Background checks in the era of the coronavirus

Now that gun shops have been declared essential businesses in several states where they had previously been closed, the normal ebb and flow of commerce can continue. Let’s hope that the owners of these shops are ready to serve customers in a safe, socially distant fashion because they may wind up being quite busy indeed. The Associated Press is reporting that we set an all-time record for background checks last month as citizens rushed to prepare themselves for the possibility of widespread civic unrest if the pandemic grows even worse.

Background checks required to buy firearms have spiked to record numbers in the past month, fueled by a run on guns from Americans worried about their safety during the coronavirus crisis.

According to figures from the FBI, 3.7 million background checks were done in March — the most for a single month since the system began in 1998. It eclipsed the previous record, set in December 2015, when 3.3 million checks were conducted.

Background checks are the key barometer of gun sales, but the FBI’s monthly figures also incorporate checks for firearm permits that are required in some states. Each background check also could be for the sale of more than one gun.

In terms of the new and previous records for background checks, we’re dealing with two very different phenomena. In 2015 it was becoming increasingly obvious that either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders were going to be the nominee for the Democrats and they might hold the White House for four more years. There were also a number of high profile mass shootings making many citizens nervous. This led to a greater interest in people arming themselves.

Once the election was over, the “Trump Effect” kicked in and both background checks and sales of firearms decreased. Nobody was worried about new gun control or confiscation laws coming down the pipe with Donald Trump in the White House and the GOP still holding both chambers of Congress. What we’re seeing now, however, is almost certainly a reaction to fears that there could be widespread unrest and lawlessness if the pandemic spins totally out of control. If we’re actually heading for Mad Max territory, people want to make sure they can defend their own castles. (Perhaps The Stand would be a better reference in this case.)

The Gray Lady was quick to point out what a terrible trend this represents. The article frets over the idea that “adding firearms into stressed-out households filled with people cooped up during lockdown orders will lead to increased levels of domestic violence and suicides.”

While we’re on the subject, those background checks are already leading to actual purchases. During the same period, gun sales also spiked to near-record levels. (NY Times)

Americans bought about two million guns in March, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data. It was the second-busiest month ever for gun sales, trailing only January 2013, just after President Barack Obama’s re-election and the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

With some people fearful that the pandemic could lead to civil unrest, gun sales have been skyrocketing. In the past, fear of gun-buying restrictions has been the main driver of spikes in gun sales, far surpassing the effects of mass shootings and terrorist attacks alone.

That’s a lot of firearms. But before any of you liberals out there start setting your hair on fire, keep one thing in mind. These figures represent the people who go through the legal process to lawfully purchase a weapon. They are statistically the least likely to go on to commit a crime with one. In fact, they’re probably the most likely to wind up being the “good guy/gal with a gun” who saves your butt when the actual bad guys show up. (The ones who probably have unregistered firearms and never went through background checks because they couldn’t pass them.)

We’re not in panic territory yet, folks, and I remain hopeful that we’re not going to get there. But it never hurts to be prepared.