US set record for gun background checks in 2020

April 4, 2021
Background checks hit a new record nationwide in 2020. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Background checks hit a new record nationwide in 2020. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

A record number of background checks for U.S. firearm sales were conducted in 2020 — and unlike most previous surges of gun-buying, the checks were just as concentrated in Democratic states as Republican ones, according to new research. 

In March 2020, a record 3.7 million background checks for firearms were conducted as COVID-19 shutdowns swept the United States, according to a new paper in the American Journal of Health Economics. A new record of 3.9 million checks was set in June 2020, as protests following the police killing of George Floyd swept the country and police departments responded violently

Based on monthly background check data from 1999 to 2020, there were 50% to 60% more firearm background checks from March to August 2020 than would be expected based on past trends, according to researchers from the University of California, Riverside. That translates to 7.2 million additional background checks.

"It's a more polarized, anxious, awkward world, and it feels like when there's this additional social unrest layered upon social unrest, people are looking to protect themselves," said Matthew Lang, a UC Riverside economist who co-wrote the paper. 

The surge in background checks was just as pronounced on a population-adjusted basis in states that had voted Democratic in at least 3 of the 5 most recent presidential elections as those that had voted for Republicans, a pattern that has not occurred since the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to Lang and his co-author, Bree Lang. The Langs have been married since 2007. 

Most surges of firearms sales over the past two decades have come from fears of gun control measures following mass shootings, according to the paper, which documents significant spikes in firearms background checks following mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012; San Bernardino, California, in 2015; Parkland, Florida, in 2018; and El Paso, Texas, in 2019. These spikes were smaller than the 2020 surges and were primarily concentrated in red, Republican-leaning states. 

"They're worried about policy and they're worried about the legal system," said Matthew Lang of residents in red states choosing to purchase guns following mass shootings. "That's not what happened with COVID." 

The researchers backed up this theory with an analysis of Google search trends data. 

Google searches for the term "gun for home" during March through June 2020 were more than double their 2019 levels, according to the paper, while searches for "gun policy" remained relatively flat.

"What are people searching for? They're not looking up gun policy, the Second Amendment. They're looking up 'gun for home,' 'gun for safety,'" Matthew Lang said. 

Following the U.S. Capitol riots in January 2021, the background checks record set during the George Floyd protests was once again broken, although that recent development is not included in the paper. 

"We had this record-setting year, starting in March 2020 all the way to essentially February 2021," Matthew Lang said. 

Background checks are an imperfect measurement of what percentage of the population owns firearms, as they do not show whether someone is a first-time buyer. 

"I would love to know who's buying the firearms specifically, but we can't get that information specifically," said Matthew Lang, who estimates that 30% to 50% of gun sales in 2020 were to first-time buyers. 

He has previously researched the association between increased firearm background checks and suicides, and worries about the consequences of increased proliferation of firearms combined with the isolation and mental health effects of the pandemic. 

"You add true mental illness, exacerbated illness, the pandemic, loss of close family and friends, and you have all this going on and you add a gun to it," Matthew Lang said. "I don't know if we'll see a spike in any kind of suicide, but I am concerned."

Matthew Lang said he was inspired to write the paper in March 2020 when he was driving with his wife and co-author to stock up on food at a grocery store in the desert outside Los Angeles. They saw a long line outside another store that they hadn't noticed before. 

"My wife and I were like, 'What's that? That's a gun store. I'll be damned,'" Matthew Lang said. 

"We've never seen this in California," he added. "When Las Vegas happened, we didn't see a line out the door of people wanting to buy guns."

The researchers completed a version of the paper by the end of April and circulated the draft in May. Then the George Floyd protests happened and gun sales spiked again. 

"We were like, 'We've got to rewrite this thing,'" he said.   

Matthew Lang grew up about 20 miles away from Columbine, Colorado, the site of what in 1999 was the deadliest school shooting in American history. He was a junior in high school at the time and knew people who lived in Columbine. His proximity to the massacre helped spark his interest in studying firearms and mental health in graduate school. 

"They talk about days in which the world changed," he said. "Columbine was a day." 

The paper, "Pandemics, Protests, and Firearms," published in the American Journal of Health Economics on March 24, was authored by Bree J. Lang and Matthew Lang, University of California, Riverside. 

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