Firearm Sales Appear To Be Falling Nationally
Parsing background check data to evaluate trends in gun sales.
Gun sales likely fell in 2023 according to data from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). 2023 marked the third straight annual decline after a major increase in gun sales in 2020.
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NICS provides monthly data from 1999 through December 2023 that allows for an assessment of national gun sales. A background check being run in NICS does not inherently mean that a firearm was purchased, so to calculate gun sales one can use a relatively easy methodology that I took from Brady:
Brady calculates gun sales estimates by adding together the number of checks listed under “handgun,” “long gun,” “multiple-gun,” and “other.” The number of “multiple-gun” checks is multiplied by two in the calculation, as each “multiple-gun” check represents at least two impending firearm purchases. This methodology excludes additional categories, including “permit,” “permit recheck,” and “pawn shop redemption.”
It'snot perfect, but it’s the best we can do (which is basically this blog's motto). Using this methodology suggests there were a little over 15 million gun sales in the U.S. in 2023. That’s about 4 percent lower than in 2022 and 27 percent lower than in 2020 (though still 2.5 million more than in 2019).
The FBI’s data is available monthly which highlights numerous instances of reactionary surges in gun sales. There was a big increase in December 2012 following Sandy Hook, an increase in late 2015 into 2016 which loosely corresponds with the 2016 presidential campaign, and an enormous surge starting in early 2020 with the onset of the pandemic.
Gun sales rose in every US state between 2019 and 2020 (not including Hawaii which data doesn’t appear to be organized the same as everywhere else as it comes up with 0 gun sales each year) per this methodology, and there were only two states where gun sales were higher in 2023 than in 2020. The below graph shows the change in gun sales from 2019 to 2020 in every state along the horizontal axis (that’s Texas way off in the bottom right) vs the change in gun sales from 2020 to 2023 in each state along the vertical access.
The increasing gun sales in Iowa and North Carolina can be clearly tied to legal changes which allow people to carry firearms without a permit. The change in North Carolina came about after a legislative change at the end of March 2023 and is clearly visible in the below rolling graph.
The Iowa surge came in mid-2021 and, while gun sales dipped from 2022 to 2023, they were still considerably higher last year than in 2020.
It’s hard to say what the long term trend will be given how reactionary gun sales have been to external events. That said, gun sales are clearly declining and the FBI’s NICS data is an interesting source providing a unique look at an important issue.