The eight years during which Barack Obama served as president were a boom time for the gun industry. Obama’s consistent and futile efforts to introduce new regulations restricting gun sales were whipped into rhetoric about imminent crackdowns on gun ownership — rhetoric that predated Obama’s election, much less his policy efforts.
There’s been some indication that gun sales have receded in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The go-to metric for gun sales — a figure that isn’t directly compiled by the government — is the number of federal background checks completed during a month. The biggest month for such checks tends to be December, as people buy firearms as Christmas gifts. In December 2015, the FBI conducted 3.3 million background checks. In December 2016, after Trump’s win? 2.8 million.
Over the first two months of the year, the number of checks completed totaled 4.3 million. In January and February 2016, the total was 5.2 million. That’s a 2017 decline of 17 percent — but it was also the third-highest January-February total on record. (The FBI started conducting background checks in 1998.)
(The second-highest January-February period came in 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre and Obama’s most robust push for new regulations.)
Put another way, the total number of checks in the first two months of this year was larger than the total in 2014 and 2015 — and at least 50 percent greater than every year before 2012.
Background checks are an imprecise measure, though, including things such as background checks for those seeking a concealed-carry permit. In Kentucky, for example, those with such permits undergo monthly background checks, driving up the national number.
A more precise estimate comes from excise tax data collected by the government and analyzed by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Each time a gun or ammunition is sold, the Firearms and Ammunition Excise Tax (FAET) is applied, allowing the NSSF to then estimate sales figures for handguns, long guns and ammunition.
Even before Obama took office, sales figures were increasing, as the background check data make clear. But the increase from 2012 on was sustained. In 2011, Americans spent about $4.3 billion on firearms and ammunition, according to FAET data. In 2012, when gun sales spiked after Sandy Hook, the total topped $6 billion. In 2013, the total was more than $8 billion.
The end result is that total sales of guns and ammunition during Obama’s eight years in office were over $45.7 billion dollars — and that’s without data for the fourth quarter of 2016. That’s $29.1 billion on firearms — $14.7 billion of which was long guns — and $16.6 billion on ammunition. When fourth-quarter numbers come in, those figures will climb.
Converted into 2016 dollars, it’s clear how much more was spent on firearms and ammunition under Obama than his predecessors.
During the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Americans spent an estimated $21.1 billion and $22.9 billion in 2016 dollars on guns and ammunition, respectively. Under Obama, Americans spent more than that total combined.
It’s too early for us to figure out the extent to which having Trump in office will affect that number. (The National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre hasn’t exactly softened his tone, post-inauguration.) Trump would be hard-pressed to be the same boon to the gun industry that Obama was — no doubt to his chagrin.