Gun Background Checks Hit All-Time High in March, FBI Reports

Gun store
A cyclist rides past the Martin B. Retting, Inc. guns store as the coronavirus pandemic continues on March 24, 2020, in Culver City, California. In California many gun dealers have stopped answering the phones out of an inability to service the massive influx of new customers. Mario Tama/Getty

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted more background checks in March than it has ever before, processing around 3.7 million of these requests from federally licensed firearm dealers.

Since the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was put online in 1998, the FBI, which administers the database, had not performed more than 3.3 million background checks in a single month, until March. Last month marks a 13 percent increase over that previous record, which was set in December 2015.

February was the fourth-highest month for background checks, which are conducted during firearms transactions and are seen as a proxy for gun sales. March represents a 33 percent surge compared to February.

An assortment of fears stemming from the spread of the novel coronavirus are universally indicated as the driving force behind the March numbers. Concerns about social unrest, racist attacks, looting and a scarcity of resources have all been cited by industry insiders and customers.

These fears have translated into quantifiable gains for retailers. The website Ammo.com, which sells ammunition, reported that its revenue has increased 792 percent during the 39-day period ending on Tuesday when compared to the same period ending on February 22.

Certain hot-spot states are helping to account for the sudden, upward swing in background checks. In California, for example, many gun dealers have stopped answering the phones out of an inability to service the massive influx of new customers.

At Burbank Ammo & Guns, a dealer outside of Los Angeles, employees have had to stop answering online queries, and the store's phones ring on end until calls are automatically disconnected.

"We're working seven days a week, 12 hours a day, just to keep up with the public at the door," David Schwartz, the store's owner, told Newsweek.

California represents an extraordinary share of the month-to-month upswing in background checks. In the state, 72 percent more background checks were conducted in March than in February, towering above the nationwide average of 33 percent.

Notable is the proportion of purchases by first-time gun owners. Ryan Staehle, the manager at Shoot Wise outside of New Orleans, previously told Newsweek that around 70 percent of his recent customers "are first-time gun owners, which has never happened like this before."

Reports have indicated that demographic groups once thought unlikely to seek out firearms are helping to drive the unprecedented surge. Asian Americans, for example, who have been unfairly targeted due to racist stereotypes about the novel coronavirus, are among the minority groups stocking up.

"It's not just the good old white boys from the back row buying guns," Schwartz observed. "It's anybody and everybody. As diverse as I've ever seen it, which means something to me."

Five separate days in March now occupy half of the top-10 individual days for background checks in the history of NICS. Over 210,000 background checks were conducted on Friday, March 20, 2020, more than on any other day before.

Other March hot-spots include Florida, which recorded a month-to-month increase in background checks of 65 percent, and Texas, which recorded a 92 percent increase.

"This is overwhelming evidence that Americans value their ability to take responsibility for their own safety in times of uncertainty," Mark Oliva, a spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group, said in a statement. "The figures are simply eye-popping."