U.S. gun sales in January surged 60% to 4,137,480. This makes it the largest single month since figures started to be recorded in 1998.
The rise is part of a trend. Gun sales in the United States rose 40% last year to 39,695,315. The figure also represents the high-water mark in gun sales since the current record-keeping system went into effect. Increases by state in January varied substantially, as has been the case for years.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation tracks gun sales and publishes a list of how many are handled as part of its National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Each month, the figures are reported by state. Nearly everyone put through this system qualifies as a buyer. People who are excluded usually have criminal records. Of the more than 310 million checks that have been done since 1998, there have only been 1.5 million denials. Therefore, the data is the best proxy for U.S. gun sales available.
Growing civil unrest may have prompted people to buy guns for personal and family protection, many social scientists have posited, although this remains a matter of debate. Another theory is that chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is a major cause. A new UC Davis School of Medicine study about fear of violence reports: “The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated persistent structural, economic, and social inequities in the conditions that contribute to violence and its consequences.”
Who bought these guns? CBS News pointed out that over 5 million people were first-time gun buyers last year. CNN reported a sharp rise in sales to Black Americans and women. “Sales to women are also up 40% through September when compared with the same period last year,” the news network pointed out.
The January increase should not be taken as unusual, nor should the rise in gun sales from 2019 to 2020 be viewed as an anomaly. The number of gun sales has increased most years since 1999. Sales first topped 25 million in 2016, 20 million in 2013, 15 million in 2011 and 10 million in 2006. The first full year the FBI kept data was 1999, when total sales were 9,138,123.
The state with the most sales in January was Illinois at an extraordinary 1,002,118. That is 24% of national sales for the month. However, the state has slightly less than 4% of the national population. The same pattern holds true for the state that had the second-highest gun sales figure last month. Kentucky’s figure hit 421,790, or just over 10% of the national total. Its population is only 1.3% of the U.S. number.
At the current pace, gun sales in America will reach almost 50 million this year. It is too early to say whether the January trend will continue. However, it is nearly assured that 2021 will set another annual record.