Americans turned out in record numbers to buy weapons amid the coronavirus outbreak, as April marked the second straight month of historic gun sales.
There were nearly 1.8 million gun sales in the United States in April, according to a report from industry analyst Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting (SAAF). The total lagged behind the all-time monthly record set in March, but represented a 71.3 percent surge over April 2019 figures. The coronavirus pandemic has seen weapons and ammunition fly off the shelves despite economic downturn, mass layoffs, and a shutdown of stores in some states and localities.
Jurgen Brauer, SAAF chief economist, said the continued strong sales were largely a result of the fact that gun stores were able to keep their doors open in the vast majority of states amid the shutdowns.
"The industry has been successful in arguing with federal/state authorities to grant ‘essential business' status, so most of the relevant businesses stayed open," he told the Washington Free Beacon in an email.
The monthly sales numbers indicate that local and state policy has had a dramatic effect on the availability of firearms in certain areas. While sales surged in areas that remained open, they plummeted in states that have cracked down on gun shops. The dichotomy in the data may have both a political and legal impact as government officials in states with gun-store shutdowns determine when to reopen, while also facing legal challenges from gun-rights advocates. The availability of firearms has also become a top issue in the presidential race. A surrogate for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden told supporters in April that the former vice president would shut down all gun stores during the pandemic.
The Trump administration has taken a different approach. In March, the Department of Homeland Security issued guidance declaring gun manufacturers and retailers "essential" businesses, leading some states to reopen shuttered shops. The move was welcomed by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which had advocated for the designation.
"Americans cannot participate in the full enjoyment of their rights if they are denied the ability to legally obtain a firearm," NSSF spokesman Mark Oliva told the Free Beacon. "We are grateful that President Trump and DHS officials know this and took action to protect this right. Likewise, NSSF and many of our members, worked with governors, legislators, and county and city officials to keep businesses open."
States that have shut down gun stores, including Massachusetts, New Mexico, California, and New Jersey, saw sales drastically reduced compared with states without shutdowns, according to Brauer.
"There's certainly differentiated behavior in those states," he said.
Brauer said Massachusetts, which shut down all gun stores at the start of April, had a near-record low in gun sales for the month. "Quite a boom in March but collapse in April," he said of the state's numbers. The near-total cutoff of sales in the state will likely be a point of contention in a lawsuit challenging the order.
The pandemic has also brought a shift in consumer preferences. Americans purchased handguns nearly twice as often as rifles and shotguns in April, the biggest disparity on record.
The sales numbers are derived from the FBI's report on the number of National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and are only an estimate of actual gun sales. Each sale made through a licensed gun dealer requires a background check, and some states require a check on used-gun sales between non-licensed individuals.
Not all sales, however, are captured by NICS, and the system is also used for gun-carry permit checks. SAAF's analysis uses coding provided by the FBI to try and determine which NICS checks are for gun sales and which are for other purposes. SAAF's number represents a closer estimate of gun sales in the United States than do the raw NICS numbers—especially since some states, such as Kentucky, recheck all gun-carry permit holders each month.