The last three months of 2023 reversed a years-long downward trend in gun-related background checks.
The 2023 fourth quarter saw a 4.6 percent increase in sales run through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) compared to a year earlier, according to an industry report released on Wednesday. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the gun industry’s trade group, said adjusted NICS numbers indicated there were more than 4.7 million gun sales from October through December. It reported nearly 1.8 million in December 2023 alone, a 1.6 percent increase over 2022.
“Americans showed they want their Second Amendment rights by the millions – once again,” Mark Oliva, an NSSF spokesperson, said in a statement. “These are solid figures that reflect the mood of Americans and the desire to exercise Second Amendment rights.”
The numbers further bolster the idea there has been a rebound in gun sales after nearly three years of continuous decline from unprecedented peaks in 2020. Demand for firearms tends to surge and decline around significant news events, especially ones that drive people to consider arming themselves for protection. The chaos of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the riots that followed caused people from across the demographic spectrum to buy guns in 2020, but demand slowly dissipated in the years that followed as industry members and watchers alike looked for signs of a new demand floor.
In the past, the post-surge demand for guns has leveled out above the pre-surge demand. With NICS checks and major gun company sales back on the rise, the same could be happening now. While NSSF’s report shows a decline in sales throughout 2023, the number of firearms sold was still higher than any year before 2020. And the fourth quarter sales jump gives the gun market momentum headed into 2024, a year with a presidential election that’s likely to boost demand for guns.
“In December alone, nearly 1.8 million times, Americans purchased a firearm at retail,” Oliva said. “That was a strong finish to cap off the 15.8 million times Americans did the same thing throughout the year. These figures are a reminder of the importance law-abiding citizens place on their personal safety and freedoms, even as the Biden-Harris administration is using a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to chill and ultimately eliminate those rights.”
There is no way to track gun sales on a one-to-one basis, and the NSSF analysis of NICS numbers provides an incomplete view of the market. However, NICS checks are widely considered to be a strong indicator of gun sales because they are required on all sales between licensed dealers and customers. Some states also require used gun sales between private citizens to be transferred through dealers so they can be subject to an NICS check.
Still, not every gun sale is reflected in the NICS numbers. For instance, not all states require private used sales go through dealers, and many states allow those with concealed carry permits to bypass NICS checks during sales because they passed one to obtain the license in the first place. NICS checks can also be conducted for reasons other than gun sales, such as the aforementioned carry permits.
In fact, states like Illinois re-check all of their gun permit holders through the system every month. Those additional investigations add a considerable number of NICS checks to the total for a given month, quarter, or year. The NSSF attempts to strip out all the checks in the NICS reports that aren’t related to gun sales. In its December report, the NSSF identified nearly a million NICS checks that weren’t associated with gun sales–more than a third of all checks.