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38 Million Background Checks: Gun Sales Were Near Record Highs in 2021

Gun Sales
Glock 19X. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

2021 Had the Second Highest Gun Sales on Record: Last year saw the second-highest number of firearms background checks conducted in the United States. There were a total of 38,876,673 firearm-related background checks conducted in 2021 according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS),  the second highest on record – down from the 39,696,315 conducted in 2020.

2021’s total checks were still up significantly from the 28,695,750 completed in 2019. Even pre-pandemic, the number has steadily risen – and 2014 remains the only other year to see a year-over-year decline.

How the NICS Works

The NICS is used when an individual attempts to buy a firearm from a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL), who must conduct the check via phone or electronically. The prospective buyer fills out an ATF form, which is relayed by the FFL to the NICS. That background check verifies the buyer does not have a criminal record or isn’t otherwise ineligible to purchase or own a firearm. Since launching in 1998, more than 300 million checks have been done, leading to more than 1.5 million denials.

NICS is customarily available by phone 17 hours a day, seven days a week, including all major holidays except for Christmas. All of the calls may be monitored and recorded for any authorized purpose. In addition, the NICS E-Check is available 24/7.

A common misconception however is that it is available to all U.S. FFLs. That isn’t true. The FBI’s NICS provides full service to the FFLs in 30 states and five U.S. territories, as well as the District of Columbia. In addition, the NICS provides partial service to seven states, while the remaining 13 states perform their own checks through the NICS.

Not All Gun Sales

While NICS is often used to determine firearms sales, the checks are not a “one-for-one” statistic. While many consider NICS to be a relatively accurate gun-sales barometer, there are several issues. First, NICS fails to reflect private transfers in many areas of the country, while some states do not require holders of valid concealed carry permits – who have already undergone an extensive background check and have it verified periodically – to undergo the redundant process to make a firearm purchase. Thus they would not be counted.

In addition, the FBI NICS volume is further clouded by including background checks for permit applications, renewals, routine verifications and other administrative duties.

Determining the Actual Gun Sales for 2021

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the firearms industry trade group, adjusted sales figures for 2021were 18,515,188. As with total background checks, 2021 was the second-highest year on record, and only 2020’s figure of 21.1 million was higher – a 59.7 percent increase over the 2019 annual total of 13.2 million.

“The fact that over 18.5 million Americans chose lawfully purchase a firearm in 2021 is indicative the value Americans hold of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” Mark Oliva, NSSF spokesperson and director of public affairs, said via a statement earlier this month. “The year 2021 was the second-highest year for background checks for gun sales, behind on the 2020’s record of over 21 million background checks for a gun sale.”

The sales for 2021 may have been higher than the NSSF’s estimates.

The firearms consumer research firm Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting (SAAF), which used a slightly differing methodology, said the total came in closer to 20 million. The analyst firm also estimated 2020 numbers were somewhere around 21 million and 23 million, respectively.

“The estimated U.S. firearms unit sales for calendar year 2021 held up better than might have been expected at the beginning of the year,” said SAAF Chief Economist Jurgen Brauer in a press release earlier this month. “Whereas 2020 saw many industries’ output lifted in dramatic ways – not just the firearms industry’s output – unit sales for many of those industries have fallen farther back to more conventional sales levels than have the unit sales of the U.S. firearms industry, which instead has experienced only a fairly minor downward unit sales adjustment of 12.5 percent.”

Yet, no matter how the numbers are crunched, it seems that a whole lot of firearms were bought by Americans in 2020 and 2021.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.