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 once again turned to guns.
National data on background checks required to purchase firearms from federally licensed dealers suggests a significant increase in the number of purchases in recent years.
This includes Minnesota, where the number of background checks increased 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 at 37% in 2016, the most recent estimate available, according to statistical modeling by the RAND Corporationa policy think tank.
That puts Minnesota above the national average of 32%. The state with the highest proportion of adults living in households with guns is Montana, at 63%. The states with the lowest shares were New Jersey, Massachusetts and Hawaii, at 9%.
Estimated share of adults living in households with firearms, Minnesota and the United States, 1980-2016
The chart shows three-year moving averages. Estimated standard errors range from 2 to 4 percentage points.
Source: RAND Corporation
But there are no hard numbers on the number of guns in the United States — or in Minnesota, for that matter. The US government does not track arms sales. Some gun owners want it to stay that way because they say a gun registry could eventually lead to their seizure by the government.
But there is data that can give us an idea of the pace of gun sales in the country: The FBI reports the number of background checks performed on people trying to buy guns by state.
In Minnesota, a person who purchases a firearm through a federally licensed dealer, including military-style handguns and assault weapons, must have a license, which requires a background check. People with certain crimes on their record and suffering from certain mental health problems are ban on owning weapons.
A background check is not a perfect indicator of buying a gun – a person could be denied a background check or buy multiple guns in one transaction after a background check. There is also a significant loophole: people who buy firearms from private sellers are not required to undergo background checks.
Yet background check data gives near real-time information about interest in buying firearms.
This data often shows a slight increase 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 United States, it skyrocketed beginning in March 2020. Minnesota followed a similar trend line.
Minnesota Firearms Background Check by Year
Anecdotally, some have attributed the rise in background checks or sales to pandemic, protests after the police killing of George Floyd, the election of Joe Bidenthe January 6 United States Capitol attack and stimulus checks.
But experts say we don’t really know what’s behind this increase.
To research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine which examined the purchase of guns during the pandemic found that the majority of gun purchases over the past two years were not for new gun owners.
“There was a lot of speculation out there that a large portion of people buying guns in 2020 and 2021 were new gun owners,” said Deborah Azrael, research director of Harvard Injury Control. Research Center, author of the study. . “What we found was that the fraction of people who were new gun owners did not appear to be higher in 2020 compared to 2019, although the total number of people buying firearms fire be higher.”
Changing demographics, changing logics
While the majority of gun owners in the United States are white males, the demographics seem to be shifting slightly. The research found that of the 7.5 million adults who became new gun owners between January 2019 and the end of April 2021, about half were female, 20% were black, and 20% were Hispanic. The demographics of new gun buyers were similar in 2019 and 2020, suggesting that 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 — most of the time 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 unclear what people mean by that, Miller said.
Over time, Azrael said the share of America’s gun stock made up of handguns — which people typically buy for protection — has increased. “There has been a general shift between what 50 or even 40 years ago might have been a gun culture dominated by hunting, the recreational use of guns it now seems – du less as people portray it – it could be more focused on some sort of self-defense or self-protection,” she said.
If protection and self-defense is the goal, buying a gun isn’t – on the whole – a good way to achieve that goal, according to research. Much research on the prevalence of firearms aims to understand how many people in the United States are exposed to them, since the presence of firearms creates a higher risk of death by suicide and homicide.
“Deciding whether or not to own a gun involves balancing the potential benefits and risks,” write Azrael, Miller and colleagues. “Overall, when an adult brings firearms into their household, the risk of death from suicide, homicide and unintentional firearm injury increases dramatically, not only for the gun owner but for all the other people with whom the owner of the weapon lives.” They estimate that the recent increase in gun ownership adds more than 11 million people exposed to household firearms.
Following the Uvalde shooting, President Joe Biden urges federal legislation to ban assault weapons like the one used by the shooter there, as well as impose a “red flag law” that would allow the temporary removal of firearms from people deemed a danger to them themselves or for others.
The gun control debate is reignited in minnesota too, as some lawmakers are calling for tougher background checks, while others are advocating for mental health.