On March 13, 2020, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Three days later, gun sales in the United States peaked at approximately 176,000, according to an analysis of data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a commonly used measure of gun sales.
Gun sales were so robust in the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic that total sales for March 2020 (6.95 per 1,000 people in the U.S.) exceeded the previous record month, set in December 2012 following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. That event amplified existing concerns that newly reelected President Barack Obama would seek strong gun control laws, including an “assault weapons” ban. With gun sales in April and May 2020 also exceeding the previous year’s figures, it was clear that COVID-19 had supplanted Obama as the “Greatest Gun Salesman” in U.S. history.
As it turns out, this was just the beginning of a gun-buying spree that spiked again in the summer, after the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the sometimes-violent protests that followed. Although not as high as March’s record, gun sales in June again exceeded 2 million.
Fueled by the ongoing pandemic, protests for racial justice and a contentious presidential election campaign, gun sales remained high through the end of 2020. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the primary firearms industry trade group in the U.S., there were 60% more background checks for firearms sales in 2020 than in 2019.
The NSSF also estimated that 40% of all gun purchasers in 2020 did not currently own guns. Although I suspect this proportion is too high, my sources in the gun community offer considerable anecdotal evidence that a significant number of recent buyers were new gun owners. Many no doubt will find this news shocking and appalling. But I can relate to those who reacted to feelings of personal and family insecurity by making a trip to their local gun store. I traveled that road myself when I bought my first gun 10 years ago this week.
Growing up in the blue bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area and spending my entire professional career in academia, I did not see, touch or fire a gun for the first 42 years of my life. But a harrowing encounter with my drug-addicted apartment neighbor and her boyfriend/dealer opened my eyes to the possibility of violence and the need to protect myself and, more significantly, my children.
To be clear, I did not immediately drive from the experience with my neighbor to ProShots Range or Morris Firearms to buy a gun. Doing so was not yet within the realm of possibility for me. But my desire for personal and family security played a major role in changing me from a right-thinking progressive who had no use for guns into an armed American.
As a sociologist, I know that my decision to buy and carry a gun was not made in a vacuum. What might be seen as a unique personal experience of getting into guns was actually my getting into a broader movement within gun culture. It was facilitated by living in a particular historical and social context, which I have since been trying to understand. This decadelong personal and scholarly immersion in American gun culture allows me to see how clearly the Great Gun-Buying Spree of 2020 reflects ongoing trends.
My research shows that personal protection has supplanted hunting and recreational shooting as the core of American gun culture. To borrow terms from gun writer Michael Bane, we see an evolution from Gun Culture 1.0 to Gun Culture 2.0. This new, defense-oriented version of America’s long-standing gun culture helps explain why, when faced with social uncertainty and social unrest, a broad swath of the American population would respond by buying guns.
A Brief History of U.S. Gun Culture
I divide the history of gun culture in America into three major periods.
Gun Culture 0.0. The gun culture of the Colonial and Revolutionary periods and in the early Republic can be thought of as a prehistory of sorts. At this time, guns were tools necessary for self-preservation on the frontier (when the Colonies themselves were a frontier) and as symbols of citizenship (hence according the right of ownership largely to white men).
As gun historian Clayton Cramer observes in his 2009 book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie, guns played a fundamental role “for the collective military purposes of each colony; for the defense of individual families and isolated settlements; as symbols of being citizens with the duty to defend the society; and more than occasionally, to demonstrate that nothing has changed in the human condition since Cain slew Abel.” Thus, Cramer concludes, “Gun ownership appears to have been the norm for freemen, and not terribly unusual for free women and at least male children, through the Colonial, Revolutionary, and early Republic periods.”
In this early history of the American nation, guns were more practical than symbolic for most people. They were tools of necessity for hunting, self-defense and national defense.
Gun Culture 1.0. As the nation developed, so too did American gun culture. Although he was no fan of guns or gun culture, prize-winning American historian Richard Hofstadter was correct when he wrote, “What began as a necessity of agriculture and the frontier took hold as a sport and as an ingredient in the American imagination.”
In this second period, gun culture became more fully elaborated as a culture and took on new emphases, notably hunting as sport (not only as a source of food), more formalized recreational shooting (including competitions) and, later, various types of gun collecting (made more democratic by the surplus of military arms produced by global conflicts of the 20th century).
Gun Culture 2.0. American gun culture today has evolved to center on armed self‐defense, both inside the home and especially in public.
To be sure, self-defense has always been a part of American gun culture. Eighteenth-century versions of the same defensive “pocket pistols” that dominate today’s concealed-carry marketplace can be found in any museum with a substantial firearms collection. The importance of having a defensive firearm ready at hand can be seen in the late 19th-century advertisement for Smith & Wesson’s “bicycle revolver.”
As motorcars became more accessible to the masses in the 1920s, the need for personal protection while driving was emphasized in Colt’s “Safety of the Highways” advertisement. A drawing shows a woman in the driver’s seat of a parked car with a motorcycle police officer next to her, gun drawn. In the background we see two individuals scampering off. Anticipating the contemporary phrase, “When seconds count, police are just minutes away,” the subheading in the Colt’s ad reads, “Suppose he had not arrived.”
But over time, self-defense has moved from being a part of American gun culture to being its core element. Incubated in the social unrest and global uncertainty of the 1960s and ’70s, Gun Culture 2.0 was hatched in the 1980s and 1990s and has been maturing ever since.
This is evident in various types of data, including the growing percentage of gun owners who say they own guns for self-defense, the increasing proportion of handguns sold in the civilian market, the rise of the civilian defensive firearms training industry, the codification of castle doctrine and stand-your-ground laws, the liberalization of concealed-carry laws and the growing number of Americans who have permits to carry concealed weapons in public.
Gun Culture 2.0 constitutes an environment in which buying guns for personal and family protection in response to social unrest and social uncertainty both makes sense culturally and is permissible legally.
The Diversity of Contemporary Gun Ownership
In its previously mentioned review of firearm purchasing in 2020, the NSSF observed, “This year’s buyer is increasingly diverse.” As evidence the NSSF offered, “Forty percent of 2020’s buyers were women, and the biggest increase of any demographic category was among African Americans, who bought guns at a rate of 58 percent greater than in 2019.” As with new gun owners, no one knows how accurate these estimates are, but again I suspect they are too high. Even so, we have good reason to suspect that a significant number of 2020 gun buyers were women, racial minorities, LGBTQ individuals and political liberals.
This reflects the reality that Gun Culture 2.0’s emphasis on armed self-defense makes it attractive to a more diverse demographic than Gun Culture 1.0. As I explained in a presentation to the National Firearms Law Seminar in 2019, my own story of transitioning from being a non-gun-owning, blue-bubble-inhabiting, suburban-dwelling, Japanese-American, “card-carrying liberal” professor to being an armed American is a reflection of the inclusivity of Gun Culture 2.0. I don’t have much in common socially with the empirically rooted cliché of gun owners as conservative, older white males from the rural South, but we do share the fundamental desire for and right to personal security and liberty.
Gun Culture 2.0 is more inclusive, therefore, because self-preservation and self-defense are universal concerns. Empirically, defensive gun owners tend to be more racially diverse, more urban and suburban, more politically liberal, more female and more likely to have young children than Gun Culture 1.0’s firearms owners.
The COVID-19 pandemic, compounded by the George Floyd protests and riots, mixed with threats of “Civil War 2” leading up to and following a hotly contested presidential election, created an unprecedented gun-buying spree in 2020. But without a gun culture increasingly centered on self-defense, a culture that makes gun ownership a sensible response to social unrest and uncertainty, this would not have happened. Increased gun buying in America is therefore an effect, not a cause, of some broader social ills.