New federal data shows 2015 was a record-smashing year for the American firearms industry, with gun sales appearing to hit the highest level on record. Background checks for gun purchases and permits jumped 10 percent last year to 23.1 million, the largest number since the federal background check system began operating in 1998.
Last year’s Black Friday was the biggest gun-purchasing day ever, with more than 185,000 checks processed, according to figures from the FBI. December saw the highest number of background checks processed in any month. The last five weeks of the year all ranked among the 10 biggest weeks ever for firearm background checks.
The year-end surge happened partly in response to the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., followed by President Barack Obama’s calls for more restrictions on gun sales. On Monday, Obama unveiled a package of executive actions that seek to curb gun violence, including conducting more background checks.
This matches a pattern often seen in the past: tragedy, followed by calls for gun control, followed by surging firearm sales. Interest in concealed-carry permits has generally followed a similar pattern.
One point of caution with the FBI’s numbers: The agency stresses that you can’t draw a one-to-one correspondence between “background checks” and “gun sales.”
The numbers include background checks for gun permits, too, which may or may not be accompanied by a sale. Different states have different procedures for running permit checks. Kentucky, for instance, requires concealed-carry permit holders to have a check conducted every month. In addition, some unknown, but likely significant, percentage of gun transactions don’t involve a federally licensed dealer and aren’t accompanied by a background check.
Still, the FBI’s figures provide a useful approximation of overall gun transactions in this country. And they strongly indicate that 2015 was a great year for gun manufacturers.
One wrinkle is that national surveys indicate that the number of households owning firearms is either flat or trending downward, according to measurements by Gallup and the General Social Survey. If gun sales are increasing, as the federal data suggests, the implication is that most of the growth in the firearms industry is coming from existing owners stocking up on more guns, rather than people buying for the first time.
In 2013, for instance, calculations suggest that there were about eight guns in the typical gun-owning household. That’s double the number in 1994.
The Obama administration’s new gun rules made a big political statement but, technically, represent a clarification of already-existing laws. The biggest change – a provision that would require more gun sellers to be licensed as firearms dealers – does not qualify as new regulation, and hence is not dependent on either public comment or congressional review. The provisions are so modest that even the National Rifle Association initially shrugged off the changes.
“This is political theater to distract from the president’s failed record,” said Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA’s legislative arm.