Background Checks Vs. Gun Sales: 2019 Data Spiked, But Sales Likely Only Made Modest Gains

Jan 13, 2020
Originally published on January 8, 2020 1:45 pm

We often look to the number of firearm background checks to estimate gun sales in the U.S. And new data shows that number jumped in 2019. But the real story behind those numbers is more complicated.

Every time someone buys a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer their name is run through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

And according to the FBI’s data, 2019 could be a record year for the number of those checks.

But the uptick in background checks wasn’t just based on sales: States are now running more background checks for things like concealed weapons permits, according to Jurgen Brauer.

Brauer is the founder of Small Arms Analytics, which tracks the gun industry.

“Kentucky for instance, checks about 380,000 permit holders,” he said. “It does not mean that every one of these [permit holders], every month, goes out to buy a new firearm.”

There were approximately 28 million checks run through the federal system in 2019. That’s roughly 2 million more than in 2018.

But Brauer says the actual jump in gun sales is closer to 100,000 guns, a much smaller gain. Analysts, he says, are having to adjust their methods as the gap between background checks and actual sales increases.

“The FBI numbers are inflated and need to be deflated essentially to estimate the approximate number of actual sales,” he said.

Nonetheless, Brauer says the 2019 background check total reflect an upward trend analysis have noted in recent years, following a slump in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election.

And Brauer says sales are likely to increase as we get closer to the 2020 presidential election, when gun owners are likely to be more concerned about the potential for a different administration and new gun regulations.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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