In his third and final guest post in this series (see his first and second), Trent Steidley takes up the claim that the COVID-19 gun purchasing spree of March 2020 was driven by handgun purchases (a claim I made myself, which helped begin this dialogue).
Was March 2020 the best month for handgun sales ever?
By Trent Steidley
NARRATIVE #3: March 2020 was the best month for handgun sales ever.
This is technically correct (and if you watch Futurama you know this is the best kind of correct).
The narrative I see in the news though is that handguns are the go-to choice for “panic-buyers” concerned about the end of the world (and their mountains of toilet paper?). This suggests that people who wouldn’t normally buy handguns are suddenly showing up in stores and buying them all.
But, as with the overall spike in sales, when we look at the numbers from previous years its clear this seemingly unprecedented month for handguns is not really all that groundbreaking. To explain this, we need to keep two things in mind for the gun market.
- Since 1999, the gun market has shifted to favor handgun sales generally.
- Within that general shift, each year has a “handgun season” and a “long gun season”.
We can see both of these points at the same time if we look at a month-to-month ratio of how many handguns were sold compared to long guns.
The red line on this chart is showing a 1:1 ratio of handgun sales to long gun sales (for every handgun sold, a long gun was sold). A ratio of 0.5 means for every 1 long gun sold, 0.5 handguns were sold (i.e. 2 long guns for every handgun), and a ratio of 2 means 2 handguns were sold for every long gun.
We see that the ratio has slowly changed overtime to favor handguns. By the end of 2013, there appears to be a tipping point when handguns began consistently outpacing long guns. Yet the seasonal patterns persist. Typically, we see that August to December is a good time for long gun sales, and January to July is a good time for handgun sales. It is possible March 2020 was a month when a lot of guns were sold, and since we are swinging into “handgun season” the overall proportion of these sales were always going to be handguns.
This would make the most sense if those people who were suddenly interested in buying guns were already gun owners because they likely are the ones who drive these seasonal trends.
In addition, while March 2020 is technically the month with the highest ratio so far, it’s not a shockingly high ratio compared to recent years. In fact, February 2016 has practically the same ratio (1.81 in 2016 and 1.84 in 2020).
To use a metaphor to explain this, imagine an AM radio tuned to a frequency such that two different stations are coming though. Let’s say a baseball game is on one station and weather report is on the other. Both stations have a weak signal though, so they talk over each other. The baseball game doesn’t come in any more clearly if you turn up the volume on the radio, but it might be easier to pick out what is happening in the game. Now imagine that during the night hours, still tuned to the same frequency, you can regularly pick up the baseball station more clearly. Turning up the volume still doesn’t do anything to make the station come in more clearly, but doing so makes the baseball game come though both loud and clear.
In this metaphor, handgun sales are the baseball game broadcast and demand for guns is volume. March 2020 may have been the equivalent of cranking the volume knob to the max during the nighttime broadcast. Suddenly everyone hears the baseball game and thinks it is coming through more clearly than ever before, but in reality it was just the time of day that made for the clarity.
So, what are the takeaways from this series of posts?
- March 2020 was certainly the month with the most NICS sales checks. But given the limitations of the NICS data as a proxy and population changes, it is not clear March 2020 represented a new level of sales in comparison to previous spikes in 2012 and 2015. Despite some news reports.
- A lot of guns were sold in March 2020, and the vast majority of them were handguns. But the overall ratio of handguns to long guns does not seem to suggest a new preference of handguns over long guns, especially given seasonal trends.
- In general, if you see someone using NICS data or trying to report on shocking trends with it, it’s always good to go check the source.
About the Author
Trent Steidley is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver. His research seeks to understand how social movements, politics, and the criminal justice system interact to affect policy and criminal justice outcomes in the United States, particularly with regard to firearms. His current research specifically focuses on the determinants and consequences of concealed carry weapons laws in the United States, the determinants of police spending on military equipment, and the determinants of firearm demand in the United States.
Recent publications include:
Malone, Chad and Trent Steidley. 2019. “Determinants of Variation in State Concealed Carry Laws, 1970-2016.” Sociological Forum 34(2).
Steidley, Trent. 2019. “The Effect of Concealed Carry Weapons Laws on Firearm Sales.” Social Science Research 78:1–11.
Steidley, Trent. 2018. “Big Guns or Big Talk? How the National Rifle Association Matters for Conceal Carry Weapons Laws.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 23(1):101–25.