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Gun sales spike as coronavirus triggers the nation

March 2020 sees record-breaking number of Americans background checked for gun sales

By: Brianna Lanham, InvestigateTV

Originally Published: June 11, 2020

Guns sales swept the nation in record breaking numbers this year, federal and industry data suggests.

Ammunition website reported a 1,000% increase in its sales since late February to the end of May, highlighting panic-buying.

Federal data also shows a spike in background checks required for gun ownership. But getting a background check does not automatically mean someone purchased a gun.

According to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System [NICS] data, background checks for gun sales at licensed dealers jumped in March hitting nearly 2.3 million. In April and May, the numbers decreased to roughly 1.5 million – though those months still rank in the top ten highest months for checks in the last ten years.

The only other time background checks for gun sales was remotely close to being this high was in December 2012, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, when sales hit about 2.2 million.

The third highest record for gun sales was in December 2015, after the San Bernardino mass shooting and attempted bombing in California, totaling roughly 2.16 million.

“Fear has been a marketing tool of the firearms industry for the sale of guns and presented as the primary solution to individual safety,” said David Chipman, a retired Special Agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He is also current chief policy analyst for Giffords, a gun violence prevention organization started by Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot while meeting with constituents.

“The pandemic motivated some people feeling out of control to try to regain control by buying a gun,” he said.

This year has created a trifecta of fear – COVID-19, the economic meltdown and social unrest.

In the early days of the pandemic, “state and local governments were debating if gun stores were essential businesses that should remain open or a threat to public health and should be closed,” Chipman said. “I suspect current gun owners thought that if stores were closed, they could buy firearms and later sell them at a premium to persons who wanted a firearm but had not acted in time.”

A 2016 survey conducted by Harvard and Northeastern universities showed protection and self-defense are primary reasons for firearm purchasing.

“Gun ownership is considered to reflect self-reliance for protection,” Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Bloomberg Professor of American Health, Daniel Webster, said. “Gun ownership is very common in the U.S. and most who own guns are not violent.”

He said that gun acquisition and ownership are correlated with a lack of faith in government and public safety.

“The pandemic has clearly sparked great fear in social and economic upheaval, and uncertainty about how well they [the public] can rely upon police for protection,” Webster said.

But finding accurate data on gun ownership is virtually impossible.

According to Giffords Law Center, a part of the organization Chipman works with, federal law prohibits the government from “collecting firearms sales records in a central repository.”

Rather, firearms dealers maintain their own sales records, making it difficult to trace gun sales nationally.

Most states require federally licensed firearms dealers to initiate background checks on purchasers, prior to the sale of a gun. Private sellers, however, are not required to do the same.

Data from the FBI’s NICS does give an idea of the number of guns sold each month.

InvestigateTV looked at overall firearm background checks and found that background checks in April and May were down to a level similar to December 2019 through February 2020.

“Following the spike in March, gun sales have retreated from historic highs yet continued to be far stronger than at the same time last year,” Chipman said. “This strength, which has continued through the end of May, has been buoyed by added fears driven by lawful protests, the police response and other forms of destructive, civil unrest.”

Some gun owners say having a firearm is a necessity.

Austin Walls, former Marine and gun owner in Indianapolis, said he carries a firearm and more people should consider being gun owners.

“Acts of violence are perpetuated against innocent people every day,” Walls said. “We see it everywhere. I think if more citizens were willing to arm themselves and learn, we would see a lot less victims on our news feeds.”

Jake Stokes, a shooting range employee in Ohio and a former Marine, said more gun control regulation would only hurt law abiding citizens.

“Any regulation is a slippery slope towards tyranny,” he said.

Chipman, the former ATF agent with Giffords, said while more people are buying guns, it is important to think about gun safety. Namely, he said it is essential for family members to be aware of a gun in the home and assume children will find it no matter how well hidden.

“Lock up the gun,” Chipman said. “Family members must also recognize that in this stressful time, guns are the most frequent tool used to successfully commit suicide and that they have to remove the gun from the home if someone in the home is in crisis and a threat to themselves or others.”