Did Gun Prevalence Influence 2020 Gun Sales?

I have previously written some thoughts about the use of FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) data for David Yamane’s Gun Curious Blog, and now that the close of 2020 is approaching I expect many people (and journalists) will begin looking at the NICS numbers to see just how much gun sales surged this past year.

(Full disclaimer, back in March and April of 2020 I was skeptical that the COVID spike in gun sales would translate into a massive unprecedented spike in gun sales (and at the time, the buzz was about handguns specifically). I’m glad I didn’t bet the farm on that claim, because the protests against police violence this summer, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and a contentious election, turned into a surge the likes of which haven’t been recorded in recent decades)

So, expecting that people will turn to the NICS data to see what happened with gun sales, and perhaps see where gun sales increased the most, what should be expected? I have two (early) takeaways so far.

  1. EVERY state saw sizable increase in firearm sales
  2. States where there are more gun owners had the strongest rates of gun sales.

All of my data here come from the FBI NICS data, and I have only kept the tallies for NICS checks for likely gun sales as I argue for here, the gun ownership data comes from the RAND State-level estimates.

First, lets look at how much gun sales increased in each state compared to 2019. This graph shows percent increase in gun sales in 2020 compared to the same month in 2019.

Couple of takeaways here. One, the jump in sales starting in March is pretty clear. Two, by mid-summer pretty much every state is having a gang-busters year for gun sales (Michigan is posting over a 400% increase, but I would need to make sure that isn’t a NICS reporting error before I said that was real). Three, by the end of the year, the states with the most gun owners are slowing down, but the states with fewer gun owners are still posting sizable increases.

Overall, this is what the whole year of 2020 (up to November) looks like compared to 2019. Across the board, every state saw a sizable increase in gun sales. Current levels of gun ownership don’t seem to explain which states saw the largest percentage increase in gun sales.

However, the story changes when one looks the association between current gun ownership and the rate of gun sales in a state. Here is the month by month break down from 2020. One can see that each month consistently shows that states with more gun owners have more NICS checks for gun sales per capita compared to states with fewer gun owners.

And here are the overall rates for 2020.

These numbers for states with more gun owners are pretty impressive. Basically, in a place like Wyoming there were enough NICS checks to say that 12% of the state could have sought a firearm (ignoring all the careful warnings one should use with NICS).

My read of these charts is that the percent increase in gun sales was something felt across the board. But since both overall gun ownership and the number of NICS sales in certain states is relatively low (such as the New England States), the percent increases in these states don’t reflect a sensible magnitude in change (e.g. imagine a hypothetical state with 100 people and 1 gun owner in 2019 that grew to 5 gun owners in 2020. That would be a 400% increase in “sales”, while a state with 100 total people and 20 gun owners that increases to 40 gun owners would only experience a 100%  increase. This latter state has sold many more actual guns despite the smaller % change). However, when we only look at the rates we ignore the fact that that a lot of new guns were sold in states where they might not have sold otherwise, those percent changes are quite sizable for those states relative to their previous years.

I’m sure many people want to say different things about 2020 and what it means for new gun owners. Currently, I think the data suggest that there were indeed many new gun owners, but I don’t know if I buy the idea that these people drove the 2020 gun boom. In any event, I think we need to carefully consider how extant levels of gun ownership influenced the 2020 surge. Perhaps many “new” gun owners in 2020 were people who grew up with guns or are around gun owners and decided its time they get one too (for whatever reason), this would make sense for the prevalence trends, and also would challenge the idea that many of these new gun owners are somehow ideological converters to support gun rights.

Published by trentsteidley

Sociologist, generally speaking.

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