I was privileged to be invited recently to contribute to an ongoing series of videos produced by the Duke Center for Firearms Law on COVID-19 and guns.
I was asked to speak about my approach to studying guns, to speculate about why people are buying guns during the COVID-19 pandemic, what misconceptions people have about gun acquisition, and what advice I have for new guns owners.
Watch the YouTube video below:
Although I’ve addressed U.S. gun ownership levels previously, I realize that I have done so by looking at percentages of individuals and households rather than numbers. Given changing population sizes (the all important denominator), percentages are usually the relevant indicators.
But sometimes you want to know the actual number, so I am posting this to have these numbers handy when people ask. (How I calculated these numbers after the photo illustration.)
Minimum estimates for 2019 are:
# of Individuals in the United States who own guns: 76,414,161.
# of Households in the United States that have guns: 47,892,051
# of People in U.S. Households that have guns: 125,956,094
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?
Handguns for sale at Frisco Gun Club, Texas. Photo by David Yamane
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).
By MOODMAN from giphy.com
In his guest post yesterday, Trent Steidley challenged the simplistic use of data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) as a measure of “gun sales.”
Today he critically engages the second of three common narratives emerging from the great gun buying spree of March 2020: that March 2020 saw the most guns sold in a single month in the history of NICS.
By Trent Steidley
NARRATIVE #2: March 2020 saw the most guns sold in a single month
This is true, at least for the numbers from NICS sales. But March 2020 is not a large increase considering the effect of population size and in relation to previous spikes.
My recent posts about the great COVID19 gun buying spree of March 2020 (especially handguns) elicited some helpful clarifying and corrective tweets from my colleague Trent Steidley (bio below). I don’t know any sociologist as familiar or adept with National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) data as he is.
I am grateful, therefore, that he has written up his thoughts on using caution and sense with NICS data and gun sale spikes. In three separate posts here, he offers some clarifications and alternative takes for those really trying to understand what happened last month.
Frisco Gun Club, Texas. Photo by David Yamane
By Trent Steidley
You will have heard that March 2020 was a gangbuster month for gun sales. To be sure, two things are certainly true.
One, a lot of people went to gun stores, got background checks, and likely bought guns in March 2020 (and the reason for this is certainly because of COVID19, but whether these are new gun buyers afraid of social unrest or current owners afraid of government actions will take time to tell). Two, the majority of these guns sold were handguns.
But there are some narratives in these news stories that we should be cautious about.
GVPedia (“Gun Violence Prevention” media) was created by Devin Hughes after his blog project with Evan DeFilippis, “Armed with Reason,” ran its course. Both projects have sought to “arms policymakers, advocates, and the public with facts and data to create evidence-based policy to reduce gun violence.”
Unfortunately, as sometimes happens when facts and data are bootstrapped to pre-existing policy positions, rhetoric can overrun reason. This is unfortunate because it harms the credibility of the source and builds walls where we need productive conversations.
I saw this in a recent video GVPedia pushed out about defensive gun uses (DGUs). The video claims to explain “why relying on ‘good guys’ with guns to stop ‘bad guys’ with guns doesn’t make us safer. #ArmedWithFacts.”
This sub-2 minute video is actually just a teaser for 2 longer videos posted by GVPedia, but there is nothing here that gives me confidence that I should invest time and energy watching the other two. In fact, I barely made it past the first 20 seconds of the teaser.
It’s no secret that the coronavirus led to an unprecedented rise in gun background checks in March 2020. I posted about the coronavirus supplanting Barack Obama as the greatest gun salesman in US history, and reiterated this in a brief interview with Axios recently.
An interesting nuance in this overall pattern, however, is the ratio of handguns to long-guns sold. As reported by Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting (H/T The Trace!), “The ratio of handguns to long-guns sold now stands at a record 1.84, the highest ratio since the introduction of the NICS checks in late 1998.”
Barack Obama has apparently met his match as the “greatest gun salesman in American history.” On Sunday, an acquaintance from my years wandering around American gun culture messaged me to say that he had not seen a gun buying response like this one in some 15 years in the industry.
I asked him what in particular was different and he said that it was not a fear of being unable to get a particular gun (as under Obama), but a legitimate fear of not being able to defend themselves or their loved ones.
So, under Barack Obama, especially after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there was a fear that certain guns would be banned. The current pandemic buying spree appears to be driven more by a felt need to have a gun right now, especially among new gun owners who, according to my contact, were numerous.
Photo of outdoor supply store from May 2013
When I launched this blog in February 2019, I noted that no one had (yet) systematically studied people who are gun curious. The Pew Research Center’s 2017 report, “America’s Complex Relationship With Guns,” offers some important leads, though.
Instead of simply asking respondents whether or not they currently own a gun, the Pew Research Center wisely also asked currently gunless respondents whether they had owned guns in the past and whether they could see themselves owning a gun in the future. Pew finds that 36% of the currently gunless could see themselves owning guns in the future.
I am very pleased to announce that Trent Steidley (U. of Denver) and I are editing a special issue of Sociological Perspectives on guns. Please see the full call for papers for more information.
Proposals are due April 30th and final manuscripts September 1st.