Checking for Guns

The impulse of Americans to buy guns in the face of social upheaval reflects Americans' perceptions of fear and safety.

a graph of a number of people

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What happened in 2020? My shortlist includes: a global pandemic that has taken over 350,000 lives in the US, at least 18 highly publicized police killings of unarmed Black Americans, and a polarizing election that continues to test the strength of the US democracy.

How did the country respond? Many of us have stayed indoors, exchanging physical connection for endless Zoom calls. Others marched with masks across our faces carrying signs emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter.” And, in California, many bought guns.

From March to September of 2020, the FBI did 462,000 background checks for handgun purchases and 110,000 background checks for long guns in California alone. Those are increases of 83% and 54%, respectively, compared to the same time period in 2019. Many of these checks were done for first-time buyers.

While the above graph illustrates California’s data, this trend mirrors all of the United States. Nationwide, the FBI conducted 104% more background checks related to handguns in 2020 than in 2019.

Historically, firearm purchases tend to increase during US election years, partly explaining the sharp increase in firearm purchases occurring in the summer of 2020. But the mix of social and political upheaval seemed to supercharge the latest buying spree. In California, two of the 10 months with the highest log of firearm-related background checks were in 2016. Six more months were in 2020.

Researchers fear this rise in gun ownership will lead to more suicide deaths or homicides. Rates of firearm-related homicide and suicide remained steady throughout 2020, but a lag between gun purchases and their effects may lead to a jump in shootings in the future.

Firearms are connected to our fierce grip on individual rights, but the impulse of Americans to buy guns in the face of social upheaval reflects Americans’ perceptions of fear and safety. Finding ways to defy this impulse may help us prevent a future epidemic of firearm-related deaths.

Databyte via Phillip Reese. “As Anxieties Rise, Californians Buy Hundreds of Thousands More Guns.” California Healthline. 27 October 2020.