Gun sales explode in 2020, experts weigh in on ‘uncertain’ future

Special Reports

The FBI processed the most firearm background checks last year since it started collecting the data in 1998

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Gun sales boomed in 2020, with the Federal Bureau of Investigations processing a record 39.7 million firearm background checks, a surge experts say has been driven by the pandemic, protests and the presidential election.

Background checks don’t perfectly equal the number of guns sold since they are also used for things like concealed handgun licenses and suppressor sales. You can also buy more than one firearm on a single background check. The numbers can reveal trends in sales, though.

Checks tied exclusively to the sale of firearms totaled 21 million, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a firearm trade organization. That’s a 60% increase from 2019’s 13.2 firearm-related background checks, and a 34% increase from the previous record (15.7 million) in 2016, the NSSF said.

In Oregon, background checks increased more than 50% last year, to just over 418,000, according to Oregon State Police.

That’s meant a busy year for gun dealer Steve Riehl, owner of Adaptive Firing Solutions.

When KOIN 6 News first spoke with Riehl last spring, he attributed some of the surge in sales to “panic buying” in the face of a global pandemic.

“In March you had all the governors start to issue out stay-at home-orders,” NSSF director of public affairs Mark Oliva said. At the same time, police departments limited contact with residents, and jails released inmates early, leading some people to become “concerned for their safety,” Oliva said. The FBI processed the most background checks ever in March — Oregon saw more than 51,000 approved firearms transactions that same month.

Manufacturers suffered backlogs and ammunition flew off shelves, but Oliva said if he could have predicted the overall numbers for 2020, he’d be having this conversation from a yacht.

“From the pandemic, to the violence that we saw over the summer, to the election year politics and the gun control campaign promises, all fed into this confluence of several things that came together at one time to really drive the firearms sales so high this year,” Oliva said.

President Joe Biden’s long list of proposed gun restrictions — including bans on so-called assault weapons and high capacity magazines, gun buybacks, restrictions on how many firearms individuals can purchase, prohibiting online sales, and more — could keep gun sales high for the foreseeable future, Oliva said.

“I think if the Biden administration pursues the agenda that he proposed … that’s really going to drive the firearms sales and people are going to purchase the guns they want while they still can,” he said.

The NSSF estimates around 8.4 million people bought a gun for the first time last year, 40% of gun buyers were women, and African Americans had the largest increase of any demographic with a 58% rise in purchases.

“You didn’t just have 8.4 million people buy guns,” Oliva said, who added people are also buying time at ranges, taking classes and buying ammunition, which has distributors doing “boomerang shipments” — taking shipments in one door and sending them out the other in the same day.

Oliva said gun and ammunition manufacturers are working as fast as they can to keep up with demand, but that anecdotal reports from January suggest sales have not slowed down.

Steve Riehl, owner of Adaptive Firing Solutions, talks with KOIN 6 News on May 27, 2020 (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Background checks are also taking significantly longer, Riehl said. Pre-pandemic, background checks could be processed in a matter of minutes. Now, some customers have to wait weeks as OSP works through its backlog, Riehl said, though it’s usually much faster if you’ve already had a background check done before, or have a concealed handgun license.

While Riehl said the possibility of additional gun control legislation and calls to “defund” the police have left many people — himself included — apprehensive about the “uncertain times” ahead. But he’s also excited to see so many first-time buyers, share his knowledge and even do one-on-one trainings.

“I’m happy to see new folks coming into the sport, into the industry, and you know opening up, open their minds and starting to have that conversation,” he said.

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