Demand for firearms skyrocketed in 2020 in Massachusetts and across the country as the pandemic, coupled with racial equity protests and a divisive presidential election, drove people to buy guns, many for the first time.
The FBI collects and releases monthly data on firearm background checks, a figure commonly used to estimate gun sales. In Massachusetts, the number of checks jumped nearly 24 percent to 262,583 in 2020, after remaining relatively consistent for a couple of years.
Background checks in the state first spiked in March, with more than 23,500 that month, the highest figure in seven years, mirroring national trends as the pandemic set in. (A steep drop in background checks in April reflected Governor Charlie Baker’s order for all nonessential businesses to close in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus.)
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group in Connecticut, found that there were 2.3 million background checks nationally for firearms in March.
“That is by far the strongest number we have ever seen,” said Mark Oliva, the group’s public affairs director. “What we saw in March was pandemic shutdowns and orders to stay home, and people became concerned for their safety.”
The foundation’s data exclude some federal data, Oliva said, but the trends remained the same throughout the year: Each month continued to see unprecedented numbers. From April to the end of the year, each month averaged 1.5 million to 1.9 million background checks, he said.
“The increase wasn’t isolated to ‘gun states’ like Texas — we saw spikes in every state,” Oliva said.
He added that the sustained high numbers exceeded what would be expected during typical times of heightened purchasing, such as the holiday season or a presidential election. Last year overall saw 21 million background checks in the United States, topping the previous record of 15.7 million in 2016, according to the foundation’s data.
John Tirman, executive director of MIT’s Center for International Studies, said he believes US gun sales were up in 2020 due to a “general instability of society.”
“It does relate to the election, and Trump, and the possibility that Biden could try to enact gun control, but I think it is a more general anxiety,” he said.
Google data show that searches in the United States with the phrase “gun shops near me” spiked at the start of the pandemic and again after the death of George Floyd in May. And they are on the rise since the violent attack on the US Capitol last week.
Dominic Hannoush, who owns Armor Bearer Sports in Springfield, estimated that gun sales at his store more than tripled in 2020, with high interest from those who “were not interested in firearms, or who were against buying firearms in the past.”
Oliva said 40 percent of gun purchases last year came from first-time gun owners. The number of Black people buying guns jumped nearly 60 percent from the year before, and the number of women purchasing guns nearly doubled, according to National Shooting Sports Foundation data.
At Pete’s Gun & Tackle in Hudson, N.H. — which sells to a lot of Massachusetts residents, since it is a few miles from the border — owner Michael Goyette said sales have been “straight out” since mid-March. He said his shop, like others, has been receiving limited amounts of product from backed-up distributors, which have not been able to place regular orders with manufacturers slowed down by supply chain shortages and COVID-19 restrictions.
“As fast as everything comes in, it goes right back out,” he said. “I am averaging about 40 to 50 guns a week.”
Some distributors are doing “boomerang shipments,” Oliva said, meaning that stock from manufacturers comes in one door, gets scanned into the inventory, and is shipped out to retailers the same day. “That product is never hitting the shelf,” he said.
Oliva said it’s too early to tell if the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 has led to a further surge in gun sales nationally. The gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson Brands Inc., of Springfield, saw its stock price jump that day, closing nearly 16 percent higher than the day before and reaching the highest price in six months.
Gun shops say they were slammed anyway, so there was not much change following the riot.
“If I could get the products I normally get, I probably would have seen a surge, but I can’t sell more than what I have,” Goyette said.