Economy / Guns

U.S. Gun Sales are up 83% Since 1999

By Jack Beckwith Email Icon Twitter Icon LinkedIn Icon
Published: October 23, 2017
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Estimated Gun Sales Growth Mobile

Tracking the number of guns sold in the U.S. is no easy task. Federal law requires firearm dealers to keep records of gun sales, but -- here’s the catch -- it also prohibits that data from being stored in a central repository. Some states have more stringent laws to encourage record keeping, but their requirements often only apply to certain types of guns or dealers.

So instead of using gun sale data, most researchers use total background checks as a proxy. Since 1998, Federal Firearms Licensees have been required to query the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) at the checkout counter to verify a buyer is eligible to purchase a gun. The FBI tracks and releases data on the number of background checks submitted by month, state, and gun type.

Background checks from the FBI are an imperfect approximation of gun sales. These numbers don’t include private sales, which constitute about 40 percent of gun transactions. Still, it is widely considered the best available benchmark.

We take a cue from The New York Times’s analysis in 2015, which used NICS data to estimate gun sales. Like NYT, we rely on a conversion outlined in the Small Arms Survey: long gun and handgun checks count as 1.1 sales, while a multiple gun check counts as two. We toss out Hawaii, for which we have limited data.

What we’re left with is a stark trend: nationwide, gun sales have increased almost 83% since 1999. We’ve seen gun sales double in 18 states and more than triple in five. Gun sales have dipped in only four states over this timeframe (excluding Hawaii).

Nerd Notes:

Graphic created in Tableau.

Data comes from the FBI's NICS report, courtesy of Buzzfeed's data editor, Jeremy Singer-Vine. Jeremy wrote a neat little parser to extract data from the FBI's PDF report and put it into a spreadsheet. You can access the GitHub repo here. The data is updated on a monthly basis.