Gun purchases in the United States have increased dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on FBI data, the National Shooting Sports Foundation reported 21 million background checks for firearms sales in 2020, up from 13.2 million the previous year and surpassing the previous record of 15.7 million in 2016. The biggest spikes occurred in March and June, as shown in Figure 1. While March is typically a month of high gun buying, this year saw a much sharper surge. June’s spike in gun purchases is even more abnormal compared to previous years when gun purchases are typically close to their low point.
Our survey helps in understanding this increase. We find that gun purchases were particularly likely among attendees of protests against racism or police violence. These protests reached massive proportions during the first week of June, the second-highest week ever for background checks at the time. However, it is doubtful that protesters themselves—about 5% of the adult population by our estimates—can fully account for this increase.
Others may have purchased guns in reaction to this widespread unrest, as well as the sweeping government-mandated closures that coincided with the first peak in March. First-time gun purchases were more likely among African Americans, while existing gun owners were significantly more likely to buy guns if they reported not wearing masks or if they had contracted COVID-19. The most common reasons for purchase, by far, were protection against crime (70%) and target shooting or hunting (47%), though over a quarter (32%) said they were reacting to lockdowns, fears of the government, COVID-19, or the 2020 election.