What do Americans do in these uncertain times? We buy guns. Millions and millions of guns. This year’s shopping spree has been a record-breaker. I’m not sure it has made us safer.
Of course, it is every American’s constitutionally protected right to own a firearm. But the massive surge in the number of firearm transactions so far in 2020 does lead one to wonder why so many of us want a gun — or more guns.
Reliable estimates using firearm background check data from the FBI and analyzed by interested groups conclude that in the first seven months of this anxiety-fueled year, there were more than 12 million guns purchased. Nearly 5 million buyers had never owned a gun before.
This flurry of civilian activity cements our standing as the world’s most armed nation. Current estimates put the number of guns in private hands at close to 400 million. That’s way more guns than we have people in this country.
Back to the “why” of our current situation. Comparisons of the FBI data and current events show that when serious worries about the COVID-19 pandemic first surfaced in March, frightened citizens began a firearms-buying frenzy, snapping up an estimated 2 million new guns. In late May, following the death of George Floyd, the vicious riots that immediately followed, and politicians’ commands to police to stand down, another surge in gun sales was registered. Then in June, as Black Lives Matter protests spread, calls to defund police escalated, and officers continued to be ordered to the sidelines, firearm sales skyrocketed. Worried Americans watched civil rights protests continue to morph into spasms of arson, looting and even murder. Gun sales hit the highest level ever recorded. A whopping 3.9 million guns sold in June.
The monthly trend of record-breaking gun sales continued through October, perhaps spurred by anxiety over continued isolation, the faltering economy and see-saw unemployment.
As eye-opening as these figures are, they don’t tell the whole story. Some gun owners simply refuse to answer poll questions about firearm ownership. And the figures reported here include only those citizens who applied for a federal background check and do not reflect those who bought their weapon(s) from private sellers.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. After the terrorist attacks in September 2001, Americans stocked up on more than a half-million newly acquired guns. After President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, fears of more gun control laws sparked another buying binge, and more than 1 million more guns were purchased. After the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, Americans bought a staggering 2 million guns.
But nothing compares to the unprecedented race to get a gun in 2020.
It seems sad and ironic to think that the societal fallout from a pandemic and a civil rights movement calling for racial justice — albeit one that spun off into senseless violence, in some cases — would result in millions more guns being acquired. A firearm will never protect a person from contracting a virus. A firearm used in a criminal manner will never bring about racial harmony.
Perhaps, someday, politicians will realize that curbing law and order tactics is not wise.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, a minority of gun owners say they use their weapon for hunting or sport shooting. Sixty-seven percent say “protection” was the reason they bought their gun.
Interestingly, several studies — including those from the Annals of Internal Medicine, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and Boston University’s School of Public Health — have concluded that households with firearms are at a much greater risk of suicide, homicide and domestic murders. An increase in accidental shootings, especially involving children, were also noted.
Still, we buy guns to feel safe, safer than the politicians make us feel.
If you are one of the U.S. citizens who recently bought a gun or added to your collection this year, please, do the rest of us a favor. Treat that firearm like the deadly weapon it is. Lock it up to guard against theft; keep it away from children; take a safety course; or otherwise arm yourself with the knowledge needed to keep the rest of us safe from your constitutionally protected firearm. Thank you.
— Diane Dimond is the author of three books, including Be Careful Who You Love Inside the Michael Jackson Case, which is now updated with new chapters and is available as an audiobook. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.