WASHINGTON — For millions of Americans, it’s been a turbulent 2020, a year marked by stress at home and unrest in the streets, all underscored by a contentious presidential election.
It's a year that firearms instructor Kenneth Thornton tried to sum up for the Verify team:
“The world is getting, I would say, a little bit more violent,” Thornton said. “And people want to be able to protect themselves and their families.”
During this week's Supreme Court hearings, Sen. Dianne Feinstein stated:
"There’s been a surge in gun sales during the COVID-19 crisis, leading to more lives being needlessly lost."
But have gun sales really surged this year? Our Verify team dug through the data to get answers.
Are gun sales hitting record numbers ahead of the 2020 election?
Yes, FBI data and a firearms expert confirm gun sales are hitting record numbers with nearly three months left in 2020.
David Chipman, firearms expert
Firearms expert David Chipman, a retired ATF agent of 25 years and current advisor for Giffords, a gun violence prevention organization, confirms that there is no national registry for guns.
However, the Brady Act of 1993 requires federally licensed firearms dealers to conduct background checks all buyers, and the FBI tracks those checks.
The data isn’t perfect — and does not account for all gun sales — but Chipman says it’s the best data we can use to compare years.
Verify dug through dozens of pages of that FBI data, and found clear evidence that 2020 is in fact seeing record gun sales.
As of October 1, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) had conducted more than 14.8 million background checks for gun sales in the United States in 2020.
That’s more than any other entire year except 2016, when NICS recorded 14.9 million background checks for gun sales. Chipman confirms 2020 has likely surpassed that, now two weeks into October.
“So gun sales are unprecedented this year, caused by COVID and probably protests that have fueled these sales,” Chipman told Verify.
The numbers back that up.
FBI data shows background checks for gun sales for the month nearly doubled to 2.3 million in March, amid fears of lockdowns, supply shortages and the possibility gun shops would close.
“I think some percentage of people decided, I’ve got to buy a gun just to be safe,” Chipman said. “And if stores were going to close, this might be my last chance to do it.”
Background checks surged again after the death of George Floyd, which sparked weeks of protests. FBI stats show close to 7 million background checks for gun sales between June and September.
But why is this happening?
"I think fear, I think uncertainty, I think stress,” Chipman said.
Verify decided to bring that same question to gun shops in Virginia, where business is booming.
Steven Garriss is a store clerk at Clark Brothers Gun Shop in Warrenton. He says business has doubled, at least, in 2020. He explained what he’s hearing from buyers.
“They watch the news and they hear about defunding police forces,” Garriss said. “They see police stations being burned down, people’s personal businesses being interrupted. They’re just worried about their own security.”
George Weidner co-owns First Strike Munitions in Fredericksburg.
“Probably the biggest increase has been first-time buyers and women,” Weidner told Verify. “They’ve been coming in and looking for things to protect themselves, now realizing they can’t rely on other people to do it for them.”
Kathy and Jim Dodge live near Warrenton and now go to a shooting range on a weekly basis. Kathy just bought her first firearm. She says her interest in firearms grew when she learned about the movement to defund police.
“If response times go down, I just want to be able to take care of myself in my home if I need to,” Kathy Dodge said.
Dodge has been taking safety training classes.
A half dozen firearms instructors tell Verify they now have a record number of cases.
Kenneth Thornton runs classes at Maryland Small Arms Range, teaching a diverse clientele.
“A lot of my clients basically say the reason why they’re coming out is that they’re frightened,” Thornton said. “They’re scared. They believe that something is going to happen, that police won’t be able to get to their house in time, so they want to come out and be able to protect themselves and their families.”
Michael Bullock is one of Thornton’s students and just earned his concealed carry permit.
“Just all of the things that are going on in the world today, due to politics, due to the coronavirus going on, it’s just that security blanket within me,” Bullock said.
FBI stats do not explain how the heated 2020 presidential election may be a factor in the gun sale spike. But the data shows that since 2008, every presidential election year has seen a sizeable surge, at least 12 percent, in background checks for gun sales.
Whatever the reasons, we can verify we’re seeing a record number of gun sales in 2020, and it’s far from over.