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U.S. gun sales surge to record high in 2020

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With nearly two months still to go in 2020, sales of firearms have hit a new high in the U.S., already topping the prior record set in 2016, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The surge began when the novel coronavirus hit the country in March and spurred lockdowns nationwide. "Everybody went to the grocery stores first to stock up on food, then they went to the gun stores," Eric Wallace, owner and manager of Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna, Georgia, told CBS MoneyWatch on Tuesday. 

The holiday season is expected to lift gun sales even more. November and December are traditionally among the busiest months of the year for selling firearms, the industry trade group noted in an analysis based on data from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which are viewed as a proxy for sales. 

The National Shooting Sports Foundation found that 17.2 million background checks were completed this year, versus 15.7 million in 2016, the previous high-water mark for gun sales. Firearm purchases have climbed every month since March, and more than 1.7 million background checks were conducted in October alone, a roughly 60% jump over the same period in 2019.

The trade group in August noted that nearly 5 million Americans bought a firearm for the first time in 2020, pointing to factors including the pandemic and nationwide protests against police brutality that at times included violence and looting. 

"Politically-charged calls to defund police also continue to spur sales," stated the foundation, which also pointed out that firearm sales typically climb during presidential election years. 

"We saw a little bit of a slowdown in April and May, but it's been crazy every month since," retailer Wallace said. "It's mostly the civil unrest and the talk on the news about defunding the police — people have decided they need to take action to protect themselves, their families and their homes." 

Between 40% and 50% of the store's sales this year have been to first-time gun buyers, he added. The presidential election "hasn't really been a topic, but we know Biden would push for gun control," Wallace said.

Joe Biden has proposed tightening gun rules, including banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines; requiring background checks for all firearm sales, including online and at gun shows; and restricting how many guns Americans may buy to one per month.

A boost for gunmakers

Firearm sales had tumbled in the past few years, in part because of reduced concerns about stricter gun regulation under President Donald Trump. A rash of mass shootings around the country also has driven some large companies and retailers to stop doing business with the gun industry.

The increase demand for firearms could also be seen in Sturm Ruger & Co.'s latest earnings report, which showed sales jumped to nearly $146 million in the third quarter, up 53% from $95 million in the year-ago period. The gun manufacturer tallied $400 million in sales for the first nine months of the year, up sharply from $305 million for the same period last year.

In a call with analysts last week, Sturm Ruger CEO Christopher Killoy attributed the sales spurt to calls by some for reduced funding of law enforcement, civil unrest and "concerns about personal protection and home defense, stemming from the continuing COVID-19 pandemic."

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