When Americans are concerned about their personal security, they buy firearms. Such concerns have been rampant since March, initially due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and then the social unrest in June that followed George Floyd’s killing. Our estimates indicate that almost three million more firearms have been sold since March than would have ordinarily been sold during these months. Half of that increase occurred in June alone. This pattern highlights an important potential consequence that may result from this tumultuous period: more firearms in the hands of private citizens.
Nonresident Fellow - Economic Studies, Center on Children and Families
Professor of Economics - Wellesley College
Spikes in gun sales over a decade
Past spikes in firearms sales have occurred when individuals worried about possible restrictions (see figure below). Following President Obama’s calls to impose modest restrictions on firearm sales in response to the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting and the San Bernardino terrorist attack, sales jumped by 3 million and 1.6 million, respectively, beyond the expected level over the few months of elevated sales. Protests demanding gun control legislation led by students in Parkland, Florida, the site of the most recent high-profile school shooting, led to another spike in sales of 700,000.
The data presented here are from background checks conducted by the FBI before a firearm is sold by a licensed dealer. These data do not perfectly measure firearm sales, but they are highly correlated with sales and are commonly used by researchers. In past work, we have used these data to show that the spike in firearm sales following the Sandy Hook school shooting led to a spike in accidental firearm deaths, particularly among children.
The 2020 spike, however, is less about concerns regarding access to firearms, than personal safety. In March, concerns about personal safety arose from both a deadly new virus and an economy in free fall. By June, concerns about the virus and the economy remained, and were compounded by new evidence of racial injustice in policing, widespread protests, and discussions of defunding the police.
Emergency = gun sales
Daily data allows us to better identify the sources of fears about personal safety. As the following figure shows, the average daily level of firearm sales in January and February was 92,000. Within that period, daily sales varied within the range of 80,000 to 100,000 per day.
On March 13, President Trump issued a proclamation declaring a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 outbreak. Over the next 12 days (including that day), firearm sales surged, jumping to over 120,000 per day, and peaking at 176,000 on March 16. Over 700,000 additional firearms were sold in March.
The geographic pattern in the additional sales is not correlated with COVID-19 death rates nor with increases in unemployment rates. This suggests that the spike in firearm sales resulted from a general sense of national apprehension, rather than a response to differential deterioration in local conditions. Over the next two months, as the country settled into its new environment and even moved into a period of scheduled re-openings, firearm sales stabilized, if perhaps at a slightly higher level than earlier in the year (seasonal variation is modest during this period of the year).
Protests = gun sales
Then George Floyd was killed on May 25, which started a chain of events leading to a Minneapolis police station being burned down on May 28. Protests then spread nationwide, including to Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, where the federal government forcibly removed protesters, reportedly using chemical agents and rubber bullets, on June 1. Additional protests, including clashes with police, continued for several days.
The onset of these protests started another surge in firearm sales, reaching 150,000 per day on June 2 and June 3. The protests faded but, as public discussions about Black Lives Matter and defunding the police persisted, firearm sales remained elevated throughout the month of June.
As a result of these events, firearm sales in June were the highest on record (since data collection began in 1998), with 3.9 million firearms sold. This includes an additional 1.4 million firearms beyond the number that we would normally expect to be sold in June.
The Role of Racism
Along with the general concern for personal security that these protests may have unleashed, additional data suggests that inherent racial tensions in our society also contributed to the June spike in firearm sales.
To examine this issue, we augment our analysis with data from Google Trends, which indicates the relative frequency with which individuals search for certain terms. Following an approach used in prior research, we track searches for a common racial epithet as a measure of racial animus.
The figure below presents daily Google Trends index values for that search term in the United States. Google does not release actual counts of searches, but creates an index, where the day with the highest search totals is recorded as a 100. Other values represent the ratio between that highest day and the search counts on other days (i.e. a day with a value of 50 has half the searches for that term as the highest day).
In March, when the pandemic hit and firearm sales initially spiked, there were no substantive changes in search frequency for the racial epithet. Starting in late May and early June, though, those searches jumped, hitting their peak on June 19 (Juneteenth).
The increase in firearm sales in June may have had nothing to do with racial animus, though. The protests could have engendered concerns regarding personal security, and therefore greater firearm sales, with no relationship to the simultaneous increase in racial animus. The correlation in the timing of these changes need not imply a causal relationship.
To shed further light on the relationship between gun sales and racial animus, we examined geographic variation in these measures. Specifically, we explored whether the June spike in firearm sales (measured relative to sales in June 2019) was larger in states where racial animus is greater. We measured state-level racial animus using Google Trends data on the relative prevalence of the same search term across the 50 states in 2019. We use the state-specific firearm sales spikes in March (relative to March of 2019) to capture state-level differences in the way that personal security concerns translate into firearm purchases.
We find that states where individuals are more likely to search for racial epithets experienced larger increases in June firearm sales, even after adjusting for the personal security concerns that likely generated the March spikes in gun sales. This pattern suggests that part of the concern regarding personal security that led to firearm sales increases in June was related to the racial tensions. We do not observe the same relationship between increases in firearm sales and racial animus at the state level in any of the previous spikes in sales.
It is unclear who was buying those firearms. Concerns regarding personal security related to racial tensions could lead individuals of any race, including Blacks or whites, to buy firearms. In general, however, whites are far more likely to own firearms than Blacks (49 percent versus 32 percent).
Gun Sales and Unintended Consequences
There are more guns than people in the United States (400 million are in circulation for a population of 330 million). In just the first six months of 2020, approximately 19 million firearms have been sold, representing more than one firearm for every 20 Americans.
The presence of so many guns complicates discussions of public policy. Injustices committed by the police, and systemic racism in society more broadly need to end. It is concerning that the necessary national discussion regarding racial injustice is leading to even more firearms in the hands of Americans.
This concern is particularly relevant in the context of discussions regarding defunding the police. When public goods are not provided by the government, or are provided on a scale that some consider to be inadequate, individuals turn to private provision of these services. For example, parents often turn to private schools when they perceive public education to be inadequate.
Similarly, it would not be surprising for some citizens to respond to perceived limitations on police services with private provision. This may include purchasing more firearms. In a society fraught with racial tension, it is not clear that dismantling the police and seeing more private citizens purchase guns will lead to a safer world. Increased firearm sales are a potential – if unintended – consequence that merits attention as we endeavor to create a more equitable society.
The authors did not receive financial support from any firm or person for this article or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this article. They are currently not an officer, director, or board member of any organization with an interest in this article.