Study confirms millions of new gun owners across U.S.

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

At first blush, this research from a Northwestern university academic into new gun owners has a bit of a Professor Obvious feel to it. After all, we’ve known about the Great Gun Run of 2020/2021 since it started with the first “15 days to slow the spread” lockdowns. We get NICS numbers every month showing that demand is still sky-high, and a trip to your local gun store will provide visual confirmation that the firearm and ammunition market is red-hot. And most of us have at least one anecdote of a friend or family member who’s embraced their Second Amendment rights since the start of the pandemic. The idea that there’ve been millions of guns sold to first-time buyers in recent months makes sense, even without hard data.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated that last year, about 40% of gun sales were to first-time buyers (based on interviews with retailers). That would have translated to about 8.5-million new gun owners in 2020, which is a bit higher than what Professor Matt Miller’s research indicates; about 7.5-million Americans became gun owners between January of 2019 and April of this year. That’s still a strong figure, but what’s most intriguing to me is that according to Miller the pool of gun purchasers was already broadening long before the pandemic began.

“The proportion of gun sales to new gun owners compared to existing gun owners is around the same at 20%,” Miller told the Guardian. “What changed is the volume of gun purchases.”

According to the study, the total number of gun purchases rose from 13.8m to 16.6m between 2019 and 2020. Of those, approximately half of all new gun owners were female and nearly half were people of color.

According to the study, 55% of new gun owners were white, 20.9% were Black and 20% Hispanic. But that distribution, says the author, was in place before the onset of the pandemic. “New gun owners are more likely to be Black and they’re more likely to be female,” Miller says.

That’s fascinating, because if it’s true then it would indicate that the COVID pandemic and the riots and unrest last year that prompted the first two waves of the Great Gun Run didn’t actually change the fundamentals about who were buying guns. Instead, they just accelerated existing trends; something that Prof. Miller is not happy about.

While guns statistics are notoriously difficult to apply to real life events, the increase in gun sales doesn’t necessarily suggest a rise in violent crime, or necessarily a rise in accidents and suicides.

But about 5.4 million of 7.5 million new gun owners over the past two years had previously lived in homes without guns. According to the study, that increase collectively exposes another 11m people in those homes to the risk of household firearms.

“For those 5 million children, 5 million new gun owners and 6 million adults they live with, the risks are imposed on them are imposed the first day the gun enters the home,” says Miller. “We know that that when a gun enters a home, the increase in the risk of suicide to the owner rises fourfold, and increases the risk to other people in the home, including children.”

Depending on whether the trend for new gun owners continues, it may take time for the increase to be picked up in population-level statistics. “Even if we don’t see an immediate rise in gun suicide and accidents in the population as a whole, that still doesn’t mean that people in those homes haven’t been placed at higher risk.”

The reason why Miller had to make that caveat is that suicide rates were actually flat last year, even as homicides, fatal drug overdoses, and even fatal car accidents all increased substantially.

I don’t believe that new gun owners are inherently less responsible than those who grew up around firearms, but I would like to see more education and training opportunities, particularly in cities and states that have tried their best to make gun ownership taboo for decades. The problem is that the dominant political class in those cities and states has no real interest in doing anything to encourage responsible gun ownership. Oh sure, they love the idea of mandatory training classes before you can purchase or carry a gun, but that doesn’t mean they want to make those classes easy to find or affordable for all. Instead, they use training as a barrier to exercising your Second Amendment rights, not to promote true “gun safety.”