Background checks required to buy firearms have spiked to record numbers in the past month, fueled by increased activity from Americans worried about their safety during the coronavirus crisis.
According to figures from the FBI, 3.7 million background checks were done in March — the most for a single month since the system began in 1998. It eclipsed the previous record, set in December 2015, when 3.3 million checks were conducted.
Background checks are the key barometer of gun sales, but the FBI’s monthly figures also incorporate checks for firearm permits that are required in some states. Each background check also could be for the sale of more than one gun.
The rush has inflamed tensions between Second Amendment advocates and gun control activists. Pro-gun groups say the long lines seen at gun stores affirm a widespread belief about the right to bear arms. Opponents contend that adding firearms into stressed-out households filled with people cooped up during lockdown orders will lead to increased levels of domestic violence and suicides.
“This is overwhelming evidence that Americans value their ability to take responsibility for their own safety in times of uncertainty,” said Mark Oliva, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gunmakers. “The figures are simply eye-popping.”
The FBI numbers show that March had five of the top 10 days ever for background checks, including the day with the most, March 20, when more than 210,000 checks were conducted. The day before, California ordered all nonessential businesses to close.
Four of the top 10 weeks ever for checks have occurred since mid-February, including the week with the most, March 16-22, when nearly 1.2 million checks were done.
In comparison, 2.64 million checks were conducted in March 2019, more than a million fewer than last month.
The spikes followed key moments in the U.S. trajectory of the pandemic, starting with the nation’s first recorded death on Feb. 29 and ramping up as a flurry of states closed schools and businesses. Then in mid-March, President Donald Trump urged Americans to practice social distancing and warned of a potential recession.
Of the 3.7 million background checks done last month, about 2.5 million represented firearm sales, an increase of about 85 percent over March 2019, according to estimates from Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting, which analyzes data on the firearms industry. Handgun sales increased by about 91 percent, while sales of long guns were up nearly 74 percent, it said in a news release.
Gun retailers reported that the overwhelming majority of buyers over the past month have been first-time gun owners, the National Shooting Sports Foundation said.
The soaring numbers come amid debate in cities and states about whether gun shops should be considered essential businesses that can remain open during stay-at-home orders meant to reduce the spread of the virus. Over the weekend, the Trump administration issued an advisory classifying firearms dealers as essential but did not mandate that states keep them open.
Second Amendment supporters have pushed back vigorously in places that determined federally licensed gun dealers are not essential during the outbreak and should close. The industry says the shops are critical to allowing Americans to exercise their constitutional rights.