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Gun sales hit new record ahead of new Obama gun restrictions

New federal data shows 2015 was a record-smashing year for the American firearms industry, with gun sales appearing to hit the highest level on record. Background checks for gun purchases and permits jumped 10 percent last year to 23.1 million, the largest number since the federal background check system began operating in 1998.

Black Friday 2015 was the single biggest gun-purchasing day ever, with more than 185,000 checks processed, according to background check figures from the FBI. December saw the highest number of background checks processed in any month. The last five weeks of the year all ranked among the 10 biggest weeks ever for firearm background checks.

The year-end surge happened partly in response to the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., followed by President Obama's calls for more restrictions on gun sales. On Monday, Obama unveiled  a package of executive actions that seek to curb gun violence, including conducting more background checks.

This matches a pattern we've seen plenty of times in the past: tragedy, followed by calls for gun control, followed by surging firearm sales. Interest in concealed-carry permits has generally followed a similar pattern.

One point of caution with the FBI's numbers: The agency stresses that you can't draw a one-to-one correspondence between "background checks" and "gun sales." The numbers include background checks for gun permits, too, which may or may not be accompanied by a sale. Different states have different procedures in place for running permit checks, as The Washington Post's Philip Bump notes here. Some unknown but likely significant percentage of gun transactions don't involve a federally licensed dealer and hence aren't accompanied by a background check at all. (Obama's rules, which he formally announced Tuesday, would require more gun sellers to be licensed and conduct background checks.)

Still, the FBI's figures provide a useful approximation of overall gun transactions in this country. And they strongly indicate that 2015 was a great year for gun manufacturers.

One interesting wrinkle is that national surveys indicate that the number of households owning firearms is either flat or trending downward, depending on whether you prefer measurements by Gallup or the General Social Survey. If gun sales are increasing, as these numbers from the FBI and different data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives suggest, the implication is that most of the growth in the firearms industry is coming from existing owners stocking up on more guns, rather than new purchasers buying for the first time.

In 2013, for instance, calculations suggest there were about eight guns in the typical gun-owning household. That's double the number in 1994.

The gun-control actions announced by the Obama administration Tuesday are so modest -- clarifications on who needs a federal firearms license and calls for more research -- that even the NRA is generally shrugging its shoulders at the changes.

"This is it, really?" the NRA's Jennifer Baker asked the New York Times. "This is what they’ve been hyping for how long now? This is the proposal they’ve spent seven years putting together? They’re not really doing anything."

In the end, the biggest long-term impact of these gun policy changes may simply be another month of record gun sales in January.

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