Record January background checks 'showing us something different' about why so many are buying guns

Photo of Rob Ryser
File photo

File photo

AP Photo / John Locher

NEWTOWN - Coronavirus lockdowns, civil unrest and tense election rhetoric were all factors in the gun-buying frenzy that made 2020 a record year for firearms sales.

But the new monthly record for FBI background checks that was just set in January points to the new White House as the single most important factor driving the run on guns, according to the Newtown-based firearms industry trade association.

“January is showing us something different - President Joe Biden promised he would pursue the most aggressive gun control agenda ever put forth to voters,” said Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “It isn’t just the firearm industry that expects him to pursue plans that include firearm confiscation (and) repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act…(g)un buyers are expecting that as well, and the record January background checks show that.”

Oliva is referring to the 4.3 million background checks processed by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System in January, a 60 percent spike compared to the same month in 2020.

In Connecticut, which doesn’t always follow national trends because the state has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, the 25,600 firearm background checks in January was a 63 percent increase over the same month in 2020.

The last time more people in Connecticut filed for background checks in a single month was 2016, when anxiousness was similarly high about a Democratic White House bent on gun control.

The leader of Connecticut’s largest gun owners’ group said, “We are seeing the exact same trend here as across the country.”

“It goes to show that Americans - and Connecticut residents are no different - believe in their right to keep and bear arms,” said Holly Sullivan of Southbury, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League. “And they want to exercise that right.”

The firearm-buying frenzy attributed to Biden belies the fact that three weeks into his presidency, Biden is yet to make headlines about “reducing gun violence using executive action,” or “constitutional, common-sense gun safety policies” that he promised during the 2020 campaign - so much so that local gun violence prevention groups are calling Biden out.

“With domestic terrorism the number one threat to our nation, it is really important for President Biden to take the steps to end this gun violence crisis,” said Po Murray, chairperson of the homegrown nonprofit Newtown Action Alliance.

Newtown Action Alliance and the nonprofit Guns Down America released a letter to Biden signed by 300 families and survivors impacted by gun violence that said, in part, “[Y]ou cannot address the impacts of Covid-19 or eradicate systemic racism, without working to reduce gun violence in the early days of your administration.”

And last week, a 15-year-old Newtown girl spoke publicly for the first time on video about surviving the fatal shooting of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, saying, “The fact that it was eight years ago and still very little has changed is so unacceptable.”

New gun ownership

The NSSF’s Oliva said part of January’s “truly remarkable” spike in gun sale activity was carry-over from 2020, when 39.7 million background checks were processed, and manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand.

About 40 percent of those background checks represented first-time gun buyers in 2020 - or 8.4 million new gun owners, Oliva said.

In response, NSSF and gun owners’ groups such as the 39,000-member CCDL are increasing their outreach and launching education initiatives about firearm safety and storage practices.

In Connecticut, the CCDL has launched an Urban Engagement initiative where volunteers work with new gun owners in cities to teach firearm safety and Second Amendment rights.

“We are reaching out to them because nobody wants unsafe handling of firearms,” said Sullivan of the CCDL, which added 400 members in January. “That is something we are deeply committed to doing the right way.”

Newtown Action Alliance’s Murray said the NRA has put the false idea in Americans’ minds that guns make people safer, and that a Democratic-controlled administration means people’s guns will be taken away.

“In Connecticut, we proved that we can pass strong gun control laws and gun owners do not lose their Second Amendment rights,” Murray said. “Connecticut residents can still buy guns despite the strong gun laws we passed after the Sandy Hook tragedy.”

The NSSF’s Oliva disagrees.

“It seems against all odds that firearm sales continue to remain strong in every state, not just states traditionally labeled as ‘gun-friendly,’” Oliva said. “This sustained level of gun buying shows Americans from all walks of life value their Second Amendment rights and are acting on their ability to freely exercise it before it is encumbered by gun control laws.”

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342