The number of background checks on gun transactions completed by the FBI sharply declined last month, an indication that a prolonged surge in firearms sales could finally be slowing down.
More than 2.1 million checks were reviewed in April by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Checks System, or NICS, according to an agency spokesperson. The figure represents a 16 percent drop from the 2.5 million checks performed in March. Since reaching a record high in December, the monthly number of completed background checks has plummeted 35 percent.
Despite the substantial drop in recent months, the number of checks performed remains high by historical standards. Last month was the busiest April on record, since NICS was established in 1998.
Background checks, which must be conducted at the point of sale by licensed dealers, and also for issuance of concealed weapon permits, offer the best available gauge of gun sales. But they are an imperfect metric: They do not include private transactions in 32 states, and they do not account for multiple firearms sold in a single transaction by a licensed dealer.
Gun sales and background checks often spike after mass shootings, and when the prospect of stricter gun laws stirs fears of legislation designed to reduce access to firearms. Background checks surged last year after high-profile shootings in South Carolina, Oregon, and California, and after ISIS gunmen killed scores of people in Paris.
In late November, the FBI announced that Black Friday surpassed a single-day background check record with 185,345 processed in a 24-hour period, or slightly more than two background checks every second. December broke the record for busiest-ever month, with more than 3.3 million checks processed.
Background check totals started to slow in 2016, leading some gun industry experts to question how long the streak could endure. In April, after the FBI released data showing that the number of checks was falling, three stock analysts downgraded Smith & Wesson, one of the country’s oldest and largest gunmakers. The announcement sent the company’s stock tumbling. As of May 3, the gun company’s share price had dipped 18 percent since the beginning of April.
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Shares of Sturm, Ruger & Company, the only other publicly traded American gunmaker, have slipped 3 percent in the same period.
Cowen Group, one of the firms that downgraded Smith & Wesson, compared the recent spike in gun purchases to the boom sparked by the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. Sales surged on fears of weapons bans and confiscation. After gun legislation died in Congress, sales cooled.
One analyst recently wrote in a research note that Smith & Wesson’s sales were in similar danger because they appeared to rely on “fears of potential recurring terrorist attacks,” along with the political fallout from such tragedies. Like the Sandy Hook shooting, the terrorist attacks and mass shootings of the past year were unpredictable events, and thus unsteady foundations for a company’s revenue.