Gun Sales Boom: Near-Record Number of Background Checks Conducted in 2021 – According to newly released Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) data, there were 38.9 million background checks conducted in 2021 – down from the record high of 39.7 million in 2020. It was also the second-highest number of checks conducted since the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was launched in 1998. Through the end of last year, there had been 411.6 million checks conducted in total, which is 20 percent greater than the current United States population.
That would closely align with 2018 data from the Small Arms Survey, which put U.S. gun ownership at 393 million – roughly 46 percent of the global total of firearms owned by civilians. It should be noted too that the data doesn’t include guns sold before 1998 or guns bought illegally.
Every year since 1999 except for 2021, there has been an increase in the number of background checks conducted, and annual sales of firearms had first topped 25 million in 2016.
Total 2021 Gun Sales
The NICS data is not the same as total gun sales, however, but the data can be used to determine overall sales.
According to Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting (SAAF) estimates, in December 2021 U.S. firearms unit sales were slightly above 1.9 million. That was actually a year-over-year decrease of 6.1 percent relative to December 2020. However, the election of President Joe Biden likely played a hand in the record sales last fall, and even into the first half of this year.
SAAF estimated that unit sales for all of 2021 reached nearly 20 million units (about 6,000 firearms per 100,000 people), a decline of 12.5 percent relative to the calendar year 2020. However, as the analyst firm noted, it was a fairly modest fall when compared to the 63.9 percent increase seen from 2019 to 2020.
SAAF’s firearms unit sales estimates are based on raw data taken from the NICS, adjusted for checks unlikely to be related to end-user firearms sales. SAAF makes certain adjustments to the FBI’s raw data based on retailer reports and other information. Even with that considered, SAAF adjusted NICS numbers could still underestimate the actual unit sales level by some amount.
According to SAAF Chief Economist Jurgen Brauer, “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. 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.”
The increase in gun sales in 2020 was driven by a number of factors including the pandemic, the wave of violent protests that occurred over the summer of that year, and the election of Biden. Sales remained strong during the first half of 2021 when Biden pushed a strong gun control agenda. Sales began to dip in the late spring – but have still outpaced 2019’s sales and every year prior.
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 Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.