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1st-Time Gun Buyers Help Push Record U.S. Gun Sales Amid String Of Mass Shootings

People wait in line to enter a gun store in Culver City, Calif., on March 15, 2020.
People wait in line to enter a gun store in Culver City, Calif., on March 15, 2020.

First-time gun owners, young and old from across the country, are helping to push record levels of gun sales for what looks like the second year in a row.

"My gun store has had a run like I've never seen before," said Todd Cotta, the owner of Kings Gun Center in Hanford, Calif., in the state's agriculturally rich Central Valley. "It was just an avalanche of new gun buyers for the first time."

These buyers are white, Black, Asian and Latino and come from all political beliefs. And they're being driven by uncertainty, fear and a need to feel safe.

Gun sellers across the country said the pandemic and civil unrest over the past year have pushed customers to feel they must take control of their families' protection. Fears of Congress passing new gun control legislation in the wake of a rash of mass shootings since March are also adding fuel to the buying craze, industry insiders said.

Burbank, Calif.-based Redstone Firearms owner Geneva Solomon said both sales at her and her husband's gun store and enrollment in their firearms education classes are up.

Solomon said she and her husband try to calm the nerves of first-time buyers in those classes, where they go over the fundamental rules of gun ownership.

"We've definitely seen an uptick in the class options we offer," she said. "Before they would never sell out. Now they sell out two days after we post them."

Federal background check records support retailers' first-hand accounts of continued record-breaking demand.

FBI data shows that six of the top 10 days for instant background checks — which are required by the federal government before a licensed firearms retailer can sell a gun — were last month alone. It reported that the week of March 15-21 was the top week for FBI background checks since 1998, completing 1,218,002 total firearms checks.

In January, more than 4 million background checks were processed, compared with the previous January's 2.7 million. And in February 2021, 3.4 million checks were reported; in February 2020, 2.8 million were completed.

During the entire month of March 2021, the FBI completed nearly 4.7 million background checks compared with the same month the year before when the agency reported 3.7 million checks.

A spokesperson for the FBI said the agency's Criminal Justice Information Services Division's National Instant Criminal Background Check System section "is unable to speculate on factors that cause an increase or decrease in firearm background check volumes."

Who's buying?

A 2020 survey by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for gun retailers, ranges and manufacturers that lobbies Congress, said gun shop owners reported 40% of customers were first-time gun buyers from January to April 2020.

Mark Oliva, public affairs director for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the largest demographic increase was among nonwhite Americans.

"Today's gun owner looks a lot less like me and looks a whole lot more like America," Oliva, who is white, said.

Most often, the first-timers are purchasing a semiautomatic handgun, outpacing the second-most-purchased firearm, shotguns, by 2 to 1, according to NSSF.

Solomon, owner of Redstone Firearms and who has been running California's only Black-owned gun shop since 2015 with her husband, said that in the past year she's noticed an increase in the number of Black women who have come into the store to buy a gun.

Part of that interest stems from the strained relations between the Black community and police and a real fear of dialing 911 in emergencies, she said.

"Because of that most of our customers that have come in here take on that personal responsibility to be able to protect themselves," she said.

These women are also mothers who want to learn about firearms to share that education with their children, Solomon said. That way, if their children were to ever come across a gun, they would know what to do.

Mass shootings drive sales

In the wake of mass shootings at workplaces, grocery stores and spas in Indianapolis; Boulder, Colo.; and Atlanta, lawmakers have called for comprehensive gun control legislation.

That effort often has an unintended effect.

"We see this trend often. Whenever high profile mass shootings occur, people begin stockpiling weapons out of fear that the government will restrict gun rights," said James Densley, co-founder of The Violence Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that tracks public mass shootings in the U.S.

"It's a reactionary response," he said.

The top weeks in FBI background checks that occurred this March followed high-profile mass shootings:

  • The record-breaking week of March 15-21 occurred in the days following the mass shootings at three Atlanta-area spas.
  • During the week of March 22-28, when more than 1 million background checks were completed, 10 people were killed at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo.
  • Social and political unrest also overlap with a bump in background checks and gun sales, data and anecdotal evidence indicate.

  • Throughout January, following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, background checks remained high. More than 3 million background checks were completed from Jan. 4 though Jan. 24. Data show that during the entire month of January 2020, the FBI completed 2.7 million background checks. For January 2021, the agency completed 4.3 million checks.
  • During the week of March 16-22, 2020, when nearly 1.2 million background checks were done, several major U.S. cities announced a lockdown as the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the country.
  • Inventory problems?

    Despite the demand, gun shops aren't recording a massive financial windfall.

    The problem?

    Lack of inventory, said Cotta, owner of Kings Gun Center.

    "If I would've had a supply of guns and ammunition throughout this last year, it could've been a big boon for me," Cotta said. "But I'm running on 10% of the inventory I used to run with and I can't restock it even today."

    That's due, in part, to pandemic-induced inventory issues, such as shipping delays, and continued demand. Manufacturers have focused on pushing out just the most popular gun types to fulfill orders, Cotta said.

    The most popular tend to be semi-automatic 9 mm pistols and other handguns, Cotta said.

    Solomon said customers were forgoing their preferred color of gun just to get their hands on any firearm.

    "People got to the point where they wanted to get their training started and just bought whatever we had in inventory," she said.

    Both retailers said they expect a good percentage of first-time buyers (Cotta said about 20%-30% and Solomon said 60%) have, or will, return to become regular customers.

    And they seem to return with a boost in confidence.

    "There is a sense of freedom and a feeling like they can protect themselves," Solomon said.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.