The spike in gun purchases seen at the beginning of the pandemic has continued well into 2021—with debates on gun control taking the spotlight once again amidst spikes in gun violence and mass shootings across the country.
In March last year, federal background checks topped one million a week for the first time since the government started tracking that data in 1998, the New York Times reports.
The mass buying continued through 2020 summer protests and through the fall election. A week this spring broke 1.2 million background checks.
"There was a surge in purchasing unlike anything we’ve ever seen," said University of California gun researcher Dr. Garen J. Wintemute. "Usually it slows down. But this just kept going," the academic told the publication. Gun store owners have seen a different type of clientele walk into their stores over the last year.
Thomas Harris, a former law enforcement officer who works at the gun counter at Sportsman's Warehouse in Roanoke, Virginia, said that around March last year, the customers he would speak with began to include more white-collar workers, such as people from insurance firms and software companies.
The former officer said many of the buyers were not conservative and most had never handled a gun, the New York Times reports.
"Outside of seeing something on TV or in a movie, they knew nothing about them," said Harris, adding that many did not know how to load a gun or what a caliber was. Many purchased the guns to be kept at home. "They were saying: 'We're going to be locking down. We're constrained to our homes. We want to keep safe.'"
New preliminary data from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center says that one-fifth of Americans who bought guns last year were first-time purchasers. Half of new owners were women, one-fifth were black, and another fifth were Hispanic.
Overall, 39 percent of American households now own guns, up from 32 percent back in 2016, according to the General Social Survey conducted by a research center at the University of Chicago.
Data from The Trace, which studies gun violence across America, showcases gun purchases over time in America. Spikes can be seen around major events in the country, like the Sandy Hook shooting in 2013, and President Barack Obama winning the 2008 presidential election.
In 2020, a sharp spike in gun sales is seen from February to March, when the pandemic took hold and the much of the country locked down. The highest spike in sales came in June 2020, amidst turmoil surrounding George Floyd protests, where many cities across the country were subjected to violent riots. Gun sales in 2020 went up 64 percent compared to the previous year.
The rise in gun sales hasn't stopped in 2021 either. In January, nearly 2.4 million guns were bought across the country, the highest since July of last year.
According to The Trace, first quarter sales of guns in 2021 were up 18 percent compared to the same period last year.
Many experts remain divided as to why this spike has continued, and why it came to be in the first place. "There is a breakdown in trust and a breakdown in a shared, common reality," said Lilliana Mason, a political scientist and writer on political violence at the University of Maryland. "There is also all this social change, and social change is scary."
Wintemute studied why there has been a rise in gun violence across the country. He discovered that states that had higher gun purchases had higher violence, but said that due to many factors like lockdowns and job loss, there isn't a clear picture as to whether gun purchases in particular were the driver.
With cities across the country seeing huge spikes in homicides, many are calling once again for stronger regulations and gun buybacks.
"Gun control advocates argue that more weapons in circulation means more Americans dying from guns, and that stronger regulations and gun buybacks would save lives," wrote The New York Times. "Gun rights advocates say restrictions end up obstructing law-abiding citizens and argue for more policing instead. Many Americans have expressed a hopelessness that the country will ever get a handle on the violence."
Florida State University professor of criminology Gary Kleck said that laws that gun control advocates are fighting for are often less effective than they say. Kleck said that laws targeting high-risk individuals, rather than the American population as a whole, would be more effective.
"Mass shooters in many cases are willing to die, working on a plan for weeks and months," said Kleck. "That's the last person a law is going to stop. Gun control works with more casually motivated violence."