Approximately 7.5 million people became first-time gun owners in U.S. between January 2019 and April 2021.
That’s according to new research published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study used survey data on purchasing habits over a 28-month period to determine how levels of gun ownership changed both before and after the onset of the pandemic. It revealed a significant increase in new gun owners.
“In 2019, approximately 2.4 million U.S. adults became new gun owners (0.9% of U.S. adults); in 2020, 3.8 million did (1.5% of U.S. adults),” the study said. “Overall, an estimated 2.9% of U.S. adults (7.5 million people) became new gun owners over the 28 months before the survey, equal to 10% of all U.S. adults who personally owned firearms as of April 2021.”
The results of the study confirm the findings of previous indicators showing an increase in new gun ownership in recent years, though it produced a lower estimate than other research. Industry retail surveys estimated upwards of 8.4 million first-time gun owners in 2020 alone.
Matthew Miller, the Northeastern University professor who conducted the study, said he set out to investigate the veracity of the early media coverage that suggested firearm sales had jumped during the pandemic. He said much of the reporting was based on a surge in FBI background checks as well as retailer survey data that he called “unrepresentative.”
“We wanted to understand how the surge in background checks translated into a change in personal gun ownership and second-hand exposure to household guns,” Miller said.
The study found that the proportion of first-time gun buyers did not change much from 2019 to 2020. Instead, the spike in gun buying overall resulted in an increase in new gun owners, according to the researchers.
“We estimate that nearly 3 million more U.S. adults purchased firearms in 2020 (16.6 million) than in 2019 (13.8 million),” the study said. “As a result, even though the proportion of gun purchasers who were new to gun ownership in each of the 3 calendar years we examined hovered around 20%, without notable differences in this proportion prior to versus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the estimated absolute number of new gun owners increased.”
Overall, the study said, 17 million more people are now living in a household with a gun. The researchers said they were concerned about a potential rise in firearms crime, suicides, and accidents as a result of this increase in exposure to firearms, particularly among children.
Wake Forrest University Professor David Yamane said the study provides insight into gun ownership in America but isn’t without limitations.
“Gun ownership surveys underestimate levels of gun ownership, for a variety of reasons,” he told The Reload. “One major reason is systematic non-response. If random digit dial or mail-in surveys have response rates that are very low (often below 20%), post-survey weighting cannot fully account for this. But an opt-in panel with a 64% response rate (as in the case of the 2021 National Firearms Survey) should have less of this problem. In fact, the 2021 National Firearms Survey finds a personal gun ownership rate of 31%, much higher than the General Social Survey and closer to the 33-37% rate I estimate.”
Other key findings of the study suggested that the trend of increasing diversity among new gun owners actually predated the buying spike during the pandemic–another idea mirrored in industry surveys.
“New gun owners in 2019 resembled new gun owners in 2020, suggesting that demographic shifts in new gun ownership preceded the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study states. “By 2019, new gun owners were already considerably less likely to be white and male and were younger than other gun owners. They were also less likely to be white and male compared to new gun owners in 2015.”
According to the study, 48 percent of new gun owners during the period surveyed were female, while 21 percent were Black and 19 percent were Hispanic. Additionally, the researchers found that 24 percent of new gun owners were under the age of 30, making them the second most represented age group among new gun owners. They trailed only those aged 30-44.