Pandemics, Protests, and Firearms Purchasing in 2020

There has been a good deal of speculation and anec-data shared about the great gun buying spree of 2020. It is impossible to deny that something significant happened, but the extent and nature of what happened remains to be understood.

Although it does not tell us everything we want to know, “Pandemics, Protests, and Firearms” by Bree and Matthew Lang (economists at the University of California at Riverside) offers some interesting insights. It is available for download on the SSRN website while it makes its way through the peer review process.

Prior to 2020, the previous record gun buying spree in the United States followed the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. Coming on the heels of the election of Barack Obama to a second term as President, many rushed out to buy guns and ammo prior to any potential future bans. I documented this in a post about attending a gun show the weekend after Sandy Hook.

Using data from Google Trend searches, Lang and Lang highlight the convergence and divergence of interest in “Guns for Home” vs. “Gun Policy” at different major moments in recent American history. As seen in their Figure 1 reproduced below, after the Sandy Hook and San Bernardino mass murders, interest in both search terms spiked together. With the 2008 presidential election and the massacres at Parkland HS the El Paso Walmart, interest in gun policy outstripped interest in guns for home. What is unique about the great gun buying spree of 2020 associated with the COVID-19 outbreak and the social unrest surrounding the George Floyd murder protests is that interest in guns for home rocketed up but interest in gun policy did not.

This documents what many people have speculated: that the great gun buying spree of 2020 is motivated by concern for safety rather than fear of impending restrictive gun legislation with the 2020 Presidential election.

The second intriguing finding from Lang and Lang’s work has to do with how broad the gun buying spree of 2020 was. They compare average monthly background checks per 1,000 population in “blue” vs. “red” states from 1999-2020 (see their Figure 2 reproduced below). As they write, “Background check rates in blue states were lower than red states between 1999 and the first half of 2019. Background check rates in blue states started to converge with red states in 2016 and the rate in blue states surpassed red states in the second half of 2019 and remained higher in the first half of 2020.”

Their statistical analyses presented later in the paper support this interpretation. There was no statistically significant difference between gun buying in red vs. blue states in response to the COVID-19 pandemic or the George Floyd protests.

Perhaps the interest in armed self-defense is non-partisan after all, even if the underlying ideas of what people are defending themselves from differ. That is a piece of the puzzle that remains to be explained well.

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3 comments

  1. Just when you start having hope that academic researchers might just start to understand guns and their intersection with human behavior, it still falls flat. The last two paragraphs of the study reveal that much. Hope of growing insight raised in the penultimate paragraph, only to be dashed as prior prejudices and faulty assumptions flow from the last paragraph. No one seems to have learned the insights of your research, David, ‘that guns are normal.’

    It shows up even clearer in your contribution to “Understanding America’s Gun Culture”, David. Although it is encouraging that your paper “What’s Next? Understanding and Misunderstanding America’s Gun Culture” was even included, it is almost an ‘admission of guilt’ that it is the final chapter in that book. I found that every one of the other papers included in that volume could have greatly benefited from understanding and applying your research and insights to their approach to the subject. Faulty presuppositions will damn you every time.

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    • Appreciate the kind remarks on my work. I am so used to reading studies that are couched in the problematics of criminology and epidemiology that I just skip those parts and try to get what I can out of the articles. In this case, providing data to support the sense that the great gun buying spree of 2020 was not the same as the one following Sandy Hook (for example) in terms of motivation, and showing the bi-partisan nature of the buying (at least at the state level – ecological fallacy warning noted). That’s all I really hope for at this point!

      Liked by 1 person

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