Background checks for gun purchases in Texas rose during the weeks after the mass shooting in Uvalde that left 19 children and two teachers dead, according to the latest count from the federal government. It wasn’t the largest jump in background checks so far this year, but it’s part of a pattern that has followed most of the mass shootings for more than a decade.
Background checks for gun purchases rose an average of almost 10 percent following the El Paso, Santa Fe, and Sutherland Springs mass shootings. But those events and their aftermath only provided a snapshot of the full, complicated picture of Texans’ relationship with guns and gun violence.
More guns were purchased in Texas during the pandemic than at almost any time so far this century, but the rate of ownership has been declining for years because Texas’ population growth is outpacing the increase in gun purchases.
When it comes to gun violence, mass shootings are only part of the problem. Thousands of Texans die every year from gun-related deaths not tied to those events.
Gun sales fluctuate; ownership rate is dropping
Because Texas is the second-most populous state and has relatively lax gun laws, more guns are purchased there than in any other state. The FBI reported that Texans purchased 150,464 guns in June, which started a week after the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. The purchases in June represent a 17 percent increase compared to May and a 2 percent increase compared to the same time period last year.
Texans purchased more than 1.6 million guns in 2021, which equals one gun for every 14 adults in the state.
But the trend has not always been upward. Last April, gun sales were down 23 percent compared to the same month the year before. The rate of gun ownership is also dropping as the population grows. The proportion of adults living in a household with a firearm has been dropping since 1980, according to a RAND Corporation analysis. So while Texans bought more guns in 2020 than at any other time in the last two decades, there was a smaller share of households with firearms.
But not everyone agrees with RAND's analysis. William English, a political economist at Georgetown University who conducted his own survey about American gun ownership in 2021, said RAND’s study likely overestimated ownership rates in some cases. He tried to correct that by asking approximately 54,000 American adults if they owned a gun, rather than if they lived in a household with a gun. Still, his findings for Texas were similar: Texas falls in the middle of the pack nationally, with 36 percent of individuals owning guns.
Mark Oliva, managing director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said gun surveys are often imperfect measures because gun owners can be wary of sharing personal information for fear it could be used against them someday.
Even background checks performed by federally licensed gun dealers don’t fully capture the breadth of gun ownership in America, Oliva said. This is because people with active concealed-carry permits don’t have to get a background check and because people can purchase multiple firearms at a time.
“I could go into the gun store today; I could buy two guns, it's going to be one background check because they're checking me, of course, not the gun,” Oliva said.
In addition, an estimated 47,000 guns are stolen each year in Texas alone, which is likely an undercount, said Silvia Villarreal, director of research translation for the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University. And many private gun sales don’t require background checks.
“There's a lot of data missing,” she said.
Measuring ownership is tricky, but there are snapshots
From 1980 to 2016, 46 percent of Texans, on average, had a firearm in their household; this ranked Texas in the middle of the pack, according to RAND’s analysis. Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska were the top three states, followed closely by a handful of Southern states. Oregon and Vermont also ranked significantly higher than Texas. Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Massachusetts ranked the lowest.
More recent data has not been made available.
This pattern holds true when looking at a more narrow time span, as well. From 2007 to 2016, Texas ranked 32nd compared to other states, with 37 percent of residents living in households with a gun.
The Tribune analyzed the Texas Department of Public Safety’s permit records from fiscal years 2016-21, which ended before the permitless carry law went into effect. But the agency doesn't have data on gun owners by ethnicity, which would help determine how many Hispanic people in the state own firearms. In Texas, 39 percent of residents are Hispanic.
The agency does collect data on race, and it revealed a recent uptick in permits for Black Texans. Permits more than doubled between fiscal years 2019 and 2021, in the midst of the pandemic and the protests following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Oliva said his organization also noticed a rise in gun ownership among Black Americans during that time.
But research suggests that demographic trends among new gun owners were already shifting before the pandemic — that they were “already considerably less likely to be White and male and were younger than other gun owners,” according to a study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine last February.
And Jesenia Pizarro, a criminology researcher at Arizona State University, said surveys conducted earlier in the pandemic showed Americans’ top reason for purchasing a firearm during that time was for self-protection. That was true “regardless of race,” she said.
Still, concrete information about gun ownership is hard to come by, including at the federal level since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped asking about firearm ownership in its annual survey in 2004. The CDC began asking the question again in 2021.
Because of the lack of data, the analytics firm L2 has gathered gun permits, where available, plus hunting and fishing licenses and marketing data like gun and hunting magazine subscriptions to try to gauge the number of likely gun owners in a given area. L2 said that the magazine subscriptions were used to make up for the lack of gun-ownership data available in Texas — something RAND also did as part of its analysis.
Even surveys, like those collected by the Pew Research Center, have their limitations.
Data on firearm deaths from the CDC illustrates how guns have impacted public health in Texas over the last two decades. Between 2000 and 2020, Black Texans were significantly more likely to die from firearm homicide compared to other racial groups.
Pizarro said this follows a national pattern of gun deaths disproportionately affecting people of color, with Black men particularly at risk.
“The number one cause of death for African-American males … between the ages of 15 and 34, would be a homicide, and it would involve a firearm,” she said.
White Texans, however, are far more likely to die by suicide involving a firearm than other racial groups.
Pizarro said firearm homicides in Texas are more common in urban areas, which have a larger percentage of people of color, while suicides involving firearms are more common in rural areas that are often predominately white.
Regardless of the location, though, she said the risk of gun death rises with the number of firearms.
“What the research tells us is that places with more firearms are going to also have more firearm casualties,” Pizarro said.
Villarreal agreed: “Those two combined are just a danger to public health.”
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She also said there’s a correlation between states with weaker gun restrictions and higher levels of gun deaths, as well as higher levels of trafficking of stolen guns from licensed dealers within Texas and to other states. From 2015 to 2020, law enforcement recovered more stolen guns after crimes in Texas than in any other state.
But compared to its population, Texas actually falls in the middle when looking at the number of recovered stolen guns used in crimes. The District of Columbia ranked highest during that six-year time period, with Nevada, Tennessee, and Alabama coming next. Texas ranked 21st, with an average of 0.79 recovered weapons for every 100,000 people.
Still, Villarreal stressed that the solution to the problem is tightening gun regulations in places where they’re lax, including: licensing requirements; minimum-age requirements for purchasing guns; and safe-storage requirements, which means storing firearms unloaded, locked up, and separated from ammunition.
“We are not trying to ban guns,” Villarreal said. “We just want to create and propose solutions for policymakers to make gun ownership safe.”
The Trace's Chip Brownlee contributed reporting to this story.
Aidan Gomez, a student from Boston University’s Justice Media Computational Journalism co-Lab, a collaboration between the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences’ SPARK! Program and the College of Communications, helped with data collection for this story.