NICS checks: January 2021 Edition

Someday I will blog about things I research besides these NICS posts. I promise.

January most likely had over 2 million gun sales (using the raw NICS numbers for Handgun, Long gun, Other, Multiple, Private Handgun, Private Long Gun, and Private other NICS checks, I get 1.98 million, pretty darn close). I caught a news story on the radio saying that January 2021 is being labeled the month with the most gun sales ever and the most NICS checks ever conducted. The news station (which rhymes with EN-PEA-ARR) also had a quote from an NRA spokesperson saying that gun sales spiked (again) because Americans were anxious about new gun control laws now that Democrats were in political power.

So I had to see if this seemed right. Two claims I wanted to check:

1) January 2021 sold the most guns ever in NICS history

2) Biden’s election spurred this new surge (I mean its not like anything else happened in January 2021, right?)

Well, Item 1 is easy to check. Here are the numbers. January 2021 likely sold a lot a guns, but its not the “most gun sales in a month ever.”

A point of clarification is needed here though. January 2021 did conduct the most NICS OVERALL in a month. There were over 4.3 million NICS checks conducted for all purposes (this includes concealed carry permit applications and background checks done periodically for those permits, as well some states that use the NICS for other purchase permits). But, of those 4.3 million NICS checks only about 46% where explicitly for a likely gun sale (again, these are Handgun, Long gun, Other, Multiple Guns, Private Handgun, Private Long Gun, and Private other). Its possible that more than half of the January 2021 NICS checks were for concealed permit checks (be they new applications or annual check-ups) or some other reason. Regardless, there are several periods (December 2012, December 2015, March 2020, and June 2020) that all outpace January 2021.

Item 2 is a little more complicated, but perhaps we can see how Biden stacks up in terms of scaring people into gun shops compared to his predecessors. And it might be most useful to compare the previous windows of time before, during, and after elections to see if anything stands out. Below is a chart that shows NICS “sales” from October to February in 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020 (obviously 2020 doesn’t have February yet, but you can see how it works).

If the axiom that Democratic presidents spur gun sales is true, then we might expect sales to peak in November and December. This seems to be the case with Obama in ’08 and ’12. And if one recalls the messaging in 2016 it was that Hillary Clinton had the election in the bag, so the surge in sales in November 2016 might be due to fears about her then-likely victory. ’08, ’12, and ’16 all saw slight increases from November into December and then declining in January. (Side note: It is also possible the December numbers go up because of holiday shopping, but that’s another blog post).

Biden’s election looks pretty different here. And its probably impossible to parse out his victory’s influence on sales from the sustained increased in gun demand that occurred in 2020. I think the strongest case to be made though is that a Biden Administration isn’t primarily driving the gun sales number, especially in January 2021. My thinking for this is that Obama’s election post-Sandy Hook (the most likely moment new guns could have happened) didn’t have a late surge in January when a new push for gun laws occured. Also, Biden’s election doesn’t seem to have a October-thru-December ramp up in sales like his predecessors. So if Biden’s election is driving the January gun sales numbers, then he managed to make gun sales from October to January all pretty much the same, something that even Obama didn’t do. I think its more likely that the 2020 surge in gun sales appears to be continuing into 2021. Certainly some folks might be worried about gun control laws, but if its a sudden a fear of a Biden Administration then its a pretty late spike for that fear given how such spikes have happened previously.

However, this raises an interesting question for the wave of gun sales that started in 2020. Many are speculating that the demand for guns in 2020 was driven in large part by new gun owners who sought personal security due to the the pandemic, economic downturn, civil unrest, and fears of election violence. If gun sales surged throughout 2020 because of such fears, then what effect does an insurrection at the Nation’s capitol have on that demand? Would it not be lumped into the growing bucket of potential uncertainties that 2020 threw at people? I find it interesting that suddenly “its a fear of Democrats and gun laws” is the story the NRA spokesperson and (other gun industry folks) went with, because while it might be true it seems to ignore a pretty obvious news making event. Likewise, when the NRA has framed civil unrest as a threat to personal safety (and a good reason to have a gun handy) for many years, there is no mention about the violent capitol takeover. It has to be people are now more afraid of Biden and new laws than the myriad of threats that might appear on the news that drove sales in 2020?

I myself think current gun owners play a big role in driving the sales as opposed to brand-new gun owners (though I do not doubt there are MANY new gun owners out there), and the argument that potential new gun laws are what contributed to a higher than usual January sales rate would seem to suggest that the places where there are the most gun owners would sense the greatest level of threat. Therefore, we might expect those states with more gun owners to have more gun sales.

Indeed, gun sales in January 2021 were strongest int he states with the most extant gun owners.

In the end, I think we have to be aware of two narratives that are being brandied about for the wave of new gun sales that started in 2020 and seem to be continuing. Some journalists are saying this wave of sales was driven (in no small part) by new gun owners. If that is the case, then its hard to square that circle with the fact that states with more gun owners are consistently selling more guns per capita. Now, with a Democratic controlled legislative and executive branch, the story is probably going to change as some seem willing to say its a fear of gun laws that may have contributed to these sales in January 2021 and minimize the social unrest aspects. That is an easier argument to follow, again because the states with more gun owners (the perhaps most self-interested group for gun laws) are buying more guns per capita. But I don’t like the idea that journalists and industry folks have been touting the rise of new gun owners only to drop that narrative after the 1/6 Capitol insurrection. Furthermore, these two narratives are not necessarily complimentary and complicated even more when we list out some facts. These are the biggest question marks, as I see them.

  • If Biden’s election drove gun sales in January 2021, then its a surge that looks unlike any politically driven gun surge that occurred in previous elections. Rather than spiking after the election and tapering off in January (like Obama in ’08 and ’12) Biden’s election had gun sales stay consistently high from October to January. How do we parse out fears of new gun laws (which certainly exists as a motive for gun sales) when its not apparent that the election had a meaningful impact during a time when gun sales were already at their highest level?
  • If the overall 2020 gun sale surge was driven in large part by new gun owners fearful of some kind of social unrest, and this was a compelling explanation for gun sales in 2020 as the pandemic hit, protests against police brutality reach unprecedented sizes, and fears of election violence weighed heavy on many. Then the 1/6 Capitol insurrection would seemingly have to add to this explanation for gun sales. Why would we not expect that event to drive gun sales among new gun owners as much as any event in 2020?
  • If someone bought a gun in 2020 because they were afraid of social unrest, does that absolutely mean they are convert to gun rights activism? I don’t know if that logic follows. Buying a handgun or shotgun for security may not create anxiety about something like an assault weapons ban. People may buy guns out of a perceived necessity, but that doesn’t mean they have to like it or are suddenly on board with all of the NRA’s talking points.
  • Until we have some sense for what the motivations for gun sales in 2020 and 2021 were, we are merely guessing around with the NICS numbers. We are going to need some surveys of recent gun buyers to be able to parse this out effectively (I think news stories with gun shop owners are interesting and compelling, but without knowing what sales volume looks like, I think there is going to be a big question mark around what drove gun sales at place like Academy or Big 5 and an independent gun shop).

In the end, I think scholars and journalists are going to have to spend some time trying to untangle some complicated facts and arguments. I would be cautious to just accept either narrative wholesale and at face value though.

Published by trentsteidley

Sociologist, generally speaking.

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