Quick Compare: 2020 vs 2019 NICS Numbers

2020 has passed, and with that we can finally start saying how the whole year stacked up compared to previous years in terms of gun sales (or more appropriately “sales” since its pretty much proxies all the way down when it comes to measuring gun sales).

Here I am using the NICS data from the FBI, all I am doing here is just using the NICS checks for handguns, long guns, “other” (which can include silencers, but also includes things like AR lowers), multiple sales, and private sales (for states that report such sales). These data do not include any checks for purchase permits or concealed carry licenses.

Here’s the year-to-year picture.

It’s probably safe to say over 20 million guns were sold in 2020. On its own, this is a remarkable number because it clearly outstrips all previous years. Researchers and journalists are going to spend a good deal of time and energy trying to parse out why 2020 was so huge for sales (pandemic? defund the police fears? fears of election violence? take your pick). There likely isn’t one sole reason for the trend though, but its going to be a big focus.

Month to month, 2020 might offer some new insights, but again its complicated by the NICS data. I recently wrote that NICS data often come from the same raw source, and despite different methods of “cleaning” it there isn’t a clear standard for using it month to month yet. In that vein I’ll share three more charts here. First, using raw FBI NICS data where I use only “sales” data we see that 2020 was pretty much the same as 2019 until March hit.

After March, there is a sustained difference in 2020 gun sales compared to 2019. Anecdotally, this graph seems to suggest that the March surge was due to COVID pandemic. The surge in June I would attribute to events around police violence and the protests after George Floyd’s death (open question though about what group felt the most fear here though as this NYT The Daily Podcast might illustrate).

Finally, the there might be an issue here about looking at “seasonality.” The Trace provides “clean” NICS data where they also apply a seasonal adjustment to the NICS data (they also don’t use the “other” category for sales). Out of curiosity I compared their “unadjusted” and “adjusted” NICS numbers, which tell markedly different stories.

The “unadjusted” numbers are pretty much exactly the same as the raw NICS data I used above (no surprise, since they use the same data but just don’t use the “other” category.) But the “adjusted” numbers, which supposedly account for seasonality, show that 2019 was flat across the board while unseasonable jumps from March-December occurred in 2020. The seasonal adjustment suggests that June sold the most guns in 2020, but that has to be taken with a grain of salt because adjusting for seasonality with a statistical correction may not reflect the actual bean count of how many NICS checks the FBI processed in 2020. I would imagine that March 2020 sold the most guns when one considers just the raw number in the bean count, but June 2020 was the biggest jump in gun sales compared to a “normal” year when one considers seasonal trends.

2021 currently looks to be a continuation of 2020. After the January 6th insurrection there have been some news stories suggesting that gun dealers are seeing another run on guns, even as inventories remain low. Anecdotally, I know that its hard to find common caliber guns in big name stores right now.

While I am curious to see what research might find to be the primary motive(s) for gun sales in 2020, I can’t help but wonder how long this demand can be sustainable. Given previous gun spikes, I didn’t think a multi-month surge in gun sales would be plausible. But now I can’t help but wonder when this demand for guns will be satiated, perhaps market saturation isn’t possible here. Likewise, how many of these guns are going to completely new gun owners, adding to existing stockpiles, or ending up in the hands of people who grew up with guns or once owned guns and now decided to get one again?

Published by trentsteidley

Sociologist, generally speaking.

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