Americans go on a gun-buying frenzy

Gun-related violence soars along with sales.

On March 22, a young man pulled into the parking lot of a King Soopers in Boulder, Colorado, got out of his car and shot an elderly man several times before walking into the store and shooting people indiscriminately with a semi-automatic weapon. By the time his rampage was over, 10 people were dead, including grocery store workers, shoppers and the first police officer who responded to the call. This was just six days after a shooter killed eight people, mostly Asian women, in Atlanta, Georgia. Then, just over a week later, on March 31, another man shot and killed four people, including a 9-year-old-boy, in Orange County, California.


T he shootings kicked off what has become a gruesome and familiar routine. Calls for tighter controls on firearms rang out from the halls of state capitols to Washington, D.C., followed closely by cries from the National Rifle Association, warning followers that the government is coming for their guns. Americans then embarked on a gun-buying frenzy.

It’s hard to imagine how firearms manufacturers can keep up with such a surge, however. During most of the Trump administration era, sales were relatively flat — even after a gunman killed 58 people at a Las Vegas music festival — because gun-lovers knew that Donald Trump wouldn’t sign any new gun laws. But when COVID-19 hit the United States, guns and ammo began flying off the shelves at unprecedented levels. The busiest week ever for the FBI’s background check system was in March 2020, rivaled only by the weeks following the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.

A few months later, gun dealers had another hectic week, when Black Lives Matter-related demonstrations reached a crescendo. They were even busier following the election of President Joe Biden, who as a senator had helped pass a ban on assault weapons. In 2020, the FBI conducted 40% more background checks than the previous year. The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates that this translates to some 21 million guns actually sold, with about 8 million going to first-time gun buyers.

It was a boon for Ruger and Smith & Wesson, the nation’s largest firearms manufacturers, both of which reported record sales and profits last year. But the rush to acquire guns correlated with a significant and deadly uptick in gun-related violence.

19,379; 15,442

Number of people killed in gun-related violence in 2020; and 2019, respectively (not including suicides).


Number of hours after the Boulder shooting that Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., sent out a fundraising email to her constituents warning, “Radical liberals in Washington … are trying to violate your due process and criminalize the private transfer of firearms.” Boebert owns a gun-themed restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, called Shooters.


Number of murders committed with “blunt objects,” including hammers, in 2019. In the wake of the Boulder shooting, Rep. Boebert told Newsmax: “In America, we see more deaths by hand, fist, feet, even hammers.”

$10.2 million

Amount spent by gun rights groups on lobbying in 2020.


Amount gun rights groups have contributed to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during his political career.


Number of guns purchased in Colorado in February 2021, a 17% increase from February 2019.

Last year, there was a pause in mass shootings as narrowly defined — meaning incidents in which a single gunman kills four or more people in a public place. (Drug- or gang-related shootings and most domestic violence shootings are not included.) That’s only a tiny sliver of the bigger picture, however.

Gun violence actually escalated dramatically last year, leaving record numbers of people dead or injured. And if gun sales are any indication, there’s no end in sight: This January was the busiest month ever for the firearms background check system.

Deaths by gun violence in 2020 include murder-suicides, but not lone-suicides. Gun ownership figures are the percentage of adults living in a household with a firearm.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

Infographic design: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Sources: Gun Violence Archive; The Trace; Open Secrets; Rand Corporation; Smith & Wesson financial report; Small Arms Survey; Ruger financial report; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; Federal Bureau of Investigation