Background checks on gun purchases in the U.S. are climbing toward a record high this year, reflecting what the industry says is a rush by people to buy weapons in reaction to the Democratic presidential candidates’ calls for tighter restrictions.
By the end of November, more than 25.4 million background checks – generally seen as a strong indicator of gun sales – had been conducted by the FBI, putting 2019 on pace to break the record of 27.5 million set in 2016, the last full year President Barack Obama was in the White House.
On Black Friday alone, the FBI ran 202,465 checks – one every 4.85 seconds, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
While gun sales are close to breaking records nationally, recent gun legislation has slowed some sales in the Spokane area, dealers said.
“November was our worst month of the year,” said Clint Olson, owner of Precision Combat Arms at 1710 E. Trent Ave. “Because of (Initiative) 1639 and extra waiting periods, it’s definitely impacted sales.”
Ken Craudell, store manager of Double Eagle Pawn on East Sprague Avenue, said his store does the least volume of any of the three Double Eagle locations and “had an average Black Friday.”
“But our Francis store did as good or better than last year,” Craudell said. “It’s been a fine year, but I wouldn’t say this is the best ever. Washington state has enough changes in gun laws that people are milling about what they need to do to legally purchase guns.”
Washington voters in November 2018 approved Initiative 1639, which added new comprehensive background checks rules and raised the age limit from 18 to 21 for persons who want to purchase semi-automatic rifles.
Olson said gun dealers once were able to do the background checks at the store, like they continue to do for sales of shotguns and bolt-action rifles. The check typically takes minutes and the gun buyer can leave with the weapon that day.
But after I-1639, anyone trying to purchase a handgun or semi-automatic rifle, even one as small as a .22-caliber rifle, now has those background checks done by city police or county sheriff’s offices.
“That entire workload we could do for free has gone to the police department,” Olson said. “They are taking two to three weeks to do background checks. It’s definitely impacted it.”
As for the national trend, some analysts question how accurately the background check figures translate into gun sales, since some states run checks on applications for concealed-carry permits, too, and some purchases involve multiple firearms. But the numbers remain the most reliable method of tracking the industry.
In the years since President Donald Trump took office, the industry has struggled through what has been referred to as the “Trump Slump,” a falloff in sales that reflected little worry among gun owners about gun control efforts.
But with the 2020 presidential election less than a year out and virtually every Democratic candidate offering proposals to restrict access to firearms, fears appear to be driving up sales again.
“The Trump Slump is real, but the politics of guns has changed a little bit over the last year,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law, and an expert on gun rights and politics. “As we’re coming up upon another presidential election, Donald Trump is vulnerable, and the Democratic presidential contenders are falling all over themselves to propose more aggressive gun reforms than their opponents.”
Trump has been viewed as one of the most gun-friendly presidents in modern history and has boasted of strong support from the National Rifle Association. He has addressed every one of its annual conventions since the 2016 campaign, and the powerful gun lobby pumped about $30 million into efforts to elect him.
Still, hopes of expanded gun rights under Trump’s watch haven’t materialized. Legislation that would make it easier to buy silencers stalled in Congress. In addition, Trump pushed through a ban on bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to mimic machine-gun fire. The gunman who killed 58 people in Las Vegas in 2017 in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history used such a device.
The industry has been going through one of its toughest periods with some gunmakers, such as Remington Arms, filing for bankruptcy. More recently, Smith & Wesson’s parent company, American Outdoor Brands, announced plans to spin off its firearms unit, and Colt said it would suspend production of AR-15 rifles.
Amid some high-profile mass shootings in recent years, especially the Parkland school attack in Florida that left 17 people dead, gun control advocates have gained some momentum.
The crowded field of Democrats running for the White House has offered a variety of proposals to curtail gun rights. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, whose state has seen repeated mass shootings this past year, went so far as to push for a mandatory buyback program for AR- and AK-style rifles before dropping out of the race on Nov. 1, stoking gun owners’ fears when he declared during a debate, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
The gun industry says the figures from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System reflect the Second Amendment politics of the White House race.
“Americans are choosing to invest their hard-earned dollars in their ability to exercise their rights and buy the firearms they want before gun control politicians attempt to regulate away that ability,” said Mark Oliva, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the gun industry.
In Spokane, Craudell said local sales generally spike along with national trends.
“In past years, political scares caused sales to go crazy, or shortages made things hard to get,” he said. “Now, we don’t have anything like that.”
Olson said most of his clients remain older, mostly men, who come in looking for a specific type of weapon. But Craudell has seen the opposite.
“We are getting what seems to be a two-generational gap. There was a 20-year period where people got out of shooting,” Craudell said. “Now we are seeing a pretty large influx of 18- to 24-year-olds taking an interest in firearms.”
As a result, the younger crop of gun buyers are looking for different guns.
“It used to be that the .44 Magnum revolver was the weapon of choice to go hiking into bear country,” Craudell said. “Now, the most popular gun is the Glock model 20 in 10 mm. It has 15 shots and weighs half as much.”
One of the mainstays of sales has been the revolver handgun, Craudell said.
“Now people are buying more home-defense shotguns and smaller caliber (semi-automatic) pistols,” he said. “There are no predictors. You just have to kind of ask the customer what they want.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.