2020 By the Numbers: Record Gun Sales, Record Background Checks, and a New Record Number of Concealed Carry Permit Holders

2020 was a year that will be long remembered by everyone for many different reasons. Unfortunately, many of them are unpleasant. The firearms and ammunition industries are amid the same chaos that many other business sectors have. Manufacturers are running wide open, while wholesalers and retailers cannot keep anything near normal stock levels on the shelves for customers but have been extremely busy processing firearm purchase background checks. Individuals applying for concealed carry permits are finding delays in processing to be the order of the day, while the reduced number of law enforcement personnel and support staff who are processing the permits are working diligently to clear the backlog.

Gun sales set records throughout the United States and the total number of sales would have been even higher if there had been more inventory available for purchase. Background checks set new monthly records and a new annual record. And while it was not a record-setting year for the number of concealed carry permits issued, the number is impressive considering that almost every county or state agency responsible for processing applications is experiencing delays of up to 18 months, at least partially due to staffing shortages resulting from the pandemic.

Firearms and Ammunition

Handgun display cases (as well as most long-gun racks) are empty at almost every dealer, whether it is a small-town mom-n-pop shop or the big box sporting goods stores, or even the online mail-order sellers. With handguns, the exceptions seem to be smaller caliber offerings and high-end semi-automatic pistols over a thousand bucks. The smaller calibers are considered by most to be inadequate for self-defense use, and the more expensive pistols are typically only purchased by seasoned firearms enthusiasts who already have considerable collections and refuse to pay the current prices.

The story is the same for ammunition, especially handgun cartridges; again, with the smaller calibers such as .25, .32 and .380 available on some shelves simply because there is little demand for them.  Because .22 caliber ammo is also widely used in rifles, there is little stock to be found. Where ammunition is available, it is quickly purchased at inflated prices by those who have learned when dealers receive shipments, either by personal observation or acting on insider information from store employees.  

Those who do have guns and/or ammo, whether dealers or individuals, are parting with their inventory for a premium. It is not unusual to hear of either being sold for twice the “normal” price of a few years ago. If you walk into a store and ask about a particular type of firearm or ammunition, you’re likely to get a response such as “It’s been on backorder for months,” “We don’t know when or if we’ll get it,” or “We know what we’re getting when the truck brings it to us.”

Online, it is much more direct and impersonal: SOLD OUT or NOT CURRENTLY AVAILABLE has replaced the price for almost every item listed on the websites of manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. Independent internet search engine sites like GunWatcher and AmmoSeek are the same, with a few small caliber handguns and mostly full-metal jacket ammo being the only offerings the majority of the time.

Manufacturers are dealing with a multitude of issues resulting from the pandemic and its effects on the economy, including employee absence due to illness, ramping up production, hiring and training new employees, supply chain delays and raw material shortages. Unfortunately, one of the most challenging issues that makers of guns and ammo are now facing are rumors, hate mail and threats.

One CEO has even posted online videos offering a personal insight into the challenges being faced by the ammo manufacturers. In a five-minute video that has been viewed over 2 million times, Jason Vanderbrink, President of Federal, CCI, Speer and Remington summed it up in one emphatic sentence: “We are doing our damnedest to meet this demand.” Vanderbrink is appearing in follow-up videos, addressing specific questions received by customers.

Record Background Checks

National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) inquiries hit an all-time high in 2020, reaching 39,695,315. That number is over 11.3 million higher than in 2019, over 13.5 million higher than in 2018, and nearly 14.5 million higher than in 2017.

In looking at the increase, two factors seem apparent. The news of the COVID-19 virus started spreading across the U.S. in February, with the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring it a global pandemic on March 11th and President Trump declaring it a national emergency on March 13th.

With January and February checks being at 2.7 and 2.8 million respectively, March jumped to nearly 3.741 million checks, presumably due to the anxiety and uncertainties resulting from the threat of the virus and the reaction of Americans. Everyday items that we have always taken for granted in this country began disappearing from store shelves and online sellers almost overnight.

Toilet tissue and cleaning supplies were the first to be scooped up, followed by canned goods and dry goods. Then employee infections in meat processing plants led to empty supermarket meat counters, further fueling the fears that we may have to hunt to survive. April fell back to a “normal” level at 2.9 million, and May was slightly higher at just over 3 million.

Then came the widespread riots sparked by the death of George Floyd, with the associated vandalism, looting, and arson of many business districts, as well as violent attacks against police officers, all amid demands to defund the police. June checks jumped to over 3.9 million, then fell off month by month, with July just over 3.6 million, August just over 3.1 million and September dropping to just under 2.9 million.

The final three months of the year saw another upward trend. In October, with partisan rhetoric reaching a fever pitch in the month leading up to the presidential election, checks jumped back up to just over 3.3 million. In November, the uncertainty of the highly contested election saw another jump up to over 3.6 million checks and as the chaos continued into December, the number rose to over 3.9 million checks for the month.

Record Gun Sales

Many estimates put the number of gun sales during 2020 at somewhere around 22 million…let’s look at that with all the zeros…22,000,000. That’s a lot of guns, and guns are useless without ammunition. Its no wonder that manufacturers can’t keep up. While it is believed that as many as 15 million of those guns were purchased by some of the 100 million people that owned guns prior to 2020, estimates of first-time gun buyers are at around 7 million.

Unfortunately, while there were around 7 million first-time gun buyers, there were not 7 million people who registered for gun safety courses. There were not 7 million home gun safes or lock boxes purchased. There were not 7 million quality holsters, or even 7 million holsters of any kind purchased. So now we have millions of untrained gun owners, unaware of even the most basic firearm safety rules, carrying in pockets, purses, fanny packs, and backpacks who have no way to secure the firearm from children and other untrained, irresponsible people while it is in their vehicle, home, workplace or shopping cart.

Concealed Carry Permits Reach New Record in the United States

While 2020 was not a record year for the annual number of concealed carry permits, with ‘only’ 880,000 issued, it did push up the total number of permits issued in the U.S. to a new high of 19.5 million. For comparison, the numbers for the three previous years under the Trump administration were 1.41 million in 2019; 95,000 in 2018; and 1.8 million in 2017.

The wait for processing permits is staggering in many cases. The State of Illinois reportedly has a backlog of over 142,000 Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) applications and 26,000 Concealed Carry Permit (CCP) applications. Despite repeated reassurances from the Illinois State police that the problems would be solved, they haven’t. They blame the pandemic for the delays, but the state struggled before the virus was ever heard of. They hired more staff and even extended FOID expiration dates by 18 months to shift their focus from processing renewals to taking care of new applications. However, firearms dealers who were aware of the extension refused to sell to those with cards that still bore the original expiration date for fear that they would be placing themselves and their federal firearms license in jeopardy, leaving citizens caught in the middle and unable to make any firearm purchases.

In North Carolina, applicants are waiting for up to a year, while in Pennsylvania the delay is a year and a half. The implications are wide ranging and far reaching, and dozens if not hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against states and counties who are not meeting the processing timeline specified by their state statutes regarding the registration and permitting programs.  While the pandemic certainly played a role in many cases, many more were not meeting the statutory requirements prior to 2020.

What’s Ahead?

The violence at the Capitol on January 6th has every member of Congress on edge. There have already been internal clashes on the rules for concealed carry by legislators in the Capitol, which is sure to be a hot-button issue on the front burner in the coming session.  The U.S. House of Representatives is once again led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who has already promised stiff fines for members who violate the rule forbidding guns inside the House chamber. The House is solidly under the control of a majority of Democrats who support stronger gun restriction laws. The U.S. Senate membership is now a 50/50 split, with Vice President Harris in the dual role of Senate President gives Democrats the majority, led by New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

On January 20th, the Biden administration took over the White House and most certainly brought its gun control agenda with it. With the expectation of full support from both houses of Congress, it’s just a matter of which of their many ideas that they decide to pursue first. Some of the same actors that caused damage and destruction in our cities under the Trump administration have already made it know through vandalism, looting and arson that they are no happier under Biden’s rule, and have promised to continue espousing their position through violence and destruction.

Law enforcement agencies across our country are seeing the number of uniformed officers on the street steadily decline due to early retirements and a lack of young men and women willing to pursue the job as a career. Worse yet, many are faced with declining budgets slashed by politicians who are pandering to the cries of the very mobs that our cities and citizens need law enforcement to protect us from.

Biden’s new environmental polices eliminated tens of thousands of jobs on his first day in office and are sure to put thousands more Americans out of work, and his economic policies will do the same while causing consumer prices to rise.  The pandemic is still raging, the vaccination program has numerous problems, and herd immunity may be at least a year away, according to the experts. 

Firearm and ammunition manufacturers will continue to struggle to meet demand, with industry experts saying that shortages will not be resolved for at least a year, if not longer. State and local agencies will continue to fall far short of processing firearm and carry permits in the required timeframe, and many Americans will not be able to purchase a firearm or ammo for personal protection in a time when it has never been needed more.

Unfortunately, for every trained and responsible gun owner there is another untrained and irresponsible gun owner…and sadly innocent lives will be lost because of it. There is an old song lyric that says, “When a man don’t use good judgement, its the innocent who pay,” and the statement could never be more poignant than it is with an irresponsible gun owner.

Do Your Part

If you are a responsible gun owner, please make it your mission this year to teach gun safety rules and safe handling practices to anyone that you think needs the knowledge. If you know of a new gun owner or someone who has just decided to start carrying a gun that they have had for a while, or anyone with children in their home…try to engage them in a firm but tactful way. Most of us know several people who fall into one or more of the categories just mentioned.

Offer to teach them the rules of gun safety, and actually show them how to safely handle and maintain their firearm. Talk to them about proper holsters and responsible ownership. Warn them of the tragedies that can result from an unsecured firearm.

People who aren’t accustomed to having a firearm and being responsible for maintaining possession and control of it 24/7 will frequently forget where they may have left it. Like anything knew, it requires a constant effort to learn a new behavior. Do your part to make every gun owner in your sphere of influence a safe, responsible gun owner who can then share the knowledge with others in their sphere of influence.

If you thought 2021 was going to be easier or better, hold on…from all indications it has the potential to be just as bad, if not worse, than 2020 was. Do your part to make it better. Our safety and the safety of others depends on it!  


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About the Author

Edgar Lee is a contributor for Concealed Nation. After spending 20 years in the fire service, he is currently in his second career as a business and technology manager, and he and his wife are successful small business owners.

Outside of work his interests include camping, hiking, fishing, metal detecting, home improvement projects and motorcycling. He also enjoys reading biographies and auto biographies, military history, and writing about modern-day personal safety and security. He has visited much of the continental US, but still considers his home state of North Carolina as his favorite.

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