25 Investigates

Women, first-time buyers fuel record-breaking year for gun sales in US amid pandemic, social unrest

BOSTON — More people are buying guns in the U.S. than ever before, according to data from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NCIS).

In a year defined by a pandemic, social unrest, and a divisive presidential election, gun retailers are seeing a high demand for handguns purchased for personal protection.

And the image of the “typical gun owner” is changing, with women and first-time buyers fueling record-breaking sales.

“It’s simple economics of supply and demand issues,” said Ronald Hidalgo of Sportsman’s Den in Quincy. “There’s not enough product to go around.”

Hidalgo has been selling firearms for 25 years and he says he’s never seen anything like it. He hasn’t been able to keep his shelves amply stocked. That’s largely due to an increase in new gun owners. It’s estimated that 40% of new purchases in 2020 are first time buyers, according to the Connecticut-based National Shooting Sports Foundation.

“I have democrats in here, liberals, conservatives, I have Christians, I have atheists, you name it,” said Hidalgo. “I have all different people and they all voice their opinions, but they have one common thread - they’re nervous.”

Data reviewed by 25 Investigates shows U.S. gun sales began to increase in March around the same time the pandemic hit. Americans purchased more guns in the first nine months of 2020 than in any year on records – 16.7 million, according to one estimate.

FBI background checks are required for gun purchases. According to data by the agency, 26,145 checks were conducted here in Massachusetts in September of this year. That’s a 44% increase compared to a year earlier.

Women are the fastest-growing group of new gun owners.

At Cape Gun Works in Hyannis, a “ladies only” safety course was sold out during a recent visit by 25 Investigates.

That’s where we met new gun owner Kim Fernandes, who recently bought a Sig Sauer P365, designed for concealed carry.

“I decided that I thought it would be a good idea first to take a class and let’s see what I thought about it,” said Fernandes. Once I took the class I felt comfortable owning a gun."

Guns sales historically go up during an election year, said Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University who studies the gun industry, adding that the Trump – Biden match up is only part of the story.

“The sale of firearms tends to sort of cycle in response to different kinds of events,” he said. “The confluence of COVID-19 outbreak and the anxiety that’s generated by Black Lives Matter and concerns about police misconduct, and now increasing nervousness about the outcome of the election is a kind of perfect storm that has fueled this, you know, historic increase.”

Lytton says there are already as many as 400 million privately owned firearms in American homes, on top of the 16.7 million added this year.

25 Investigates asked U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling if he’s got any concerns about the gun sales trend.

“Some of those guns that are legally sold do wind up on the street, in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” Lelling said. “But the vast, vast majority of these gun sales that you’re seeing are to law-abiding Americans who want the ability to protect themselves and their family.”

In addition to a federal background check, Massachusetts gun owners need to be licensed in the city or town they live in. Last week, the locally-based Gun Owners' Action League filed a lawsuit against Cambridge, Stoughton and Weymouth claiming they are using the pandemic as an excuse to delay the processing of firearms licenses.

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