There’s no questioning that 2020 and 2021 were extraordinary years globally, especially within the U.S. The combination of political turmoil, pandemic fears, civil and economic reactions to the pandemic, protests, and efforts to reform or defund law enforcement resulted in many people feeling less safe and secure than at any time in the previous few decades. All of these factors led to a significant increase in gun owners. In 2020, 8 million of the 21 million total firearms sold — 40 percent — were purchased by first-time gun owners. The FBI conducted 21 million background checks the same year, a 60 percent increase from 2019. Among the top 10 states experiencing the greatest surges in firearms background checks, Democrats secured four in the 2020 presidential election.1 In the same year, gun sales increased 58 percent within the African American community and 40 percent among women.2
In 2021, first-time buyers purchased more than 5 million guns, and 33 percent of those first-time buyers were women. These trends continued in 2021 with a shift in the demographics of those buying guns: African Americans up 45 percent, Hispanic Americans up 37 percent and Asian Americans up 27 percent compared to previous years.3 Though harder to track, there is also strong evidence these surges were higher in urban communities.4
As 2021 transitioned into 2022, we saw key issues in the media and among average U.S. citizens shift as well. Though debates regarding restructuring law enforcement, civil unrest and pandemics remain, the national focus seems to have shifted to the economy, inflation, the war in Ukraine, fuel costs, supply chain issues and the overall increase in violent crime. With these national discussions comes the inevitable inclusion of gun control as a solution or contributing factor to crime and violence.
Although high-profile mass murders dominate media news cycles, behind these attacks is a troubling increase in day-to-day violent crime since early 2020. After almost two decades of violent crime trending downward, 2020 through today has seen an approximate increase of 30 percent in homicides and other violent crimes compared to previous years. Further, current evidence supports that this trend is continuing in 2022.5 The nature of the fears may have shifted, but gun ownership continues to increase and diversify.
Ongoing Change in Gun Owner Demographics
Although gun sales have slowed compared to record-breaking 2020, there is still plenty of evidence that more and more Americans are buying guns and that many of these newer owners are demographically and politically not what the media has always considered a “typical gun owner.” Even though gun sales in general and overall numbers of first-time owners are both down in 2022, the year is still on track to be the third-largest for firearms sales (behind 2020 and 2021, respectively).6 According to a survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, 18 percent of U.S. households purchased a gun since the start of the pandemic. As a result, the percentage of U.S. adults living in a household with a gun increased to 46 percent.7
Potentially more interesting is that most first-time gun buyers are citing “self-defense” as the primary reason for their decision to purchase a firearm. Also just looking at how first-time buyers differ pre-2020 to post-2020 very clearly signals a shift in who is buying guns for self-defense. Looking at pre-2020 to post-2020 buyers, individuals under 45 years of age increased 45 percent, and people of color increased 43 percent. Conversely, homeowners decreased 35 percent and married individuals decreased 26 percent. Looking at the new gun owners of the past two years, they are more diverse, younger and less likely to be married or to be homeowners.8
Atop that, post-2020 first-time gun owners equally or more greatly endorse gun rights compared to the less diverse first-time owners pre-2020. These new owners agree equally with previous owners on allowing firearms to be carried in more places (68 percent) and equally endorse permitless carry (41 percent). However, they are 9 percent more likely to agree with teachers carrying and 16 percent more likely to endorse shorter waiting periods to purchase a gun.9
The ability of individuals to carry and defend themselves on a state-by-state basis has also been expanding. In 2019, 16 states had some form of constitutional carry. In 2022, that number has increased to 25 states. The trends are hard to ignore. Fifty percent of U.S. states now have some form of permitless carry. Guns are being purchased at increased rates for self-defense, and the average new gun owner is shifting toward younger and more diverse.
Toss Out the Assumptions
The question becomes what these continuing trends mean regarding Americans’ overall Second Amendment rights. How can we best capitalize on these trends in terms of welcoming new owners into training and exercising their right to self-defense? The first step is to recognize that not everyone thinks the same way you do. We tend to look at the world through our own lenses, formed by our own opinions and assumptions. Gun owners need to resist making assumptions about people and why they might be interested in firearms. These beliefs were much more likely to be correct in 2019 but are less likely to reflect newer gun owners.
Pundits on the left are starting to question the wisdom of politically supporting gun control as more and more of the traditional demographic voting blocks that have supported such measures in the past are now becoming gun owners themselves and adopting anti-gun-control views. Gun owners, organizations, manufacturers, stores and training centers all need to make sure that new gun owners are finding the support they need and feel welcome in their choice to exercise their right to self-defense. It is essential that we continue to encourage all U.S. citizens to exercise their right to defend themselves and their families.
(1) Brady Leonard, “First Time Gun Ownership Continues to Soar,” Catalyst, July 21, 2022, Catalyst.Independent.org/2022/07/21/first-time-gunownership; Joe Bartozzi, “Taking Stock of Record-Setting 2020 Firearm Year,” NSSF, Jan. 7, 2021, NSSF.org/articles/taking-stock-of-record-setting-2020-firearm-year; “NICS Firearm Checks: Month/Year by State,” FBI.gov, FBI.gov/file-repository/nics_firearm_checks_-_month_year_by_state.pdf/view. The states include Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah.
(2) “First-Time Gun Buyers Grow to Nearly 5 Million in 2020,” NSSF, Aug. 24, 2020, NSSF.org/articles/firsttime-gun-buyers-grow-to-nearly-5-million-in-2020.
(3) “NSSF Retailer Surveys Indict 5.4 Million First-Time Gun Buyers in 2021,” NSSF, Jan. 25, 2022, NSSF.org/articles/nssf-retailer-surveys-indicate-5-4-million-first-timegun-buyers-in-2021.
(5) John Gramlich, “What we know about the increase in U.S. murders in 2020,” Pew Research Center, Oct. 27, 2021, PewResearch.org/fact-tank/2021/10/27/what-we-know-about-the-increasein-u-s-murders-in-2020; Josiah Bates, “U.S. Crime Is Still Dramatically Higher Than Before the Pandemic,” TIME.com, July 29, 2022, TIME.com/6201797/crime-murder-rate-us-high-2022; Leonard, “First Time Gun Ownership Continues to Soar.”
(6) Joe Walsh, “U.S. Bought Almost 20 Million Guns Last Year — Second-Highest Year On Record,” Forbes, Jan. 5, 2022, Forbes.com/sites/joewalsh/2022/01/05/us-bought-almost-20-million-gunslast-year—second-highest-yearon-record/?sh=60bfafb013bb; “NICS Firearm Checks: Month/Year,” FBI.gov, FBI.gov/file-repository/nics_firearm_checks_-_month_year.pdf/view.
(7) “One in Five American Households Purchased a Gun During the Pandemic,” NORC.org, March 24, 2022, NORC.org/NewsEventsPublications/Press-Releases/Pages/one-in-five-american-households-purchased-a-gunduring-the-pandemic.aspx.
(8) “One in Five American Households Purchased a Gun During the Pandemic.”
(9) “One in Five American Households Purchased a Gun During the Pandemic.”