Fueled by an estimated 8.4 million new first-time gun owners, suggested gun sales data climbed nationwide throughout 2020 and closed the year out at a record high. 

The unadjusted number of 39,326,079 checks conducted through the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System last year is a 40.41 percent jump from the unadjusted FBI NICS figure of 28,007,320 logged in 2019.

When the figures are adjusted — removing data for gun permit checks and rechecks by states which use NICS for that purpose — the latest total stands at 21,083,643, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade organization for the U.S. gun industry. This number is a 59.7 percent increase when compared against the 2019 NSSF-adjusted NICS figure of 13,199,172. 

This is a new annual record for the 21-year-old NICS system, surpassing the past benchmark of 15,700,471 set in 2016 – when pollsters said Hillary Clinton was headed to the White House  by 34.3 percent. 

2020 was a year of record-setting checks on gun sales. (Chart: NSSF) 

It should be noted that the true number of guns sold across the country is likely higher than what NICS figures suggest. The data does not include private gun sales in most states or cases where a carry permit is used. These are alternatives to the background check requirements of the 1994 Brady law and allow the transfer of a firearm over the counter by a federal firearms license holder without first performing a NICS check. Over 20 states accept personal concealed carry permits or licenses as Brady exemptions.

What caused the spike?


Industry experts chalk up the huge jump in figures to a combination of factors. It is a reaction to politicians and anti-gun advocates pressing for more restrictions on legal firearms. At the same time, civil unrest and pandemic lockdowns swept the country. 

"This occurred under the most challenging of circumstances," Mark Oliva, NSSF's director of public affairs, told Guns.com of the spike. "Law-abiding Americans demanded to exercise their right to lawfully purchase, keep and bear arms. Some governors, mayors and even members of Congress actively stood in the way of that and didn’t relent until faced with court action." 

Oliva stressed that at the same time distributors, retailers, ranges, and firearm and ammunition factories adjusted. They took the necessary steps to protect their workforces while still keeping pace with the demand of the American public

"That’s a testament to the determination of the American worker that makes our freedoms possible," said Oliva. Going further, he said the numbers could have been much higher had inventory at distributors and shops been fuller. 

"Retail shelves are still sparse, telling us there is still a strong demand and that elevated levels of firearm sales could continue for some time," said Oliva. "Pursuit of restrictions on gun rights or targeting of the firearm industry by the Biden administration will only signal that this will be an administration that won’t seek to support and protect American rights but will cater to special interest groups that seek to disarm law-abiding Americans."

Should that occur, Oliva predicts, "the growth of first-time gun buyers and overall firearm sales will be closer to what was seen in 2020 than in previous years."

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