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Firearms Sales Reached Record Numbers in 2020 and Aren’t Slowing Down

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Gun sales have been regularly setting annual volume records over the past decade, but 2020’s surge stands out.

Firearm sales skyrocketed from their widely reported “new norm” in 2020. Personal protection and the safety of loved ones were the primary motivations during a troubling year, but there’s a long-term facet to the story when experts estimate 40 percent of purchasers were first-time gun owners. More law-abiding citizens than ever recognize the need to ensure their safety until help arrives, if it comes at all.     

The total number of records processed through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) last year came in at 39,695,315. Somewhere between 21 and 23 million of them—depending on source—were related to the purchase or transfer of a firearm.

The figures shattered records by wide margins. The previous high-water mark for estimated annual gun sales was set in 2016 at 15.7 million, a difference of at least 5.3 million. An unprecedented shortage of guns, ammunition and gear resulted. Sporting goods shelves emptied with regularity, a trend many expect to continue through 2021.

The initial surge came in early spring 2020, specifically the week of March 16 to 22, when the FBI processed a total of 1,197,788 NICS checks. Nearly all reflect the purchase of a gun and it, like many of last year’s figures, shattered records. It was the first time the system handled more than 1 million background checks in any 7-day period.

The wave came at a complicated time for manufacturers. Health precautions and, in some regions, temporary closure due to non-essential designation during the pandemic presented logistical challenges of historic proportions. Without dissent, the industry put the welfare of workers and their families as the top priority.

Inventories dwindled while processes were tailored to enhance safety and, finally, shifts and days of operation were added. Even new machinery wasn’t enough to keep up with orders, though. NICS records were set every month of 2020 and another week in June crossed the 1-million-background-check mark. Manufacturing-plant expansion is in the works at many companies, but that process is painstakingly slow due to local and federal regulations that sweep any firearm or ammunition manufacturing under their hazmat and zoning microscopes. 

In January 2021, firearms sales set yet another new record. More than 2.2 million sold in the United States that month, according to Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting’s estimates. This figure represents a 79-percent increase when compared to the same period in 2020.

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