Home / Crime / Articles / 2020 has been a record-setting year for background checks, but other firearm data is incomplete

With the many high-profile shootings in the past several years, and homicide rates up from last year, it is an important time to examine the state of firearms in the United States.

Although a few data points are consistently collected, there is a clear lack of data on firearms in the US. It is impossible, for instance, to know the total number of firearms owned in the United States, or how many guns were bought in the past year, or what the most commonly owned firearms are. Instead, Americans are left to draw limited conclusions from available data, such as the number of firearms processed by the National Firearm Administration (NFA), the number of background checks conducted for firearm purchase, and the number of firearms manufactured. However, none of these metrics provide a complete picture because state laws about background checks and gun registration differ widely.

Policy has made government agencies hesitant to collect firearms data. The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, stipulates that no funds allocated to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control. According to the Congressional Research Service, the CDC subsequently limited its firearms-related research because “it learned further [budget] reductions were possible if the research continued.” The Firearms Owners Protection Act, passed in 1986, also specifically forbids the government from creating a national gun registry.

Still, a few trends emerge from the limited data.

2020 has already surpassed 2019 for background checks

The FBI reports that eight of the 10 busiest weeks for firearm background checks in the 22-year-old National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) System were between March and July of this year. The NICS System, which was enacted by the 1993 Brady Law, checks a buyer’s criminal record and eligibility to own a firearm. And while the number of background checks conducted has increased steadily for the past two decades, the number of background checks in 2020 through September has already surpassed the 2019 total.

Background checks

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Background checks, however, are not a 1:1 ratio with gun purchases. Only 13 states require universal background checks at the point of sale for all sales and transfers of firearms; federal law requires background checks only for guns sold through licensed dealers, which excludes private sales or sellers at gun shows. Different states participate in the NICS to varying degrees, with some 25 states issuing alternate permits that allow buyers to bypass the NICS background check.

Firearm-related deaths have risen steadily since 2000 and are primarily suicides

Total firearm deaths and their leading causes

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This graph's data comes from the CDC, which classifies firearm deaths into four primary categories: suicides, homicides, legal intervention (which includes shootings by police officers or other law enforcement agents), and firearm deaths with an undetermined intention. The vast majority of firearm deaths are classified as suicides or homicides.

After the 1993 Brady Law and the subsequent decrease in firearm licenses, deaths from firearms decreased for a few years. However, since 2000, the number of deaths has steadily risen, driven primarily by the increase in gun suicides.

These firearm deaths occur mostly among men aged between 20-39

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Men die from firearms at nearly six times the rate of women; the recent increase in firearm deaths has occurred exclusively among men. Men between 20-39 accounted for around one-third of all 2018 gun deaths, according to the CDC.

The rise in gun deaths has largely followed the increase in firearm supply

Firearms supply

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Although no comprehensive data on the number of firearms sold exists, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) tracks the commerce of firearms in the US. According to the ATF, the US manufactures around twice as many guns as it imports, with both the import and manufactured firearm supply increasing for the past two decades. Net firearm supply, calculated as firearms manufactured and imported minus firearms exported, has also risen since 2000. The rise in supply is primarily in pistols and handguns.

The last major piece of federal gun control legislation was an assault weapons ban passed in 1994, which expired in 2004.

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