Gun sales have benefited partly from a string of high-profile mass shootings. They’ve benefited also from the perception that elected officials — Obama in particular — seeks to curtail gun ownership. Evidence suggests, though, that the prospect of a Hillary Clinton electoral victory isn’t spurring gun sales the way Obama did.
There are a few patterns that we’ve seen over the past decade or so, looking at federal background check data collected by the FBI, a fairly rough estimate of gun sales. (Why rough? Some states, like Kentucky, require additional background checks, which can drive up the numbers.) One pattern: Background checks have steadily increased, beginning an upward curve shortly before Obama took office. Another: Gun sales are cyclical over the course of the year, peaking around Christmas.
Since the FBI started performing background checks in 1998, this is how the monthly total has evolved. We’ve marked presidential election years and the year prior, since we’ll be looking at that in a second.
Those two patterns are obvious: Each year is a U-shaped curve but the general trend has been upward. Of the 10 days on which the most background checks have been conducted, eight are in November or December (including three Black Fridays) and half are in 2014 or 2015. All the rest are in 2012, mostly after the Newtown, Conn. mass shooting that spurred President Obama to call for new limits on gun purchases.
The Newtown massacre is clearly visible when we compare the number of background checks performed each month of a presidential election cycle (the year of the election and the year prior) with the average number of monthly background checks the year before the cycle started.
In 2003 and 2004, the number of background checks wasn’t much different than the average in 2002, save the expected pattern. In 2008, the figures were higher; 11 of the 12 months of 2008 saw higher background check levels than in 2006. In 2012, sales spiked after Obama’s reelection, thanks in part to Newtown. But the number of background checks in 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 were both higher than in 2003-2004, particularly in the election year.
The pattern in 2015 and 2016 has been different. The terror attack in San Bernardino in December spiked the number of background checks that were performed — but over the course of 2015, background checks were lower (relative to the year prior) than they had been in 2007 or 2011. At the beginning of the year, the percentage of background checks was at Obama 2012 levels, but that had faded by May. The mass shooting in Orlando in June spiked background checks again that month and in July, but in August the number had again receded. August was also the month it seemed mostly likely Clinton would win.
Donald Trump has spent a lot of energy arguing (falsely) that Clinton wants to undo the Second Amendment. He got an early endorsement from the NRA that he regularly brings up on the campaign trail. That message doesn’t seem to have taken hold as well as it did with Obama. (In the Democratic primary in 2008, Clinton actually hit Obama on being anti-gun.)
That may change if Clinton is elected. Over the course of Obama’s two terms, background checks spiked whenever he called for new legislation expanding background checks or limiting what types of weapons can be purchased. Clinton has pledged similar actions. If she wins in November and makes a push to that end, expect gun sales to spike again.