Gun sales, which spiked sharply during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, have continued to increase in the United States, with first-time buyers making up more than one-fifth of Americans who purchased guns.
The development will frustrate and disappoint gun control advocates who point out the huge number of firearms already circulating in American society as well as a seemingly never-ending cycle of mass shootings.
A study by the General Social Survey, a public opinion poll conducted by a research center at the University of Chicago, 39% of American households own guns, up from 32% in 2016.
Separately, research data compiled by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), background checks that topped 1m a week in March 2020 – the highest since the government began tracking them in 1998 – and continued, with one week in April this year recording a record 1.2m checks. Background checks are seen as a reliable metric to track gun sales.
A third data study, compiled by Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and seen by the New York Times, shows that 6.5% of US adults, or 17 million people, have purchased guns in the past year, up from 5.3% in 2019.
Of those, almost one fifth who bought guns last year were first-time gun owners of whom half were women, a fifth were Black and a fifth were Hispanic, challenging the stereotype of white male gun owners building personal arsenals. In 2021, gun owners overall were 63% male, 73% were white, 10% were Black and 12% Hispanic.
Separately, The Trace, a non-partisan group that tracks guns sales, estimates 2.3m guns were purchased in January alone. Sales, which had remained largely flat for the duration of the Trump presidency, jumped 64% in 2020, the group said.
Still, the increases are relatively small compared to the 400m guns estimated to already be in circulation, including at least 4m AR-15s, commonly described as assault rifles.
“Americans are in an arms race with themselves,” South Los Angeles city council representative Marqueece Harris-Dawson told the New York Times. “There was just as much a run on guns as on toilet paper in the beginning of the pandemic.”
Increased gun sales comes as Texas this month became the 20th state to pass legislation that no longer requires a permit to carry a concealed handgun. At the same time, a rash of mass-shootings, often involving AR-15 weapons have dominated headlines.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, 67 mass shootings have taken place in May of this year. The most recent occurred on Sunday when a gunman opened fire in Miami, killing two people and injuring 20 others. Authorities in Texas said on Monday they had arrested a man accused of plotting to carry out a mass shooting at a Walmart, and a search of the suspect’s home turned up firearms, ammunition and materials officials described as “radical ideology paraphernalia”.
Still, researchers are wary of connecting increased gun ownership with gun violence. The FBI reported a 25% rise in homicides last year that has continued into this with an 18% increase over the first three months of 2021 across 37 cities, including rises of 36% in Los Angeles and 23% in New York.
But criminologist Richard Rosenfeld at the University of Missouri told the New York Times that the focus on gun numbers is misplaced. “The critical issue is not simply the increase in the supply of guns but in the nature of the weaponry that’s being used in violent crime, and that has really changed,” he said.