Reports on gun sales often follow a tragedy that forces a national debate about gun ownership. When figures are up, they’re interpreted as successful political efforts by pro-gun organizations. When they’re down, the opposite is true. But sometimes results reported are askew or incomplete. They miss the larger patterns that exist or outright misrepresent the numbers.
The goal of this report isn’t to criticize any individual publication. There has been accurate reporting on the gun industry by a variety of outlets as well as misleading reports — whether intentional or not. But rather than put anyone down, the goal is to help readers better consume reporting about gun sales, especially in a political context.
This report takes a deep dive into the data and examines the extended timeline. This article — A Reader’s Guide to Gun Sales — aims to identify these short bursts as well as the annual nature of gun sales.
THE EBB AND FLOW
January gun sales — benefiting from hold offs from Christmastime — are above average for the year, but they climb higher heading into spring. Then, levels begin to descend toward a low point for the year in the summer season. In August, they start upward again and steadily increase each month until reaching a high point in December. After the new year, the cycle repeats itself. This is the ordinary demand that drives the gun industry year after year.
The clustering of hunting seasons, trade shows and holiday shopping guides gun sales into those patterns, which the gun industry uses to map out annual plans and product releases. Yet, certain unplanned events can cause sudden spikes in sales. Fear of either mass violence or legislation putting limits on gun rights are typically credited for causing an influx.
Those conclusions come from analyzing gun sales from 1999 to 2016. The figures were cultivated from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which conducts checks on potential buyers for licensed gun dealers. The federal government launched the system in November 1998, so the public has 17-years of NICS data. That timeline spans four presidents, two full administrations and some of the most tumultuous events in American history.
At the start of each month, the FBI updates the NICS webpage with total checks from the month prior. The industry estimates guns sold that month by subtracting firearm permit checks from the total. Currently, results often cut the total in half. Yet, the industry’s formula for creating a proxy measure allows for mild inflation because there are 12 different categories listed in NICS reports, but realistically only four represent actual guns sold.
“Gun sales” in this report refer to the sum of NICS categories: handguns, long guns, other and multiple. “Handguns” represent pistols and revolvers; “long guns” represent both rifles and shotguns; “other” represents gun parts that legally fit the definition of a firearm as well as other firearms that contain a unique aesthetic feature; and “multiple” means a check of a person buying more than one gun.
Since NICS launched in 1999, gun sales have nearly doubled, increasing from 7.9 million in the system’s first full year of operation to 15.6 million in 2016. The gun industry pulled in an estimated $13 billion from gun and ammo sales last year, according to IBIS, an industry market researcher. The 97.5 percent growth is largely attributed to handgun sales, which grew 219 percent, jumping from 2.5 million to 8.1 million in the 19-year period. Long gun sales saw 15 percent growth, even though they averaged 5.2 million per year, including the two years they jumped well above that average.
The “other” category of firearm sales has also seen significant growth, some 96 percent since its inclusion in 2009. However, “other” contributes only a small percent each year, 3.8 percent in 2016, which actually translates to the considerable figure of 586,137. Checks covering the purchase of multiple guns grew by about 60 percent since 1999, but they also only contribute a small percent – 1.7 percent in 2016.
DIFFERENCES BY ADMINISTRATION
NICS has been in place for four presidents but only two full administrations. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — whose tenures will be the focus of this section — led the country during times of significant tragedies, economic hardships and political polarization, but NICS data shows their terms had a very different impact on gun sales.
Bush served during the 9/11 attacks, more than a dozen mass shootings and even signed gun control legislation, but sales averaged a predictable 7.1 million annually during his tenure. Leading up to the 2000 election, gun sales amounted to 7.07 million and continued at an almost identical flow into 2001. In 2002, they plummeted 11.9 percent and declined another 0.2 percent in 2003. Then, in Bush’s re-election year, they grew by 4.1 percent and continued upward each year of his second term. The only other significant change happened in his final year in office when gun sales grew by, coincidentally, 11.9 percent, pushing past 8 million for the first time in NICS history. But that spike was attributed to the rise in popularity of then-presidential candidate Obama.
Under Obama — who also managed during significant hardships — they soared and even fluctuated unpredictably. In 2009, Obama’s first year, gun sales increased 6 percent, his second year saw a 2 percent decrease, and then his third year saw a 14.6 percent jump. While he hadn’t launched a concerted effort to advance gun control legislation, that growth was prompted by political uncertainty of what could happen during the 2012 general election. At the time, gun rights organizations and advocates believed Obama had been leading conspiracies to confiscate firearms through international treaties, undercover law enforcement operations and in the federal courts. The 2012 election year was already on track for a new record before the U.S. saw the Sandy Hook massacre.
THE SURGE YEAR
On Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered 20 first-graders and six educators before turning a gun on himself. It reflected an amalgamation of worst-case scenarios for both pro- and anti-gun advocates: a mentally deranged man with easy access to an AR-style rifle and high capacity magazines entered an unprotected school to murder children and teachers.
Obama had resisted discussing gun control after a number of high-profile mass shootings during his first term, but after Sandy Hook he declared that he would “take meaningful action.” Congressional lawmakers, while on break from the legislative session, began curating bills ranging from an assault weapons ban to universal background checks.
The NRA’s strategy at the time was to go radio silent in the wake of an incident, but the organization reacted to the public’s urgent need for action and held a press conference. In a prepared statement, NRA’s executive vice president Wayne LaPierre shared the group’s own list of contributing factors that allowed for the shooting — violence in video games and movies, and a lack of mental health care — and introduced a proposal to design a school safety plan predicated on the idea that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
December 2012’s sales jumped by 61 percent. The second half of the month accounted for eight of the biggest days for checks that year. Four of them made the top 10 list and the week after the shooting ranked in a top spot for most checks in a single week. The shooting boosted December’s gun sales to 2.2 million, a 61 percent increase from the year before.
After the new year, Obama released 23 executive actions as part of a plan to identify solutions for reducing gun violence. During the next few months, Congressional lawmakers from both sides of the aisle would engage in a much-heated debate over how to prevent the next tragedy.
The issue culminated in April when two U.S. senators — Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Manchin — filed a bill to expand background checks to include sales at gun shows and over the Internet. Most Democrats, gun control groups and even some pro-gun organizations backed the Manchin-Toomey amendment, but the NRA launched a campaign against it, saying it “would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission.”
While the measure’s language specifically exempted private sales between family and friends, the gun lobby presented a narrow set of circumstances that could be incriminating. They involved a person posting an ad for a firearm online and then selling it to a family member. Industry trade groups also challenged the proposal, arguing it would put a strain small gun dealers who would have to call in the checks. The pro-gun groups that had supported it began to back away. Within a week, when the measure was put to a vote, but the Manchin-Toomey amendment failed to receive two-thirds majority votes to advance.
While federal efforts petered off by spring, state lawmakers continued debates. By the end of 2013, state lawmakers filed 1,500 gun bills, but only 109 became law. That final tally breaks down into 39 laws tightening gun restrictions and 70 easing restrictions and expanding rights for gun owners, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
The intense, year-long political debate is credited with causing panic-buying that forced demand to greatly outpace supply. The industry referred to it as a surge year. Throughout 2013, NICS processed more than 21 million background checks, including 13.9 million sales. Images of empty gun racks and shelves barely containing only obscure calibers of ammunition circulated and made major headlines.
For the most part, the gun industry was caught off guard. ATF manufacturing data shows that gun makers attempted to overcorrect, producing some 16.4 million guns. Even though inventory levels were high, few in the gun industry suffered. With gun control still in plain view, most gun companies made a profit. Gun sales fell in 2014 by 12.4 percent and then made some gains in 2015, increasing 9.4 percent.
Although the annual record has already been beaten, 2013 is highlighted because it was a year unlike any other. One where rhetoric finally caught up with reality. Gun advocates nervous about Obama taking political action on gun control reacted when a horrific incident forced him to take action.
Does 2013 show that mass killings and reactions to them generate higher gun sales? The answer is often presented as a definitive “yes” because people are afraid of repeat or copycat attacks, but there is no consistent answer. A review of daily NICS checks shows a correlation between elevated gun sales and some mass killings, as well as a correlation between elevated gun sales and some gun legislation. But for a more accurate answer, you have to look at the day-to-day numbers.
MASS KILLINGS, ELECTIONS & GUN LAWS
While it’s easy to identify significant changes within coherent timelines, there’s a lot of volatility making it difficult to separate the noise from the music. While some increases can be directly tied to political action, it’s more important to look at the context that shapes political action.
Weekly gun sales also have their own distinct patterns. They fluctuate Monday through Thursday and then Friday and Saturday tradeoff for the biggest day of the week. Sundays always end the week with a low point. The days of the week are often bolstered by seasonal events, like holiday shopping. In the case of an unplanned event, sales may elevate during the week, but generally people wait until the weekend.
To determine these patterns, I reviewed day-to-day NICS checks provided by the FBI for the entirety of the system. But unlike monthly checks, the data was raw. So, for more accurate levels, I adjusted the daily checks by multiplying monthly ranges of daily checks with the correlating monthly rate of gun sales. In turn, the reduced number of checks per day reflected the monthly sales rate.
A review of day-to-day transactions centering on significant events that are largely believed to impact gun sales gives credence to the idea that specific variables create a political climate necessary for gun sales to flourish beyond predictable patterns. When Obama was in power, any action he took to advance gun control influenced sales. When Bush did, it had a limited impact. That conclusion was the result of reviewing more than 60 events and specifically analyzing 28 mass killings, elections and changes to federal gun laws.
Mass shootings are more common than most people realize, but most incidents do not match descriptions revealed after high-profile attacks. To approach mass violence, I relied heavily on an open-source database published by Mother Jones. The list focuses on indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in four or more victims killed by the attacker, but excludes shootings spurred by more conventional crimes such as armed robbery or gang violence.
While I reviewed data from more than 50 attacks during the Bush and Obama years, I was selective with this list because determining the impact on sales can be difficult when they occur in November or December. Even when adjusting for seasonality, the differences by day are often too great. Also, the datasets for each incident include four weeks before the shooting and six weeks after because in some cases the response could have been delayed.
More complex studies than this one have shown that mass violence does impact gun sales, but my conclusion after reviewing dozens of graphs is that some unpredictable, violent behavior may have an impact on national sales. For this, though, I also tried to identify if there was a political or legislative response immediately following the incident that may have also influenced consumer behavior.
– Navistar shooting | Melrose Park, IL | Feb. 5, 2001 – A 66-year-old ex-employee opened fire at his former workplace, killing five people and injuring four others before committing suicide. The gunman had a criminal past, including a sexual assault conviction, but no signs of mental illness. He obtained his firearms legally.
The Bush administration, which had taken office just a few weeks before, responded to questions about the shooting, saying Bush supported enforcement of current laws, but would support legislation to mandate safety locks be sold with all handguns.
State gun sales in February 2001 fell 8.4 percent from the year before. National gun sales followed normal seasonal patterns in the wake of the shooting. The incident occurred on a Monday, typically one of the lowest days of the week. But the levels on days in which sales would have increased did not exceed the year before nor did they increase from the week before.
– 9/11 attacks | New York, NY | Sept. 11, 2001 – Religious extremists hijacked four planes, flying two into the World Trade Center in New York City, one into the Pentagon and a third crashed in Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people died. Gun sales had a noticeable jump after the worst terror attack on U.S. soil. Rates throughout the week increased.
The incident seemed to effect daily sales rather than just weekend sales. During the four weeks leading up to the attack, gun sales mirrored the year before, showing a difference of about 0.04 percent, but gun sales during four weeks after the attack jumped 45 percent from the month before and 22 percent from the same time period in 2000.
The White House and both chambers of Congress reacted to the attack with legislation expanding federal authority to monitor and surveil individuals and groups on U.S. soil but stopped short prohibiting those on terror watch lists from buying firearms.
A year after the attack, the NRA explained it had seen growing interest in personal protection and more states considering relaxing concealed carry laws.
– Lockheed Martin shooting | Meridian, MS | July 8, 2003 – A 48-year-old assembly line worker opened fire at his workplace in a racially motivated attack before committing suicide. He killed seven people and injured eight others. The gunman’s cousin said he was depressed and “going through a lot of things.” He had bought his guns legally.
Incidents like this in more recent times have garnered more attention. The gunman involved had been hostile toward African-American coworkers in that he openly used racial slurs and mimicked wearing a Klansman’s hood, according to reports. Witnesses said company mandated racial sensitivity training is what pushed the gunman over the edge. But local authorities dismissed allegations that it was a racially motivated attack because the gunman had also murdered white people.
State gun sales in July 2003 jumped slightly, a mere 2.3 percent, from the year before. National gun sales before and after the attack mirrored the same time frame in 2002. They showed about a 1.5 percent difference.
– Living Church of God shooting | Brookfield, WI | March 12, 2005 – A 44-year-old church member opened fire during a meeting at a hotel before committing suicide. He killed seven people and injured four others.
State gun sales in March 2005 saw little change, with less than one percent difference from the year before. National gun sales followed normal seasonal patterns, but at slightly elevated levels before and after the shooting. The six weeks after the shooting saw about a 5.2 percent increase and during the 10-week period sampled gun sales saw a 5.8 percent increase overall.
– Capitol Hill shooting | Seattle, WA | March 25, 2006 – A 28-year-old gunman opened fire at a rave afterparty in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood before committing suicide. State gun sales in March 2006 jumped 7.5 percent from the year before. Across the nation, guns sold at a higher rate in 2006 during the 10-week period isolated for this sample.
In the week following the shooting, daily sales saw an increase that seemed to follow the same pattern as the weeks before. However, there was a noticeable jump nine days after the shooting, but the increase could be an anomaly rather than a reaction to the shooting. With a substantial decrease on Sunday and increase on Monday, the change could have been a reporting issue.
– Virginia Tech | Blacksburg, VA | April 16, 2007 – The Virginia Tech shooting — resulting in 32 people dead and 23 others injured — exposed flaws in the federal background check system. A district court ruled that the gunman — a student at the school — was “an imminent danger” to himself and others as a result of mental illness identified two years earlier. The gunman had been directed to seek treatment.
State gun sales in April 2007 actually fell substantially, some 21 percent from the year before, with the biggest loses in the handgun category. NICS records show 3,299 fewer handguns sold in the state. In May 2007, gun sales saw little change with less than one percent difference from 2006.
National gun sales following the incident increased only marginally, but if the incident had an impact, it was delayed. A noticeable increase appeared three weeks after the event. However, the incident, paired with the legal loopholes that allowed the gunman to obtain his weapons, created a context for action. Lawmakers introduced a bipartisan measure with the backing of pro-gun and gun control advocates to update the background check system.
– Atlantis Plastics | Henderson, KY | June 25, 2008 – A 25-year-old disgruntled employee opened fire at the Atlantis Plastics factory after he was escorted out because of an argument with a supervisor. He shot the supervisor outside before opening fire on coworkers inside and then committed suicide. He had called his girlfriend two hours before the shooting to say he was going to kill his boss. The incident spurred debate about whether or not guns should be allowed at the workplace.
In the six weeks after the shooting, national gun sales saw about a 2 percent increase. Yet, the next day, the Supreme Court handed down a major pro-gun victory — D.C. v Heller — that expanded Second Amendment rights to include self-defense. State gun sales in June 2008 fell by some 3 percent from the year before.
– Fort Hood | Fort Hood, TX | Nov. 5, 2009 – A 39-year-old Army psychiatrist opened fire at the Army base — killing 13 people and injuring another 30 — in an attack linked to religious extremism. He was injured during the attack and later arrested. Medical officials had raised concerns prior to the shooting regarding his aloof and erratic behavior and extremist Islamic views.
Obama gave little mention to the incident when he discussed it during a speech for about three minutes. But advocates debated “gun free zones” on military bases. Gun sales failed to rise above the year before — Obama’s election year.
– Giffords shooting | Tucson, AZ | Jan. 8, 2011 – During an attempted assassination of former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, a deranged gunman killed six people and injured 14 others.
The incident led lawmakers to address growing political polarization and vitriolic rhetoric. Obama addressed the nation, offering thoughts and prayers. Yet, public debate centered on magazine capacity since the gunman used an extended 33-round magazine for his Glock handgun.
An investigation revealed the gunman obtained his firearm legally, but ran into hurdles when he tried to buy ammo. The clerk refused to sell him the items due to his behavior and appearance, which forced him to buy somewhere else.
National gun sales followed seasonal trends, showing an increase before the shooting and hovering around the same rate as the year before in the wake of the shooting. The largest jump occurred more than 30 days after the attack.
State gun sales in January 2011 jumped 31 percent from the year before, with the biggest gains in handgun sales. More than 2,800 handguns sold in Arizona in 2011 than in 2010.
– Theater shooting | Aurora, CO | July 20, 2012 – A mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, resulted in 12 people dead and more than 50 others injured. The mentally ill gunman obtaining guns legally and buying ammo and other items online reignited debate about easy access to firearms and high capacity magazines.
Obama addressed issues of safety and security in vulnerable locations. The NRA shut down social media pages and declined to comment on the incident.
Gun sales, which were already selling at a high rate during 2012, continued at a higher rate. Many Colorado patrons immediately following the incident said they were buying guns out of fear of copycat attacks. Local reports show gun sales jumped roughly 40 percent from the week before. But overall, state gun sales in July 2012 increased some 14 percent from the year before, with gains in both handguns and long guns.
– Washington Navy Yard | Washington, DC | Sept. 16, 2013 – A 34-year-old a military contractor opened fire in the Navy installation, killing 12 people and wounding eight before police stopped him. The gunman — who had been undergoing mental health treatment with Veterans Affairs since August 2013 — had told authorities the prior month that he had “heard voices.” Despite the relevant issues, he obtained his guns legally.
In a brief statement, Obama praised servicemen and women, and advised: “We’re going to be investigating thoroughly what happened, as we do so many of these shootings, sadly, that have happened, and do everything that we can to try to prevent them.”
During the 10-week time period centering on the shooting, gun sales increased less than 1 percent. The weekend two weeks after the shooting, gun sales had a noticeable increase of 34 percent. But 2013 sales rates largely mirrored the year before.
– Isla Vista rampage | Santa Barbara, CA | May 23, 2014 – The 22-year-old killer shot three people to death in Isla Vista, near the University of California-Santa Barbara. He also shot others as he drove around town, and injured some by hitting them with his car. He committed suicide as police closed in. Prior to the rampage, he stabbed three people to death at his apartment.
The killer had a history of mental issues and had received treatment. In the weeks before the shooting, the killer’s family contacted authorities about his erratic behavior. Yet, that confrontation did little in terms of revealing imminent danger. Also, the killer had already obtained two handguns. Family of victims largely condemned “craven and irresponsible” politicians and the NRA for failures to act on gun control.
National gun sales both before and after the attack failed to beat out the year before — the surge year, which, at the time, was the highest on record. State gun sales in May 2014 saw little change, with less than a one percent difference.
Months after the attack, state lawmakers crafted legislation specifically to address the aforementioned scenario, allowing family to enable a person to ask a judge to have guns seized from a family member who they think is a danger to themselves or others.
– Emanuel AME Church | Charleston, SC | July 17, 2015 – A 21-year-old white supremacist opened fire inside the historic black church, killing nine parishioners. The gunman had planned the killing and sought to make a political statement.
Obama asked the nation to “shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively” during his address on the incident. “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it,” he added.
Local and state leaders responded to the incident by addressing racism and condemning those who act out violently on those beliefs. The response culminated in the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds.
The gunman had obtained his guns through a legal loophole — dubbed “the Charleston loophole.” He should have been denied by the background check due to a pending drug charge, which an FBI examiner didn’t confirm within the allotted time frame — three days — and by default the gun dealer was permitted to complete the transfer.
Before the shooting, gun sales closely mirrored the year before, heading toward a low point for the year. But after the attack, gun sales made a noticeable jump, showing a sharp spike the weekend after the shooting and elevated levels throughout the rest of the month. State gun sales in July 2015 jumped some 40 percent, with the largest gains in handguns. More than 3,000 more handguns sold in the state in 2015 than in 2014.
Gun sales increase during presidential elections when the odds are in favor of a candidate advocating gun control or believed to be planning to advance gun control measures. But if other issues outweigh guns and guns are not on the ballot, gun sales maintain normal seasonal patterns. Also — and perhaps more dependable — are Black Friday sales, which have steadily increased over the years. The seasonal shopping day has caused a noticeable spike at the end of every November.
– Republican majority in Congress ’02 | Midterm Elections | Nov. 5, 2002 – While also in control of the White House, Republicans took majority seats in both chambers of Congress during the Midterm Elections on Nov. 5, 2002. With the nation still recovering from the 9/11 attacks, the public expressed more concerns over terrorism and war. The election seemed to have had little to no effect on gun sales. The year before — presumably still seeing an impact from the 9/11 attacks — saw higher levels.
– Bush re-elected | Presidential Election | Nov. 2, 2004 – Over an eight-week period centering on the 2004 Presidential Election, gun sales saw a 4.2 percent increase overall, but it seems like a stretch to attribute the gain to gun politics. With looming fears of terrorist attacks and U.S. troops engaged in two wars, guns and gun control were not key issues during the campaign, even though the candidates — Bush and then U.S. Sen. John Kerry — had opposing views on those issues as well.
– Democrat majority in Congress | Midterm Elections | Nov. 7, 2006 – Gun sales saw a slight increase the weekend before the election, but 2006 largely mirrored 2005 during the eight-week period selected for the sample. The data showed a 3.5 percent difference between years. Political analysts generally agreed that Democrats won a majority of elections because of Bush’s handling of the Iraq War in addition to overall dissatisfaction with the federal government.
– Obama elected president | Presidential Election | Nov. 2, 2008 – Although gun control was not among the major issues during the 2008 presidential election nor did then-candidate Obama focus on it, the NRA’s campaign against him described him as advocating far-reaching policies to control gun ownership. As a state lawmaker, Obama had opposed measures supporting gun use for self-defense and supported local handgun bans. His approach to gun ownership, by and large, was the opposite of Bush’s.
National gun sales saw a noticeable jump in the weeks after the election, jumping 54 percent from the same time period the year before. That time frame includes Black Friday sales, which always contribute a significant percentage of November sales. That holiday shopping tradition netted a 58 percent increase from the year before.
– Republican majority in Congress | Midterm Elections | Nov. 2, 2010 – Economic and health care issues largely drove the 2010 Midterm Elections. With Democrats controlling the federal government, the pendulum swung in favor of Republicans. About 80 percent of NRA-endorsed candidates — some Democrats, too — were elected. Most voters ranked the economy as their primary among the key issues. Gun sales largely mirrored the year before, jumping only slightly the weekend after the election.
– Obama re-elected | Presidential Election – Nov. 2, 2012 – Although Obama had not launched a concerted effort to advance gun control legislation nor had he really publicly mentioned it, gun owners felt on edge about what Obama might do. Plus, the issue hadn’t yet picked up the steam it would weeks later. Economic issues took the lead that election. In the weeks leading up to the election, gun sales fell by about 11 percent.
– Republican majority in Congress | Midterm Elections| Nov. 4, 2014 – The 2014 midterm elections lacked a key, singular issue. That, and dissatisfaction with both political parties failed to encourage voter turnout, survey data shows. Gun control was on the agenda during campaigns, but results garnered mixed reviews. Democrats lost more seats in both chambers of Congress and most NRA-backed candidates won, but gun control groups had significant political victories at the state level. Gun sales that election year closely mirrored the year before – the surge year – but significantly more people bought guns during Black Friday sales in 2014.
Congress introduced some 1,900 bills that included the word “firearm” between 2001 and 2016. Roughly 140 of those became law, with the majority involving the federal budget or national security. And, only a handful involved some form of gun control.
For this section, I used a common list circulating on the Internet called A Timeline of Gun Control in the United States as a jumping off point. While gun sales increased amid debate over gun control in more recent years, they actually maintained moderate levels while following normal seasonal patterns after perhaps the most impactful events, which occurred during the Bush administration.
– Federal Assault Weapons ban expires | Legislation | Sept. 13, 2004 – A provision under a federal crime prevention law that banned assault weapons expired. Bush had not planned on re-authorizing it and had made clear he and Congress were unwilling to invest political capital to expand it any longer. As reasoning, the administration cited the downward trend of violent crime, but an assessment of the ban’s actual impact had not been completed at the time.
Even though the removal of the measure expanded the types of guns available, the change made little difference in national gun sales. With the exception of a noticeable jump two weeks after the change, 2004 sales in that time frame largely mirrored the year before. The data shows an almost 5 percent increase overall during the eight-week period sampled.
– Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act | Legislation | Oct. 26, 2005 – When PLCAA enacted as federal law in 2005, it appeared to have had little to no effect on gun sales, at least, at the consumer level. Gun sales followed seasonal trends both before and after the measure, which shields firearm manufacturers from liability for criminal misuse with their products, was implemented.
– NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 | Legislation | June 11, 2007 / Jan. 8, 2008 – Almost two months after the Virginia Tech shooting, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a measure to improve the background check system. Bush came out in support of it following a review of the incident, framing it as school safety.
The measure aimed to improve and update the system’s recordkeeping because the details about the Virginia Tech gunman’s dangerous mental health history, which would have prohibited him from buying a gun, were unavailable to background check examiners.
The NRA, which also supported the measure, informed its members that the bill “was not gun control” because it updates NICS with records about people already prohibited from owning firearms.
It’s unclear what impact the measure had on gun sales as the trend line shows a higher rate both before and after the measure was introduced. But if gun buyers were concerned with the idea of improved background checks, they had little to no response in the weeks before the measure enacted in January 2008.
– D.C. vs Heller | SCOTUS Decision | June 26, 2008 – In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that gave greater clarity for legal interpretations of the Second Amendment, extending the definition as a right to own guns for self-defense.
The decision allowed pro-gun groups to launch a legal assault nationwide on laws controlling the bearing and keeping of arms. National gun sales saw about a 2 percent increase. Yet, the day before the high court handed down the decision, Kentucky experienced the Atlantis factory shooting.
– Concealed carry expanded to National Parks | Legislation | Feb. 22, 2010 – Obama signed an economic measure with an amendment tucked away that expanded concealed carry, when permitted by the state, into the National Parks. Levels of gun sales did not rise above the year before.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
Like in 2013, new gun control legislation seemed like it could take shape in 2016. In the December before the new year, the U.S. experienced a horrific mass shooting that embodied concerns of both Democrats and Republicans: terrorists armed with AR-style rifles opened fire during a holiday office party in San Bernardino, California, killing 16 people and injuring 24 before they were killed in a shootout with police.
Responses to the incident culminated in the form of legislation crafted to block anyone on a No Fly List from buying firearms from licensed dealers, a concept the president advocated in one-on-one interviews with journalists, but gun rights advocates argued would violate due process laws. December 2015 saw 3.3 million NICS checks, including 2.2 million sales, a 28 percent jump from the year before. Three weeks in that month ranked in the top 10.
Knowing Congress would have a difficult time passing gun legislation, the president issued a series of executive actions after the new year designed to bolster current gun laws, especially the background check system. Gun groups, which had promoted similar changes, resisted the actions.
Immediately following Obama giving his signature to the executive actions, gun sales saw a noticeable spike. The same day — a Monday — NICS processed almost 50 percent more sales checks. Sales rates would continue at elevated levels until around May when they leveled out during the seasonal decline.
But then another attack similar to the San Bernardino struck the U.S. A gunman who claimed terrorist ties used an AR-style rifle to murder 49 people inside a nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016. While Democrats saw the incident as validating the need to prohibit gun sales to those on a No Fly List, they also renewed arguments for an assault weapons ban.
At this point in the year, gun sales had been following seasonal trends. While they were up 14.7 percent from 2015, they had been declining month-to-month while entering summer. However, in 2016, the summer months saw unseasonally high growth rather than continued decline. This surge sets 2016 apart from other years for gun sales.
Sales in 2016’s June jumped 38.6 percent, July jumped by 30.3 percent and this trend continued through August, which saw sales grow by 15.6 percent. And each month would set a new record for total checks.
THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
There’s another aspect of 2016 that explains record-setting gun sales for the year and that’s the presidential election. Unlike Obama during his campaign, former secretary of state and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had openly advocated for gun control policies and had made it a key part of her agenda. But not only that, many professional pundits and analysts predicted that the seasoned politician would win.
Clinton adopted a wish list of sorts for gun control policies. Her support ran the gamut from digestible universal background checks to tightening restrictions for domestic abusers to the polarizing assault weapons ban. With concrete examples to debate, pro-gun organizations responded in kind but centered their arguments on filling a Supreme Court seat vacated by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who had penned significant pro-gun opinions for the high court.
Mass carnage kept the debate in the forefront during the campaign year and with Clinton predicted to win, passing gun control legislation seemed inevitable. At a speaking event in Cleveland, she told the audience that “weapons of war have no place on our streets” in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting and reiterated arguments supporting gun control legislation.
“If the FBI is watching you for a suspected terrorist link, you shouldn’t be able to just go buy a gun with no questions asked. And you shouldn’t be able to exploit loopholes and evade criminal background checks by buying online or at a gun show. And yes, if you’re too dangerous to get on a plane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America,” she said.
“Now, I know some will say that assault weapons and background checks are totally separate issues having nothing to do with terrorism. Well, in Orlando and San Bernardino terrorists used assault weapons, the AR-15. And they used it to kill Americans. That was the same assault weapon used to kill those little children in Sandy Hook,” she continued.
“We have to make it harder for people who should not have those weapons of war. And that may not stop every shooting or every terrorist attack, but it will stop some and it will save lives and it will protect our first responders. And I want you to know, I’m not going to stop fighting for these kinds of provisions.”
Leading up to the election, a majority of voters identified “gun policy” as a factor in how they would vote. Concerns about gun policy ranked for supporters of Clinton and Trump. The number of gun sales was noticeably higher in the weeks leading up to election day, but after the surprising results put Trump in the White House, gun sales fell and dropped below levels from the year before.
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Surging sales helped the gun industry expand under the Obama administration. Amid the success, gun makers acknowledged that political volatility was not a reliable long term business model, yet, they overproduced guns and ammo inventories in preparation for the pro-gun control Clinton administration to take power. So, when Trump won, they found themselves with clogged and overflowing inventory channels.
Trump aligned himself with the NRA early and the organization became one of the first — and at a few times during his campaign, only — mainstream political group to publicly endorse him. He adopted the organization’s platform for his policy agenda. The NRA went on to spend more than $30 million in support of his campaign. They’ve maintained their relationship even after Trump took office, even becoming the first sitting president in 30 years to speak at the group’s annual convention.
Since election day last year, the industry has struggled to move products and has turned to discounting items with rebates and other incentives. Manufacturers and retailers have seen damage to their bottom line, reporting lower profits and in some cases declaring bankruptcy.
Pollsters collecting demographic information on the gun buying public have published a mixed bag of results. Executives in the industry – citing work by industry trade groups – say younger individuals, more minorities and more women are participating in the shooting sports. But national surveys show little change among gun owners, with data showing the majority are still white males and gun ownership is neither growing nor decreasing.
So, for now it seems, the industry seems to be relying on the hold outs who were waiting for prices to drop and buy according to seasonal demand. Yet, if 2017 has done anything for gun sales, it has shown that annual gun sales have grown from the years before the Obama administration. The simple fact that they haven’t yet returned to pre-Obama levels proves that. But, the lingering question the industry faces now is what is the new normal? Only time will tell.