Record Gun Sales and Diverse Ownership Mean Rocky Prospects for Restrictions

New gun owners are unlikely to embrace disarmament schemes from a government they distrust.


Joe Biden will enter the White House this month at the head of a political party that in recent years has been overtly hostile to self-defense rights, even to the point of advocating impossible-to-enforce bans on popular firearms. But the opportunity has passed for the restrictions he peddles as "common sense reforms." In an era of political instability and distrust in government, Americans of varying political beliefs are purchasing guns in record numbers. And those millions of new weapons and their owners are bound to remain beyond the reach of politicians' wish lists of restrictive laws.

Nine of the ten busiest weeks ever for the FBI-administered National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)—which performs background checks for most firearms purchases from licensed dealers—occurred in 2020. While background checks don't directly correspond to gun sales since they can be used for other purposes or for multiple simultaneous purchases, they're an important indicator. The year ended with a total of 39.7 million background checks, the highest annual count recorded.

The "why" of the surge in firearms purchases is no secret in a year that seems drawn from the plot of an apocalyptic novel. January of 2020 opened with a politically polarized population and the news that "nearly six in ten Americans agree that there will be protests or rioting in the United States over the next year in response to how the country is being run," according to Ipsos pollsters. They were right, though for unpredictable reasons.

Chaos got a boost when the COVID-19 pandemic dropped by for a visit in late winter, prompting prosperity-killing lockdowns and protests against the same. Many people were furious at the federal government's conduct and/or their state governments' policies.

With people already tense and at each other's throats, police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other black Americans sparked demonstrations and riots against law enforcement abuses. In some cases, police were overwhelmed and told members of the public they would have to defend themselves. Along the way, many Americans lost faith in law enforcement officers. "Confidence in the police fell five points to 48%, marking the first time in the 27-year trend that this reading is below the majority level," Gallup noted.

The cops' ultimate bosses aren't too popular, either. "For years, public trust in the federal government has hovered at near-record lows," Pew Research found. "That remains the case today, as the United States struggles with a pandemic and economic recession."

So, Americans bought guns. And they weren't just adding to existing collections—many are new owners.

"Retailers reported an increased number of first-time gun buyers, estimating that 40 percent of their sales were to this group," announced the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a trade organization, in June. "This is an increase of 67 percent over the annual average of 24-percent first-time gun buyers that retailers have reported in the past."

In recent years, whites and Republicans have been far more likely than minorities and Democrats to report owning guns, but many of the new owners come from different backgrounds than the traditional stereotype. "The highest overall firearm sales increase comes from Black men and women who show a 58.2 percent increase in purchases during the first six months of 2020 versus the same period last year," noted the NSSF.

"First-time gun buyers favor Biden over Trump," the Dallas Morning News reported of pre-election Texas survey results. "In fact, 51% of first-time purchasers surveyed favored Biden, while 43% favored Trump."

As you might expect, this complicates matters for Democrats who have long used gun restrictions as an easy way to bash political enemies while doing minimal harm to their own constituents. With gun ownership becoming a nonpartisan taste, restrictive laws threaten to inconvenience and anger supporters as much as opponents.

Sure enough, "Americans' appetite for gun control is the lowest it has been since 2016," according to Gallup. And while a large majority of Democrats still favor tighter restrictions, support has declined even in that group by five points. New gun owners, along with long-time shooters, are likely to respond to stricter gun laws with prickly defiance.

"Previous studies have proposed two sides of gun culture: one focused on recreational use and a second on self-defense. But the new BU study identifies a third mentality, made up of people who view the defense of the Second Amendment as necessary to freedom in the United States," Boston University (BU) announced last summer. "This so-called 'gun culture 3.0' has increased the most in states that have strengthened their gun laws to the greatest degree, suggesting it may be triggered by perceived threats on individual liberty by the government."

In states with secure gun rights, owners tend to be non-political and dedicated to recreation and self-defense, the study found. But restrictive laws prompt people to become resistant and to view their firearms as hedges against the state.

"The result is a few million people who are convinced that any genuine firearm violence prevention effort is the first step in a scheme to take away all of their rights and disenfranchise them," groused Claire Boine, one of the BU researchers.

We saw the results just a few years ago in terms of massive noncompliance with "assault weapon" registration laws in Connecticut and New York. "Empire State gun owners are largely ignoring one of the signature elements of the watershed legislation," the New York Daily News observed in 2015.

At the national level, if Biden blows the dust off the various proposals for bans, registration requirements, and other restrictions advocated by his party, he's going to infuriate a great many Americans who view firearms as protection against threats to their liberty. That's not new of course—prohibitions have always provoked anger and resistance. This time, however, many of the alienated gun owners scoffing at the law would be voters on whom the new president and his allies rely.

Government fell on its face in 2020 and left many Americans to arm themselves for self-protection amidst political turmoil and failing institutions. With a record number of guns in the hands of an increasingly diverse cross-section of the population, gun control just isn't a serious policy proposal.