Americans bought about 19.9 million firearms last year, down 12.5% from 2020, according to one industry estimate — but 2021 was still the industry’s second-busiest year on record, as politics and public health continue to drive interest in owning guns.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation — an industry trade group — estimates 18.5 million sales last year, its second-highest annual figure, behind 2020’s 21 million sales. Meanwhile, the FBI ran 38.9 million background checks in 2021 and a record-breaking 39.7 million in 2020, though the FBI’s data doesn’t correspond perfectly with purchases because not all background checks are associated with individual sales of new guns.
Gun sales soared to unprecedented levels in 2020, exceeding the previous year by nearly 64%, according to Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting. Many observers think politics and Covid-19 are key reasons for this surge: The pandemic — and the economic devastation it wrought — fueled safety worries in early 2020, purchases remained high during summer 2020’s nationwide protests, and sales regularly spike ahead of presidential elections if firearm enthusiasts fear stricter gun control measures. Last year, Americans’ worries about Covid-19 partially waned and President Joe Biden’s calls for more stringent gun laws largely went unanswered, possibly tempering interest in firearms. Regardless, the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates U.S. firearm stores sold guns to around 3.2 million first-time purchasers in the first half of 2021, suggesting demand hasn’t faded yet.
U.S. gun deaths also spiked during the pandemic. Some 20,726 people died from homicides, unintentional deaths and other types of gun violence — not including suicides — in 2021, and 19,486 died in 2020, up from 15,468 in 2019, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The country also recorded 693 mass shootings with four or more injuries last year, a jump from 611 in 2020 and 417 in 2019. Some advocates for stricter gun control fear the rapid pandemic-era rise in gun sales has boosted the risk of gun injuries and violence, especially among first-time owners who aren’t accustomed to owning a firearm, but gun control opponents argue most crimes are committed using illegal or second-hand guns, not new firearms that were subjected to an FBI background check.