Gun sales hit record in 2020, driven by pandemic, protests, politics

With one month left in the year, background checks for gun purchases in Arizona have already set a record. Experts attribute the spike to worries about the pandemic, a summer of unrest and presidential politics. (Photo by David Landry/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Background checks for gun purchases in Arizona hit their highest level ever in 2020, driven by an unprecedented convergence of a pandemic, a summer of national unrest and a presidential election, experts said.

With a month left to go in the year, 610,911 background checks had been performed in the state through November, well over the 372,912 done in all of 2019, according to FBI data.

The Arizona spike is part of a nationwide increase, said Kelly Drane, research director at Giffords Law Center, a gun control advocacy group. She estimated that there was a nearly 90% increase in gun sales nationally from March to October this year compared to last year, with early data indicating “a substantial number of these purchases were made by new gun owners.”

Veerachart Murphy said that is what he has seen at Ammo AZ, the Phoenix gun store he owns, where there has been a “huge uptick in first-time buyers.”

“Between the election and COVID and shutdowns and riots – it was enough to get them off the couch and come in and actually make their first purchase,” Murphy said of “people that were kind of maybe on the fence” about buying a gun.

He said his biggest spike in sales came early this year as COVID-19 began dominating the news, with a 400% increase in sales from January to February. He attributes it to anxiety about a possible pandemic-related lockdown.

Sales remained relatively high, he said, until another spike in the summer, when clashes between police and protesters were in the headlines.

That experience tracks the FBI’s data, which shows that Arizona had the highest number of background checks in March, with nearly 83,000, followed by June and July, which had 74,000 and 60,000 background checks, respectively.


Murphy said he has seen similar spikes since he got into the gun business in 2013, usually after active-shooter incidents or mass shootings – and before the 2016 presidential election when sales jumped in anticipation of a win by Democrat Hillary Clinton. Sales tailed off then after gun-friendly President Donald Trump took office.

Sales through November 2020 were already 47% higher than in all of 2016, which had been the record for the state.

“It’s almost like the stock market, where something doesn’t actually have to happen to set off this market. It’s the threat of something, or the potential that something happens that will trigger this market,” Murphy said.

With President-elect Joe Biden set to be sworn in on Jan. 20, Murphy expects gun sales to stay high, and he expects to double last year’s net sales.

“I think this is going to be it for the foreseeable future with Biden in office. We saw kind of the same thing with Obama in office,” said Murphy, who posted then-President Barack Obama’s picture in his store as Employee of the Month. “That should give you kind of an idea of, of how everybody reacts to … a Democratic-controlled presidency.”

During past gun-sale spikes, however, people were buying up AR-15s, thinking they would get taken away after mass shootings or by Democratic administrations. Now, Murphy said, “people are buying everything.”

“It doesn’t matter – whatever you can get your hands on. People are literally buying everything, handguns, rifles, shotguns,” he said. “Everything is going.”

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It’s a “hoarding mentality” he compared to stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But guns are not toilet paper. Drane said increased gun sales have coincided with increased gun violence in U.S. cities and more calls to domestic violence and suicide hotlines. Such correlations are well known from previous research, she said, but may be more dangerous during the pandemic – which is expected to worsen this winter.

“The risks posed by these new firearm purchases may be particularly severe when coupled with the risks for gun violence exacerbated by the pandemic, such as economic uncertainty, unemployment, and social isolation,” Drane said. “These conditions have historically been associated with increased suicide attempts and deaths.”

Drane said 90% of suicide attempts with a firearm end in death, and domestic violence victims are five times more likely to be killed when their abuser has a gun. With more people stuck at home, she said, domestic violence victims may not have access to supportive services, and with more children at home, there is a greater risk of unintentional shootings with improperly stored guns.

“While the gun lobby uses fear to promote the panic-buying of guns, all Americans should be aware of the risks of having a gun in the home,” Drane said.

But Murphy said gun-buying he has seen has been a nonpartisan exercise, with liberals in his store for the first time. He said his neighbor in Scottsdale – who he called an “uber-liberal huge Biden supporter” – bought his first gun after the unrest there this summer.

Drane said the bottom line is, “if you do decide to purchase a gun, we encourage you to learn about and practice safe gun storage, which is a foundational part of being a responsible gun owner.”

Calah Schlabach

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Calah Schlabach is a multimedia storyteller pursuing a master’s degree in mass communication. She has been a graduate assistant for Global Sport Matters and a 2020 News21 fellow. Schlabach was a grant writer for a social services nonprofit and has written and copy editied in Vietnam and Haiti.

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