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Gun sales hit all-time high amid flurry of mass shootings

Gun Fight, Part Two
CBS Reports presents "Reverb | Gun Fight, Part Two" 25:04

In 2020, a surge in gun sales to an all-time was widely attributed to nationwide anxiety due to the pandemic as well as social unrest following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. A year later, even with the U.S. making significant strides vaccinating people against COVID-19, gun retailers say firearms sales are on pace to surpass their peak at the height of the global health crisis. 

"We expect to sell more guns this April than any other April we've ever had," said Eric Wallace, who owns and manages Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna, Georgia. The 80,000-square-foot store, which opened in 1977, advertises itself as the nation's largest gun store.

One factor driving gun purchases now is the latest round of federal stimulus payments distributed to most Americans, Wallace said, noting that Adventure Outdoors saw a jump in sales in March after the government started sending out the third check. He also thinks a temporary shortage of firearms in 2020 forced some consumers to wait until this year to buy a gun.

Federal background check records and buoyant financial results at one of the nation's largest gun manufacturers supports retailer reports of a flourishing firearms trade.

Gun sales skyrocketed in 2020, and "Charleston loophole" let thousands go through without background checks 06:46

More recently, Wallace also said some customers have cited what they see as the possibility of new gun control rules following a rash of mass shootings this year as the reason to buy a weapon.

"Whenever you talk about taking things away, people want it more," he said.

21 million guns

The National Sport Shooting Foundation says that nearly 5.5 million guns were sold in U.S. in the first three months of 2021. That was up 13% from year-ago quarter. It's also the most guns sold in any three-month period since 1999, which is as far back as the FBI background check data cited by the NSSF goes. 

Should that pace continue, gun sales this year could slightly surpass 2020, when a record 21 million guns were sold in the U.S. That number is already more than double the number of gun purchases in this country two decades ago. In 2000, just under 8.5 million guns were sold in the U.S.

Smith & Wesson sold more than 600,000 guns and accessories in its late fiscal quarter, which ended with January. That was nearly double the same period a year before. Since the pandemic, shares of Smith & Wesson have more than doubled to nearly $18. In early 2020 the stock traded for just under $8.

Phillip Levine, an economist at Wellesley who has studied firearm purchases, said political uncertainty often spurs gun sales. Levin believes the widespread national discussion about the need for restrictions to limit gun access is likely again driving gun purchases this year, with the pandemic also acting as a tailwind.

"I don't think we are in an environment where gun sales are going to fall anytime soon," Levine said. 

FBI background checks reveal surge in gun sales 04:29

Gun shop manager Wallace said this year's biggest sellers are "concealed-carry handguns." Hunting rifle sales are up as well, although guns bought primarily for personal defense this year accounts for about 70% of his overall business, he said. 

"The conditions are different this year," said Mark Oliva, director of public affairs at the National Sport Shooting Foundation. "There are a lot of concerns about personal safety, but the talk of gun control in Congress is undeniably a factor that drives sales."

That's a concern for Levin, whose research suggests that accidental gun deaths tend to rise with gun sales. "Uncertainty adds to gun sales, and we are still in a period of great uncertainty."

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