I Read This Study of COVID-19 Firearms Sales So You Don’t Have To

I was excited, initially, when I found yet another recently published scholarly article on the COVID-19 pandemic gun buying spree of 2020. I have already noted an interesting study that uses NICS data to highlight how the COVID spree differs from other spikes in gun buying. And a study that compares new COVID gun buyers to other categories of people who did and did not buy guns from January to May 2020.

“Public perspectives on firearm sales in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic” was published in October in the journal Injury Prevention. The authors are public health scholars. The data employed comes from Amazon mTurk during the last week of May 2020.

Looking at the article, my excitement faded quickly, for reasons I discuss below.

First, the entire premise of the article – that public perceptions of the extent of firearms purchasing matters – is questionable. And if you bother to read section 1.2 of the article on “Importance,” the authors do not even try to justify it.

Table 3 (below) reports the results of people’s OPINIONS of firearm sales since January 2020. Among the opinions requested: “Number of background checks have increased” and “online sales of firearms have increased.” Who honestly cares what public opinion says about these things?

That said, information about who is buying guns during the COVID-19 pandemic is important. Which leads to my second area of disappointment. The authors compare those who bought firearms in the pandemic to those who did not, but this does not distinguish enough among gun buyers. Pandemic gun buyers are a combination of existing gun owners getting +1 (or more), those who live in homes with guns but do not personally own one, and buyers who do not currently own guns or live in a home with guns. The differences between them are significant. Here they are lumped together, and as Table 2 (below) shows, in this mTurk sample 88% of those who bought firearms during the pandemic owned guns in 2019 or lived with someone who did.

And how do we square this with the question on firearms ownership in this same table? Given the number of respondents (n=263), it appears that these are mutually exclusive categories, so what are we to make of someone who bought a firearm during the pandemic but answered “I live with someone who owns 1 or more firearms” rather than “I own 1 or more firearms”? Are those all straw purchasers? They bought during the pandemic but already got rid of their gun?

As a consequence of these conflations, the demographic differences presented in Table 1 (below) don’t tell us much about the dynamics of gun purchasing during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in comparison to the early article I discussed on this same topic.

Moreover, this article more than the previous article I reviewed that used Amazon mTurk data really highlights the limitation of mTurk data for generalizing from the sample to the broader population. To wit: These authors find that fully two-thirds (67%) of their respondents who bought firearms during the pandemic were healthcare professionals.

Which is truly and literally unbelievable.

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