Americans purchasing record-breaking numbers of guns amid coronavirus

The pandemic has created a surge in demand, with some gun stores inundated with panic-buyers

People stand in line outside the Martin B Retting, Inc guns store in Culver City, California. The spread of Coronavirus has prompted some Americans to line up for supplies in a variety of stores. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

(The Guardian) — Americans have responded to the coronavirus epidemic with a record-breaking number of gun purchases, according to new government data on the number of background checks conducted in March.

More than 3.7m total firearm background checks were conducted through the FBI’s background check system in March, the highest number on record in more than 20 years. An estimated 2.4m of those background checks were conducted for gun sales, according to adjusted statistics from a leading firearms industry trade group. That’s an 80% increase compared with the same month last year, the trade group said.

Nearly 1.2m total gun background checks were conducted in a single week, starting 16 March, breaking all previous records going back to 1998, according to FBI data.

While the number of background checks doesn’t correlate one-to-one in terms of guns sold, the number of firearm background checks conducted through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System is the best available proxy for gun sales in the United States. The figures highlight how the pandemic has created a surge in demand for gun ownership, with some gun stores finding themselves inundated with panic-buyers, including, at least anecdotally, many Americans purchasing a gun for the first time.

The record-breaking week of 16 March was when California residents were photographed lining up by the dozens outside local gun stores, as the Bay Area and then California as a whole announced the first emergency stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the United States.

Friday 20 March broke records for the highest number of firearms background checks conducted nationwide in a single day: 210,308.

Americans can buy multiple guns from a licensed gun dealer with a single background check, meaning that the number of checks conducted does not reflect the total number of guns sold.

In most states, private citizens can also sell guns to each other without a background check, and these private sales are not included in the FBI’s numbers. There is no way to track how many guns were bought and sold in private sales over the past month. Some states also allow residents who have a license to carry a concealed firearm in public to buy guns without a background check, another category of gun sales not included in the FBI’s statistics.

Federal firearms background checks are also conducted for reasons other than gun sales, including for validating permits to allow people to carry a concealed firearm in public, and, in California, for ammunition sales.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade group for the American firearms industry, produces regular “adjusted” estimates for gun background checks that subtract out background checks that the FBI tags as related to concealed carry permit applications, or to period checks by officials to make sure permits are still valid. This produces a lower number that is a closer proxy for gun sales.

The trade group’s adjusted numbers for March are still “simply eye-popping”, Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the industry group, wrote in an email.

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