Federal gun purchase background checks jumped by nearly 100,000 in February — the largest year-over-year monthly increase since the 2016 elections and only the third increase since December 2016 — as buyers seemingly reacted to growing talk of gun control.
The increase, to 2.3 million run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, breaks a five-month streak of year-over-year declines amid what the industry has dubbed the “Trump slump” in gun sales.
But the school massacre in Parkland, Florida, last month and several high-profile shootings late last year have kick-started the gun control movement and may be encouraging firearms enthusiasts to buy now.
“The call for stronger gun laws now almost certainly is a factor explaining that upsurge right now,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor at State University of New York at Cortland who has written multiple books about gun policy.
The background checks don’t represent a one-to-one correlation to gun sales but are used as a general approximation for the health of the market.
Gun rights groups said there is no doubt that the Feb. 14 shooting, which killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, has been a major factor in the momentary spike in firearms sales.
“You can’t ban these things, and even speaking of it you’re only going to increase whatever it is you don’t like, and they just don’t get it,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Post-shooting surges in gun buying aren’t unusual. Political events such as President Obama’s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 have also spurred bigger gun markets, Mr. Spitzer said.
Dan Roberts, a past assistant director of the FBI’s criminal justice information services division, said Valentine’s Day also is one of the bigger days for gun checks.
Police say the gunman in Florida used an AR-15-style rifle in the massacre. In the wake of the shooting, activists renewed calls for bans on sales of the AR-15 and other semi-automatic rifles.
Activists also called for expanding the lists of people reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System as banned buyers of any firearm, and expanding the list of transactions subject to checks to include deals between private citizens.
Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said buyers are motivated by more than talk about bans. He said missteps by law enforcement in the run-up to Parkland and during the shooting have fueled interest in self-protection.
A Broward County sheriff’s deputy assigned as a resource officer at the high school has resigned and is under investigation after he failed to enter the building during the shooting.
“The failure of the Florida sheriff’s department to protect the students in Parkland, Florida, just reinforces the notion that people are ultimately responsible for their own defense,” Mr. Pratt said.
But gun manufacturers have made it clear that they are prepared for the broader Trump slump to continue.
Remington, the oldest gun manufacturer in the United States, announced this week that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this week amid slumping sales in the broader industry.
P. James Debney, CEO of American Outdoor Brands Corp. — the maker of Smith & Wesson guns — attributed a quarterly gross margin drop of about 30 percent this month to the challenging consumer market for firearms.
He didn’t appear to expect reports of increased sales after the Parkland shooting to continue.
“We believe that the new, lower levels of consumer firearm demand we saw reflected in the January NICS results may continue for some time,” he said.
Gun control groups said they fear Second Amendment advocates such as the National Rifle Association will try to bolster sales by expanding concealed-carry rights or pursuing other pro-gun legislation.
“Gun industry profits have slumped under this administration, and so the NRA has pushed for dangerous legislation that would profit gun manufacturers at the expense of public safety,” said Cassidy Geoghegan, a spokeswoman for the group Everytown for Gun Safety.
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