60 years. In New York City, 65 people were shot over the holiday weekend, 10 of which died. The city’s 205 shootings in June is the highest total for that month since 1996.
Though it’s unclear exactly why shooting violence has increased, there’s some evidence that more sales are to blame. A preliminary study by the University of California Davis Violence Prevention Program makes this link, assessing the data on rising gun sales from March through May in the 48 contiguous states. They estimated there was an increase of 776 fatal and nonfatal injuries compared to the number expected, based on trends, if no spike in sales had occurred. “We find a significant increase in firearm violence in the United States associated with the coronavirus pandemic-related surge in firearm purchasing,” the authors wrote. “Firearm violence prevention strategies may be particularly important during the pandemic.”
Pandemic lockdowns may be increasing gun violence, as well, with quarantines seeing a rise in domestic violence and suicides. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, “the U.S. risks a 20 to 30% increase in firearm suicides” due to factors like anxiety, job losses, and others stressors from the economic downturn. Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, noted in a statement that the risks of gun violence are “higher than ever for millions of kids living with unsecured guns, women sheltering in place with abusers, and anyone who is struggling psychologically.”
More gun purchases mean more guns in home, and having a gun in a home is associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and suicide, regardless of how that gun is stored. Accidental shootings are also a big issue; many of the children killed by guns over the long weekend were shot by accident, caught in crossfire or hit by stray bullets. Eight-year-old Secoriea Turner was shot while sitting in a car in Atlanta—which has had 75 shootings over the past few weeks—prompting Georgia governor Brian Kemp to declare a state of emergency.
“We urge all Americans to remember that guns never make us safer,” said Brady’s president, Kris Brown, in an emailed statement, “and for all gun owners to vigilantly adhere to safe storage practices—locking your firearms, unloaded, in a safe and with ammunition stored separately.”
Nationally, gun deaths in 2020 are already on track to surpass the totals of each of the past six years if the rate stays steady. July has already shown anecdotal signs of continued high sales: July 3, before the holiday, was one of the single busiest days that Hyatt has ever seen in his store. They’ve been so busy, he says, that some customers leave to avoid waiting, which may lead to people flocking to the unregulated market, increasing private sales that don’t require background checks, and the risk of untraceable guns.
Even for the gun shop owners themselves, an upswing in business is not all rosy. There’s a shortage in supplies, and a surge in prices, due to rocketing demand and factories shutting down because of COVID-19 infections. Lankford worries he may have to lay off staff and even close doors within the next two weeks, because he lacks the inventory of guns and ammo. “I don’t like what I’m seeing,” he says. “Not at all. I would rather have the spike not occur [and have] business be even all year long.”
Experts worry that the ongoing protests and the looming threat of a worsened COVID-19 pandemic in the fall signal a continuing threat of gun violence. We could see more rifle-wielding mobs protesting lockdowns, and violence at anti-racism protests. “The 2020 elections will undoubtedly fan these flames, to some degree,” says Spitzer, “because gun sales have become politicized in the last decade or decade and a half.