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According to statistics published by the FBI, March 2020 saw the highest ever number of NICS firearms background checks performed, at 3,740,688, an increase of 33% from February. The FBI itself notes that this does not equate to a one-to-one correlation to the number of gun sales that have taken place, but it is at least a rough indicator that the number of gun sales has also seen a large increase.

This trend held true in practically every state of the US, with the exception of Kentucky.

What are the political factors which have led to such a large increase? Clearly, as the main news story currently is the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely that this has had an effect, but it's unclear to me why this would lead to such a higher rate of gun background checks/purchases, especially as lockdowns start to reduce footfall at non-private sales locations.

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    Probably they want have better control that the guns are used for defending and not aggression in these stressing and pandemic panic times. I’ve heard today Americans are not only hoarting toilet paper but also weapons. – Albrecht Hügli Apr 2 at 11:13
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    My question would be "What the heck is going on in Kentucky?" I think the only reason their numbers didn't go up is they were already ridiculously high. They have the second-largest numbers in the nation, exceeded only by Illinois (which notably increased by a smaller margin than most other states). Note that Illinois also has 4x as many people, which may account for their numbers. – Darrel Hoffman Apr 2 at 19:28
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    "Lockdown start to reduce footfall" - wrong, since firearms dealers are included in the list of "essential businesses" in the USA. You can't mess with people's constitutional rights to hoard weapons and ammunition! – alephzero Apr 3 at 1:34
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    Institutional racism is one contributor. When the country's leader says things like "The Chinese virus" it makes some people think that it's OK to start physically attacking Asian Americans, which in turn makes Asian Americans buy guns. #1 #2 – Aaron F Apr 3 at 9:34
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    @AndrewGrimm true, that claim is mine :-) However, logically, I would say that the government is an institution, and it's leader has said racist things; therefore "institutional racism" is a valid remark. (But then I would say that, wouldn't I?!) – Aaron F Apr 3 at 13:15
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There's a lot of panicked buying going on in general

It's become a joke how much people are hoarding toilet paper (in the US, in particular, it wasn't hard to find before this). But hoarding things is part of a broader issue (emphasis mine)

Australia has also suffered from panic buying of toilet paper despite plentiful domestic supply. A risk expert in the country explained it this way: "Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are 'doing something' when they feel at risk."

This is an example of "zero risk bias," in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.

Hoarding also makes people feel secure. This is especially relevant when the world is faced with a novel disease over which all of us have little or no control. However, we can control things like having enough toilet paper in case we are quarantined.

Guns still mean security to a lot of people

Guns are still a powerful way to protect oneself, and more than a few people fear social breakdown, despite the fact that no place in the US has suspended their police force due to the pandemic, nor are there widespread shortages of police. As such, people want weapons to stop intruders

Hyatt said that the type of guns being bought was reflective of the fear prevalent among customers. There was almost no interest in hunting rifles. Instead, people were opting for target guns and there was big demand for AR-15 semi-automatic assault-style rifles.

Asked why he thought the spike was happening, Hyatt replied: "Financial meltdown, pandemic, crime, politics … you throw it all into the pot, and you have one hell of a mess."

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  • AR-15s are not assault rifles. They are also usually not used for hunting, because they're too low powered for that. Most hunting rifles are higher caliber than AR-15s. And, it's illegal to hunt certain animals with AR-15s because they would only wound and not kill. AR-15s are good general purpose self-defense weapons, run on a popular caliber, and have lots of aftermarket parts / customizations available. – borisjoffe Apr 11 at 7:58
  • Not an assault rifle, but still an assault weapon. – Frank from Frankfurt Apr 17 at 15:19
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The panic buying of toilet paper and other items have also caused many people to worry about home/personal safety as well. Either for protecting their own supplies or worry about a general breakdown in society. So gun and ammo sales also jumped. Washington Post story link, may require subscription.

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Jails in many areas of the country are releasing inmates and police have publicly stated that they won't be responding to certain calls. Criminals who commit certain crimes will only be issued a warrant and not booked into jail.

Based on gun shop accounts, many Asians are buying guns. I think part of it is a fear of anti-Asian violence. However, this is likely psychological as I've only seen two documented cases of coronavirus-related physical assaults against Asians in the US and one in the UK. There has been a slightly higher incidence of verbal harassment against them though.

In general, there's a large amount of uncertainty about what's happening and no one has ever experienced this large of a pandemic in their lifetime, so an "insurance policy" of buying a gun just in case is a pretty rational way of lowering risk.

Ideally, one would get training, range time, and learn firearm safety / function at a slower pace from a professional, but many people didn't plan ahead and many of those training / education opportunities are closed at the moment.

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There are fears of supply chain breakdowns (okay, there are supply chain breakdowns, but there are fears of more significant ones in the future). Some people are gathering supplies against that possibility, while others are not. But being better supplied than your neighbors is a way of attracting violence to yourself. In a genuine crisis, there will be people who will steal, who will kill, and who will smash up the property of anyone they even suspect of having something they want. Merely having supplies is an uncertain benefit that can easily become a liability. Guns, in sensible hands, offer protection, and reduce that uncertainty. Many people are seriously considering this for the first time, coming to that conclusion, and making their purchase.

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The effects of the nationwide shutdown on the broader economy are causing massive (MASSIVE) increases in joblessness. Millions of people are going to run out of money soon. For the first time. They won't know how to navigate the government or philanthropic safety net programs to get them food, housing assistance, medical care, even though they exist. People will lose their HOMES. After a few days of watching their children go hungry, they will ask for help. The ones they ask, family, friends, have nothing to give sustainably for the weeks, months, or longer they are out of money. Maybe they'll find out how our welfare state in the US works, or maybe they'll get desperate and try to take. The losses of this event will be felt years into the future.

That future desperation is what these people are hedging against with their firearms purchases.

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