A few months ago, I talked with Jeffrey Hewitt, a 29-year-old construction worker from rural Harrison, Tennessee, about guns. Hewitt is married with a 5-year-old son and, when we spoke, was expecting another child.
Hewitt told me that he is a Democrat, that there isn’t much crime where he is from, that he doesn’t hunt and that he isn’t a gun-rights partisan. Yet in July, he bought his first firearm, a CZ P-09 automatic pistol with a 19-round magazine from a local pawn shop. The reason for the purchase, he said, was his growing anxiety — a feeling that the world around him had gotten more dangerous. Hewitt said he found last summer’s rampage shooting at two military facilities in nearby Chattanooga especially unnerving.
“With terrorism and people shooting cops,” he said, “it puts a lot more pressure on you if you don’t have a gun.”
Gun owners are not at all a monolithic group: people purchase firearms for all kinds of reasons. But as we reported in September, new research from Harvard and Northeastern Universities has found that for the first time, a majority of Americans now say they own firearms primarily to protect themselves from other people. The study also found that the quantity of guns in civilians’ hands had increased 36 percent to an estimated 265 million weapons over the past two decades. In the last few years, especially, a huge number of firearms have been sold.
Some have attributed the surge in gun purchases to an especially nasty presidential election campaign, and a concerted campaign by the National Rifle Association and other gun groups to convince voters that, had she been elected, Hillary Clinton would have drastically curtailed Second Amendment rights, leaving Americans vulnerable to crime. Many retailers predicted that a Trump victory would, in fact, put a serious dent in their business because gun enthusiasts would relax.
There is no uniform source of sales data, but background checks processed by the FBI are often used as a proxy. Those numbers indicate that firearm sales actually increased after the election.
Last month was the busiest November ever for NICS, the federal background check system, and the 19th such record-breaking month in a row. The day after Thanksgiving was the single busiest day for background checks ever. Small Arms Analytics, a research consultancy that analyzes the gun market, has forecast that 2016 will set a record for most gun sales in a single year at 17 million sold, up from the previous record of 15.6 million in 2013. And the guns that people are buying are mostly handguns, which aside from target practice, are really only good for one thing: self-defense. The fear that was propelling gun sales before the election, it seems, hasn’t dissipated at all.
”We had all these new buyers by the piles when Obama was first elected, but we thought that would be a fad that would crater,” said Johnny Dury, a Texas gun seller whose family has been in the firearms business since the 1950s. “We could never have predicted a new group of people would get into gun buying. They need one for home defense. And they need one for the purse. And one for the car.”
The Harvard and Northeastern researchers estimated that pistols and revolvers made up a majority of the 70 million new firearms added to the national weapons stock since 1994. The trend away from long guns has been especially pronounced over the last few years. As recently as 2013, the majority of firearms sold were long guns, according to Jurgen Brauer, an economist and one of the founders of Small Arms Analytics.
Are people who are buying guns because they are afraid of being attacked by another person acting rationally? There’s no question that there has been an uptick in rampage shootings, from the June 2015 Charleston church shooting to the Orlando nightclub attack a year later — the deadliest mass shooting ever in the United States.
While the national crime rate remains at historic lows, several major American cities, most prominently Chicago, have seen a surge in violent gun crime.
But the odds of falling victim to a terrorist or madman are incredibly small, and the overall violent crime rate in America is dramatically lower than it was two decades ago. Most of the country, including major metropolises like New York, is safer than at any time since at least the early 1960s.
That is not the story told by the gun lobby, which spent more than $50 million in an effort to get Republicans elected in 2016, money spent largely on ads that emphasize the risks that people will be attacked.
How Handguns Became the Good Guy’s Gun of Choice
Manufacturers have also catered to this fear by releasing more so-called carry guns, pistols designed for customers with concealed weapons permits who want to protect themselves with lethal force as they walk around in public. Smith & Wesson, the Massachusetts-based gun manufacturer which had a banner year in 2015, launched a new model in its popular M&P series of compact pistols that can be holstered snugly under a waistband. The latest M&P is designed to shoot .45-caliber rounds, among the largest common handgun bullets, while still fitting comfortably beneath clothes. It’s designed for people who imagine, fear, or fantasize that they might have to step up and take out an assailant any time, any place. “The reality of protection is that you never know when you’ll need it,” a product page reads.
The gun industry at large has followed the trend toward firearms that balance concealability with maximum possible firepower, as The Trace reported in early December. Semiautomatic pistols that shoot 9mm or larger bullets have become the backbone of the market: manufacturers made 1.4 million 9mm pistols in 2015, up from approximately 350,000 in 1990, and more than 765,000 pistols that shoot rounds between .40- and .50-caliber, compared to slightly over 200,000 such pistols in 1990.
There’s growing demand for these kinds of guns, and not just among the law-abiding gun owners portrayed as the face of concealed carry. Data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms show that police are recovering increasing numbers of higher-caliber handguns at crime scenes, while the pace at which they encounter smaller-caliber handguns or revolvers has slowed. What criminals want is “not significantly different from what the average gun owner interested wants,” according to David Hureau, a criminologist at SUNY-Albany, who has interviewed people seeking guns on the black market. Like the majority of gun owners interviewed in the Harvard/Northeastern survey, Hureau’s research subjects choose to carry guns because “they’re fundamentally engaged in self-protection.”
There’s another factor that experts say may be fueling the latest gun boom. With the encouragement of the NRA, politicians have given official sanction to the use of lethal self defense by rolling back restrictions on who can carry concealed guns in public, and where those weapons are allowed. Tennessee relaxed restrictions for guns on college campuses this year; Missouri and Mississippi lifted the permitting requirement for concealed carry. Just this week, Governor John Kasich of Ohio signed a bill that prevents businesses from banning their workers from stashing guns in their cars in employee parking lots and will require daycare centers in the state to post no-guns-allowed signs if they don’t want weapons in their facilities.
Many police officials oppose these kinds of measures, not least because as guns grow more common in public or are more often left in cars, they become easier targets for thieves. As The Trace reported earlier this year, such thefts are on the rise, supplying the criminal market with more weapons.
As Hureau, the criminologist, told me earlier this year, “bigger, badder guns are just more available on the secondary market.”
That trend doesn’t seem to concern gun owners like Jeffrey Hewitt.
“You have a duty to protect your family, protect your home,” he said.