In the wake of the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last week that left 19 children and two adults dead, the national conversation has again turned to guns.
National data on background checks required to buy guns at federally licensed dealers suggest a major uptick in the numbers purchased in recent years.
That includes Minnesota, where the number of background checks rose from 682,000 in 2019 to more than 900,000 in 2020 and 2021.
An increase in background checks
In Minnesota, the share of adults living in households with guns was estimated to be 37 percent in 2016, the most recent estimate available, according to statistical modeling by the RAND Corporation, a policy think tank.
That puts Minnesota above the national average of 32 percent. The state with the highest share of adults living in households with guns is Montana, at 63 percent. The states with the lowest shares were New Jersey, Massachusetts and Hawaii, at 9 percent.
But there are no precise numbers on how many guns there are in the United States — or in Minnesota, for that matter. The U.S. government does not track gun sales. Some gun owners want to keep it that way, because they say a registry of guns could ultimately lead to government seizure of them.
But there are data that can give us some idea of the pace of gun sales in the nation: The FBI reports the number of background checks completed in the course of people trying to purchase guns by state.
In Minnesota, a person purchasing a gun through a federally licensed dealer, including handguns and military-style assault weapons, needs to have a permit, which requires a background check. People with certain crimes on their records and under some mental health conditions are prohibited from possessing guns.
A background check isn’t a perfect indicator of a purchase of a gun — a person could be denied a background check or buy multiple guns in one transaction following a background check. There’s also a sizable loophole: People buying guns from private sellers are not required to undergo background checks.
Still, the background check data do give some, almost real-time information on interest in buying guns.
These data often show an uptick in background checks following a high-profile mass shooting.
And while the number of background checks has seen a slow and steady increase since 2005 in the U.S., it skyrocketed starting in March of 2020. Minnesota has followed a similar trend line.
Anecdotally, some have attributed the uptick in background checks or sales to the pandemic, protests after the police murder of George Floyd, the election of Joe Biden, the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack and stimulus checks.
But experts say we don’t really know what’s behind the increase.
Research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that examined gun-buying during the pandemic found the majority of gun purchases during the uptick of the last couple years were not among new gun owners.
“There was a lot of speculation out there that a huge fraction of people who were buying guns in 2020 and 2021 were new gun owners,” said Deborah Azrael, the director of research of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, an author of the study. “What we found was the fraction of people who were new gun owners didn’t seem to be higher in 2020 as compared to 2019, although the total number of people who are buying guns was greater.”
Shifting demographics, changing rationales
While the majority of gun owners in the U.S. are white males, the demographics seem to be shifting slightly. The research found that of 7.5 million adults who became new gun owners between January 2019 and late-April 2021, roughly half were women, 20 percent were Black and 20 percent were Hispanic. Demographics of new gun purchasers were similar in 2019 and 2020, which suggests this trend did not start in 2020.
People often give the same reason for buying guns. “I don’t think we know why, but if you ask why, people will say — mostly they’ll say for protection,” said Dr. Matthew Miller, associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and lead author of the study. But it’s also not clear what people mean by that, said Miller.
Over time, Azrael said the share of the U.S. gun stock that is handguns — which people typically buy for protection — has risen. “There’s been a shift broadly between what, 50 years ago, or even 40 years ago, might have been a gun culture that was dominated by hunting, recreational use of firearms, it seems now — at least as people describe – it could be more focused on sort of self-defense or self-protection,” she said.
If protection and self-defense is the aim, buying a gun is not — on the aggregate — a good means to achieve that end, research shows. Much research on the prevalence of guns is aimed at understanding how many people in the U.S. are exposed to them, because being around guns creates a higher risk of death by suicide and homicide.
“Deciding whether to own a gun involves balancing potential benefits and risks,” Azrael, Miller and colleagues write. “On balance, when an adult brings firearms into his or her household, the risk for death from suicide, homicide, and unintentional firearm injury increases substantially, not only for the gun owner but also for all of the other people with whom the gun owner lives.” They estimate the recent uptick in gun ownership adds more than 11 million people exposed to household guns.
In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, President Joe Biden is urging federal legislation to ban assault-style weapons like the one used by the gunman there, as well as to impose a “red flag law” that would allow the temporary removal of guns from people who are believed to be a danger to themselves or others.
The gun control debate has reignited in Minnesota too, as some lawmakers call for stricter background check measures, while others argue for addressing mental health.