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UCR Study: Pandemic Leads to Record Gun Sales

A fear for health and safety that crosses party lines has driven a record number of American gun sales during the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, raising the potential for accidental deaths and the need to address gun safety and mental health, UC Riverside economists suggest in a new paper.

According to the FBI, a record-setting 3.7 million firearm background checks were completed in March 2020, the month COVID-19 shutdowns began in the United States. This record was shattered only a few months later as protests for racial justice following the police murder of George Floyd rocked the nation, leading to 3.9 million firearm background checks.

Bree Lang and Matthew Lang, associate professors of teaching in economics, used state-level background check data from 1999 to June 2020 to compare the current surge in gun buying with previous surges. They found background checks increased 43% in the early stages of the pandemic and 47% during the protests.

The researchers also show there was no statistical difference in the surge in background checks between Republican-leaning and Democrat-leaning states. This differs from November months during election years and months following mass shootings. Following these events, background checks increased significantly more in Republican states due to uncertainty about changes to gun laws, a subject of great concern to many Republican party members. These findings reinforced the idea that firearm enthusiasts worried about changes in gun policies were not driving the increased sales in 2020.

The economists argue that the rush to buy guns is concerning because quarantine fatigue and social problems are taking a toll on Americans’ mental health. The Los Angeles Times reported more than 41% adults nationwide have symptoms of clinical anxiety or depression, compared to 11% a year ago.

The authors suggest expanding background checks could help, but they note the background check process is not uniform across all states. They also recommend governments implement more comprehensive gun safety education, expand mental health assessment and treatment, and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

The paper, “Pandemics, protests and firearms,” is under review at the American Journal of Health Economics. It is available on the preprint server SSRN.

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