Data point to soaring US gun sales in June

A record 3.9m firearm background checks were conducted in June, according to new FBI figures that underscore the sharp rise in US gun sales since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd.

According to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the number of firearm background checks conducted last month in the US was 71 per cent higher compared with the same time last year. The monthly figures broke the previous record, which was set in March, when 3.7m checks were conducted.

The latest figures cover a period in which the number of coronavirus cases increased rapidly in many states across the American south and west, including Florida, Texas and Arizona. They also take into account the period of widespread antiracism protests and civil unrest after Floyd was killed in late May.

The FBI database does not convey the total guns sold, however, because background check laws and other rules surrounding firearm purchases vary from state to state. Not all gun buyers in the US are subject to background checks.

According to Financial Times analysis, however, an estimated 2.4m firearms were sold in June, a year-on-year increase of 146 per cent.

bar chart showing spikes in US gun sales in March and June 2020, as well as following mass shootings in December 2012 and December 2015

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed universal background check legislation in February 2019 that would close loopholes and require all gun sales, including private gun sales and sales made on the internet, to be subject to checks.

However, the legislation has not been taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Public opinion polls consistently show the overwhelming majority of Americans support stronger background check laws.

A poll conducted by Global Strategy Group, a Democratic pollster, in January found 86 per cent of Americans supported requiring background checks on all gun sales, including 97 per cent of Democrats, 86 per cent of independents and 76 per cent of Republicans.

A follow-up survey, conducted in May, found that 60 per cent of Americans said it was “more important” to require background checks on all gun sales than it was before the coronavirus outbreak.

The FT estimates are based on calculations using FBI data and the same methodology used by the Small Arms Survey, an adaptation of the method used by Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting, a consultancy that tracks gun and ammunition sales. The method estimates 1.1 firearms are sold for each handgun and long gun check, and two firearms are sold for each “multiple” background check. The FT analysis excluded “multiple” checks in California, as the official data was inconsistent, but included figures from US territories, such as Puerto Rico.

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a Michael Bloomberg-backed group that advocates for stricter gun control, said: “Polls show that the ongoing surge in American gun sales is being met with a surge in the number of Americans who want stronger gun laws.”

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots gun control group, said: “This surge in gun sales couldn’t come at a worse time, with hospitals at capacity and the threat of gun violence on the rise.”

Firearms sales in America tend to increase when buyers anticipate an influx of new regulations on gun ownership, such as immediately following a high-profile mass shooting.

Gun sales rose sharply in 2016, with many buyers anticipating a Hillary Clinton victory in that year’s presidential election. However, sales dipped after Donald Trump’s surprise win, putting pressure on many firearm manufacturers, including American Outdoor Brands, which owns Smith & Wesson. Rival Remington is reportedly preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and in talks with the Navajo Nation about a possible sale.

Gun sales only began picking up last year when the Democratic presidential primary contest kicked off and candidates such as Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, called for aggressive gun control measures.