The FBI processed a record number of gun background checks in March as Americans worried about the coronavirus outbreak stocked up on weapons.
Official figures show that 3.7 million background checks were carried out last month — 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.
Over the weekend, the Trump administration issued an advisory classifying firearms dealers as essential but did not mandate that states keep them open.
The spikes followed key moments in the U.S. trajectory of the pandemic, starting with the nation’s first recorded death on February 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.
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.
People wait in a line to enter a gun store in Culver City, Calif. The FBI processed a record number of of gun background checks in March as Americans worried about the coronavirus outbreak stocked up on weapons
A line is formed outside of a gun store in Burbank in response to the Coronovirus outbreak Coronavirus outbreak, Los Angeles. Official figures show that 3.7 million background checks were carried out last month — the most for a single month since the system began in 1998
Over the weekend, the Trump administration issued an advisory classifying firearms dealers as essential but did not mandate that states keep them open. Burbank is pictured March 17
Previous spikes in gun sales have come after the re-election of President Barack Obama and the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.
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.
That worries gun-control advocates, who fear first-time buyers will not be able to get the training to safely handle and store their new weapons.
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 supporters.
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.’
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.
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.
‘We need to prepare for the increased risk of more firearms in untrained hands,’ said David Chipman, a retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who’s now senior policy adviser with the Giffords gun control group. ‘If you didn’t think you needed a gun prior to March of this year, you certainly don’t need to rush out and get one now.’
People wait in line to enter gun seller Tanner’s Sports Center in Jamison, Pa., Tuesday, March 17
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.
The gun lobby has 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.
The Texas attorney general issued a legal opinion saying emergency orders shuttering gun shops are unconstitutional.
That’s in contrast to some cities, such as New Orleans, where the mayor has issued an emergency proclamation declaring the authority to restrict sales of firearms and ammunition.
Stephanie Miller of Atlanta, buys guns and ammunition at Adventure Outdoors on March 16, in Smyrna, Ga. Miller said she had been on the fence about guns but with recent events she decided to buy weapons
Brian Xia, 44, picks up his gun at a gun store in Arcadia, Calif. Sunday, March 15, 2020. Xia who is a first-time gun buyer, says he bought the gun for protecting himself and his family
A worker inspects an AR-15 gun at Davidson Defense in Orem, Utah on March 20
People wait in line to purchase guns and ammunition at Peninsula Guns and Tactical on March 16, 2020 in San Bruno, California
In Los Angeles, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has twice ordered gun shops in the nation’s most populous county to close, leading to legal challenges from gun lobbying groups, including the National Rifle Association, National Shooting Sports Foundation, Second Amendment Foundation and Gun Owners of America.
Gun control advocates said gun rights groups are sowing fear during the pandemic in order to boost firearms sales, adding that increased gun ownership during the crisis could lead to more domestic violence.
‘Adding more guns to more homes during a time of more anxiety could lead to more deaths. And that’s the last thing we need when our hospitals are already bursting at the seams,’ said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading gun control group.
Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said gun industry groups have ‘exploited the current crisis to further the interests of gun manufacturers.’