As COVID fears and racial tensions rise, so do gun sales—but why?

| Academic & Student Affairs, COPH Home Page Feed, COPH Office of Research, Featured News, Monday Letter, Offices, Our Research

According to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is run by the FBI, background checks on people looking to buy firearms in July numbered 3,639,224. That’s in contrast to the 2,030,661 checks performed in July 2019.

“Background checks are highly correlated with gun sales, but they’re not perfect,” said Dr. Karen Liller, a USF College of Public Health (COPH) professor and expert in injury prevention. “This is because there are gun sales that take place privately and through other means where no background checks are required (for example, on the internet), so the weapons aren’t counted. In addition, multiple firearms could be purchased with one check, so we would miss those guns as well. However, background checks provide us with a good estimate overall of guns sold. This proxy is used by many firearm researchers.”

Karen Liller, PhD, a COPH professor and injury-prevention expert. (Photo by Caitlin Keough)

While the NICS numbers are national, state statistics are just as sobering. 

According to Liller, in March of 2020, Florida saw a 92 percent increase in background checks compared to last year at the same time. This jump corresponds to COVID-19. Background checks continued to go up in April and May. In June, a month of heightened social unrest that followed the death of George Floyd and calls to defund the police, there was a nearly 174 percent increase in background checks, followed by a 127 percent increase in July. “Four of the top 10 months for background checks from 2004-2020 were in March, April, June and July of 2020,” commented Liller.

Americans are experiencing helplessness and uncertainty, and gun ownership is often seen as a way to feel safer and more in control. 

“In the case of COVID-19, people have great uncertainty about the virus and their lives on a day-to-day basis,” explained Liller. “There was concern that there would be shortages, the economy was falling off, law enforcement may be unavailable and home invasions might occur.  In the case of the rioting, people again wanted control and a way to potentially defend themselves. The number of gun sales (measured through background checks) also increases when political forces make changes, such as calling for more stringent gun laws or electing a candidate who is advocating for additional firearm laws. People fear guns will become less available, so they buy them to make up for any shortfall. Finally, gun sales go up after tragedies such as school shootings.”

Getty Images/iStock photo

But while gun ownership may give people a sense of security, it’s not without its perils. 

“Access to weapons is a very serious matter, and when guns increase, so do the risks,” said Liller. “Research has clearly shown that more guns in the home leads to increases in homicide, suicide and unintentional firearm injuries and deaths. A gun in the home is much more likely to be used by and/or against a family member or friend than an intruder.”

Gun safety is always an important issue, but as firearm sales climb, it should be front and center on everyone’s mind. 

“A firearm is a major responsibility, and to avoid tragedy it cannot be easily accessible and available, especially to young household members or those going through a difficult time,” emphasized Liller. “Guns should always be stored unloaded and locked away. And bullets should also be kept in a locked location, away from the gun. Most children know where guns are stored in the home, even if parents believe they do not. It’s important to remember that COVID-19 will pass and, hopefully, there will be a strong position AND actions taken against racism in our country. However, a gun in the home that leads to a tragedy is forever.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health