Conventional wisdom and gun company earnings statements have long held that nothing juices firearm sales quite like the fear of new gun laws that follows mass shootings. But new federal data shows that last year, fear-based buying appears to have fizzled out.
Gun sales tumbled for the second year in a row in 2018, according to an analysis of background check totals by Jurgen Brauer, an economist at Augusta University whose consulting firm, Small Arms Analytics, monitors gun transfers. That’s despite one of the highest-profile mass shootings in American history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, as well as sustained gun control activism, and electoral victories by Democrats who almost uniformly promised to pursue stronger gun laws.
In past years, similar factors have bumped firearm sales to record highs. But last year, shootings and demands for gun control failed to arrest what has been called the gun industry’s “Trump slump.”
Americans bought an estimated 13.8 million firearms in 2018, according to Brauer. That’s still historically strong: in only five of the last 20 years have American bought more guns than they did the previous year. But the 2018 total is down from an all-time high of 16.6 million guns sold in 2016 and 14.7 million in 2017. Few observers were surprised when sales fell during the first year of the Trump administration: With pro-gun Republicans at the height of their power at both the federal and state level, the gun-buying public had reason to believe the president and Congress would block new firearm laws, even after the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs massacres.
The political ground shifted significantly last year, but 2018 still saw the lowest gun sales since 2014.
Brauer produced his estimate by looking at the total number of background checks completed by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check Sysytem, and then removing checks for purposes other than actual sales, like those for concealed carry permits.
Gun sales have reliably spiked when mass shootings lead to calls for gun control and electoral victories by pro-gun control Democrats. It’s not surprising, then, that sales reached an all-time high in 2016. That year began shortly after the San Bernardino mass shooting and saw what was then the worst-ever mass shooting in Orlando. It was also dominated by a presidential election that most political experts thought would be won by ardently pro-gun control Hillary Clinton. Gun buyers not only saw historic mass shootings, they had reason to expect the election would inaugurate the first federal gun control agenda in nearly 25 years.
Parkland, the March for Our Lives, and the Blue Wave may not have prompted a run on guns because the political energy didn’t immediately result in new policies, said Brauer. “There is no particular fear among the firearms purchasing public of significant legislation being passed at the federal level” since Republicans still control the White House and the Senate, Brauer explained.
Now that a new class of Democrats has been sworn in and state legislative sessions begun, new gun laws may be passed around the country. Indeed, in New York, where Democrats swept aside the last vestiges of Republican power, the Legislature passed six new gun laws in a single day. As the time approaches when these new statutes come into effect, gun buyers may rush to stock up once again.