In the U.S., many dynamic factors influence gun-purchasing decisions: economic conditions, media influences, legislative and leadership changes, and even public perceptions of threats. Each factor differs from state to state, creating a patchwork of attitudes and beliefs about firearms nationwide.
By digging into data on gun sales and ownership, we can begin to understand America’s complex relationship with firearms. This is why we explore data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) from the FBI on a yearly basis. This database tracks firearm background checks and can be used to approximate gun sale trends in the U.S.
Here are a few key insights from our latest research:
In recent years, estimated gun sales across America have dramatically increased: toward the end of 2019 and throughout 2020, gun sales reached record numbers. Since then, gun sales have declined slightly. In 2022, about 17.4 million guns were sold in the United States.
Preliminary numbers show that gun sales in 2023 may look similar to last year. Between January 1 and May 31, 2023, an estimated 7.1 million guns have been sold. That’s about 1.4 million guns a month on average.
While the decline in sales compared to 2020 is noticeable, it may not be totally caused by new regulations. Instead, it is likely a result of consumers reducing their spending and the economy experiencing inflationary pressures that have led to a slowdown in discretionary expenses overall.
In 2020, gun sales surged to the highest level in a decade, with nearly 9 million more sales than the previous year. This impressive increase of 64% marked the largest annual rise in two decades. Over the past two years, sales have decreased slightly from their record-breaking levels. This downward trend indicates a return to the typical sales figures seen in the years prior to 2020.
The increase in gun sales in 2020 was influenced, at least partially, by the Covid-19 pandemic. Remember, shooting sports are primarily outdoor activities. Sales of other outdoor equipment, like bicycles, also experienced a surge in 2020. With more free time and limited options for indoor recreational activities due to pandemic restrictions, people sought outdoor relaxation and leisure. It’s possible that the rise in gun sales occurred for similar reasons.
2020 was a presidential election year in the United States. Traditionally, election years can spark an increase in gun buying as customers may worry new leaders could change laws regarding gun ownership. There were similar smaller increases in gun sales in 2016 and 2012, both presidential election years. As presidential election campaigning kicks off again this year, it will be interesting to see how gun sales may change in the next few months.
Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming had the highest estimated gun sales per capita in 2022. These states have very rural populations. In these areas, hunting and other recreational shooting sports are part of the way of life for many.
Many of the states topping the list of highest per capita gun sales also tend to have less restrictive gun laws. Wyoming, for example, ranked 49th out of the 50 states in terms of the strength of its gun laws according to Giffords. In this state, gun owners do not need licenses or waiting periods to purchase guns, and there are no restrictions on assault weapons or large-capacity magazines. Alaska and Montana have very similar laws, making it relatively quick and easy to purchase various guns.
On the other hand, states with low sales rates tended to have stricter firearm laws. For example, D.C. had some of the lowest estimated gun sales per capita in 2022 and some of the strongest laws on the books. Both gun owners and dealers must be licensed, and there are strong restrictions on who can open-carry and concealed-carry guns.
On a non-population-adjusted basis, Texas had more gun sales than any other state in 2022. Nearly 1.5 million guns were sold in the state, accounting for about 8% of all guns sold in the country. Texas and Florida currently lead the nation in the estimated number of guns sold in 2023.
Between 2021 and 2022, all but two states (and Washington D.C.) had decreased gun sale rates. Sales increased by 25% in Iowa and D.C. alike, and by 19% year over year in Oregon.
In Iowa, gun sales may have been influenced by changes to state law. In 2021, state officials passed a law eliminating some permit requirements for handguns, which made the gun sale process simpler and accessible to more people, such as those with alcohol use disorder who were previously not granted permits. Lawmakers are considering other changes to gun laws in the state, such as allowing firearms in cars on school properties.
Oregon is a state that displays contrasting attitudes towards gun ownership. While the city centers, particularly Portland, tend to have less favorable views on guns, the rural areas are known for their higher rates of gun ownership, primarily due to hunting and fishing activities.
Between 2021 and 2023, citizens and politicians in Oregon have worked to enact stricter gun laws as sales have risen. They proposed laws that limited specific types of rifles, ammunition capacity, and the minimum age for purchasing certain firearms. Similar to what typically occurs during elections, the anticipation of changes in gun legislation often leads to a surge in gun sales as individuals seek to acquire firearms before the new laws take effect.
The largest decline in sales from 2021-2022 happened in South Dakota (-20%), Rhode Island (-24%), and New Jersey (-25%).
Rhode Island leaders enacted some new laws in 2022 that may have made gun sales more difficult. They banned large-capacity magazines, raised the minimum age to purchase guns, and prohibited the open carry of loaded firearms. These restrictions could have helped reduce sales in the Ocean State.
Similarly, New Jersey’s governor signed new laws at the end of 2022, further restricting public concealed carry permits and raising the cost of handgun permitting applications. Since this was passed at the end of 2022, New Jersey’s gun sales may decline even more this year.
Like many aspects of American life, the pandemic and subsequent effects of that period have had a major impact on gun ownership.
The two main reasons for the increase in gun sales during the pandemic appear to have been caused by an increase in outdoor recreational activity in rural areas and a sense of decreasing security by those closer to city centers due to civil unrest.
It’s likely that the full impact of the pandemic on society is not yet fully understood around the country. That includes the record increase in gun sales and how those guns will be used in the coming years.
The source data comes from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and included data from 2010-2023.
To convert background checks into estimated sales, we relied on a method suggested in the Small Arms Survey by Jurgen Brauer, a professor at Georgia Regents University. Researchers at the New York Times and Buzzfeed News have also used similar calculations in their past reporting: Each long gun and handgun check was counted as 1.1 sales. Each multiple-gun check was counted as two sales. We included private sale checks. Permit checks and other types of checks were omitted. We only included data from the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., and omitted Hawaii due to insufficient data.
To analyze gun-related fatalities, we conducted custom queries using the CDC’s WONDER database, covering all deaths from firearms except those related to military service.
Sources: National Criminal Background Check System, 2023, 2020 population estimates from the U.S. Census