The FBI conducted the highest number of firearm background checks on record during the month of January, signaling massive gun sales as the country experienced political tumult and transition.
More than 4.3 million checks were initiated through the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System (NICS) last month, marking a nearly 60% increase in checks compared to January 2020, according to FBI data released this week.
These checks, which the FBI has kept a record of since Nov. 1998, are a strong indicator of firearms sales. Individuals seeking to purchase a gun are required to submit to a federal background check when buying from a federally licensed firearms dealer, which includes major chains like Walmart and Cabela’s, as well as mom-and-pop stores and some individual retailers.
Firearm sales typically spike around elections and after mass shootings, when there is a worry among gun rights advocates that such events could prompt stricter gun safety measures.
The FBI said it processed nearly 40 million firearm background checks in total in 2020 ― by far the highest number on record. In March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, gun background checks skyrocketed to an unprecedented level at the time, with more than 3.7 million initiated that month. The surge in gun and ammo sales in March coincided with the panic-buying of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and antiseptic wipes.
Background checks jumped again following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent months of Black Lives Matter protests, marking the third-highest month for checks on record with 3,931,607.
Following President Joe Biden’s victory in November, background checks surged, likely due in part to concern among Second Amendment rights activists that his Democratic administration would push for tighter gun safety legislation. December 2020 saw the second-highest number of background checks on record, with 3,937,066.
The number of checks continued to increase into January, which saw an insurrectionist mob attack the U.S. Capitol as then-President Donald Trump attempted to overturn the election followed by Biden’s inauguration.
According to a survey conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group, roughly 40% of guns purchased between January and August 2020 were by first-time buyers. Women comprised 40% of first-time buyers, and Black people accounted for 58% of all firearm purchases, the survey found.