- The FBI said it processed a record 39.7 million firearm background checks in 2020, beating previous highs by more than 10 million.
- Roughly 8.5 million people across the US purchased their first firearm in 2020, a significant portion of total gun sales, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
- "Wave upon wave of uncertainty and concern [are] driving firearm demand," said Jurgen Braue, chief economist at Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting.
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2020 was an unprecedented year in many ways - including firearm sales.
The FBI said it processed a record 39.7 million firearm background checks in 2020, by far the most of any year since the agency started recording this data in 1998.
Background checks are not a direct representation of the number of guns sold, accounting for checks related to things such as concealed carry permits and suppressor sales, in addition to gun sales. However, they are a key indicator of sales.
Checks exclusively related to the sale of firearms also reached a record high, totaling 21 million, according to firearm trade organization National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). That represents a 60% increase over 2019's total of 13.2 million checks related to firearm sales.
"This year was a year unlike any other," NSSF representative Marc Oliva told Insider.
Nine out of ten of the highest weeks for FBI background checks since 1998 occurred in 2020. Experts say that the rise in gun sales was driven by three major events: the coronavirus pandemic, protests this summer following the death of George Floyd, and the presidential election.
"Wave upon wave of uncertainty and concern [are] driving firearm demand," said Jurgen Braue, chief economist at Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting.
Millions of people bought a gun for the first time in 2020
Roughly 8.5 million people across the US purchased their first firearm in 2020, according to NSSF estimates. According to NSSF, that could represent roughly 40% of all purchases last year.
Gun purchases by Black and Hispanic people grew in 2020, as did purchases by women.
"I'm a 47-year-old white guy who lives in the suburbs of Washington, DC," Oliva said. "Today's gun owner is looking a whole lot less like me and more like the rest of America."
According to experts, concerns related to personal safety and self-defense are a top factor convincing people to buy guns for the first time.
The coronavirus pandemic set off an unprecedented increase in firearm sales in March. Police officers were infected with the virus, keeping them off the job, and some some departments said they would not physically respond to some calls to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Discussion of releasing prisoners further fed into concerns regarding personal safety during the pandemic.
The week starting March 16, the FBI conducted 1.2 million background checks - the most in a single week that the FBI has on record. The highest single day on the record is March 20, with 210,308 total checks across the US. Gun stores saw empty shelves, as retailers struggled to keep up with demand.
Shortages continued into the summer. Firearm sales spiked again after George Floyd was killed by a police officer, sparking widespread protests across the US in late May, June, and July.
"We have kind of two months of reverberating unrest throughout the country," Jurgen said. "Again, people are asking: Will I be secure? Will the police come if I need them? If they do come, will they be impartial? These questions of personal security are popping up."
Historically, gun sales rise during presidential election years, as a discussion of firearm regulation tends to drive sales. Gun sales spiked after President Obama's election in 2008 and 2012. While Jurgen and Oliva say that the election fueled firearm sales, the year-over-year growth in the last months of 2020 was not as dramatic as in March or June, likely because gun control was a less central issue in the presidential race.
Experts expect that gun sales will remain elevated in 2021, albeit not as high as in 2020.
"If you walk into any firearm retailer, shelves are still pretty bare," Olivia said. "You're not going to see shelves that are fully stocked. So that tells me that there's still an unmet demand out there for firearms."