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Gun sales in US spike to record highs in 2020 and 2021, data suggests

Gun sales have surged over what’s been a turbulent 15 months in the U.S., from the COVID-19 pandemic, to widespread demonstrations, to mass shootings.
Credit: AP
In this photo taken Friday, Dec. 21, 2108, handguns for sale are lined up in a display case at Frontier Justice in Lee's Summit, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The U.S. has grappled with a string of mass shootings over March and April 2021. With each shooting, there’s a national dialogue about guns, the Second Amendment, and which policies would best limit the potential for future mass shootings.

During that discussion, there have been claims that gun sales in the U.S. have reached record highs in 2020 and 2021.

THE QUESTION

Has there been a record number of gun sales in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

While there is no federal system tracking exactly how many guns have been sold, several organizations estimate a record number of guns were sold in 2020, and 2021 is off to a record-breaking start.

WHAT WE FOUND

There is no national gun registry in the U.S. As a result, some organizations make estimates about annual gun sales using available data such as background checks.

Federal firearms license dealers must run a background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to make sure buyers are eligible to own a gun. A record-high 39.7 million background checks went through NICS in 2020, 11 million more than in 2019. More background checks have been initiated through the first three months of 2021 than any other three-month period.

However, the FBI notes the statistics don’t represent the true number of firearms sold.

“Based on varying state laws and purchase scenarios, a one-to-one correlation cannot be made between a firearm background check and a firearm sale,” the FBI says.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control measures, said background checks through NICS are done for reasons other than gun sales, such as for permit and license applications. The Brady Center also notes multiple guns can be purchased through a single background check, and that background checks are not required for guns purchased from someone who is not a federal firearms license dealer.

Despite the limitations, the Brady Center uses NICS to help estimate how many guns have been purchased. As part of its calculation, the Brady Center adds together the number of background checks identified for firearms and excludes other categories such as permits.

Using that formula, the Brady Center estimates nearly 20.7 million guns were purchased in 2020, which is the highest estimate made by the Brady Center for any year. The organization’s data goes back to 2007. So far in 2021, the Brady Center estimates about 5.3 million guns were sold from January through March. That’s a buying rate, if continued through the rest of the year, that would eclipse the estimated number of guns sold in 2020.

Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting (SAAF), a consulting firm that analyzes data related to gun sales, says it uses data from NICS as well as retailer reports to determine gun sales estimates. SAAF estimates there was a record 22.8 million guns sold in 2020. About 5.9 million guns have been sold through the first three months of 2021, SAAF estimates.

“If this rate of sales were to be sustained through 2021, last year’s record sales of 22.8 million would be broken,” SAAF chief economist Jurgen Brauer said in an April 1 press release.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a trade association for the firearms industry, also noted a spike in sales comparable to those estimated by the Brady Center and SAAF.

NSSF estimated a record 21 million background checks were conducted for the sale of a firearm in 2020, which the trade association said was a 34% increase from the previous record set in 2016. There have been about 5.4 million background checks for the sale of a firearm through the first three months of 2021, making it the highest first quarter on record, according to NSSF.

Gun manufacturers have also reported a surge in sales.

In its third quarter 2021 fiscal report, which ended Jan. 31, 2021, Smith & Wesson reported a doubling in net sales compared to the third quarter of the previous year. The executive vice president and chief financial officer of Smith & Wesson, Deana McPherson, called the quarter a “record-breaking financial performance.”

Sturm, Ruger & Co. reported sales in 2020 increased by 39% compared to 2019.

So, why have gun sales spiked? One theory is that periods of uncertainty are followed by an increase in sales.

The Brady Center says there have been surges in gun sales when there are calls for regulations of firearms to be expanded following high-profile mass shootings. The organization said there was an uptick in gun sales following the start of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a period of unprecedented uncertainty. The National Shooting Sports Foundation reported a record-setting 2.3 million background checks for firearm sales during March of 2020, when lockdowns began.

A report from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy research organization, also shows a spike in gun sales when lockdowns began in March 2020, and following the police killing of George Floyd.

MORE FROM VERIFY: Background checks at gun shows required for licensed dealers, but not private sellers