The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Gun sales have exploded. Funny, that didn’t make us all safer.

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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In recent years, and especially since the pandemic began, we’ve seen an explosion of our already extraordinary levels of gun manufacturing and sales. If gun advocates — a group that includes pretty much the entire GOP — are correct in their oft-stated assertion that more guns means more safety, shouldn’t we be enjoying a paradise of security, with crime plunging to never-before-seen lows?

That isn’t happening, of course. How can we explain this mystery?

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives just released a report documenting the mind-boggling scale of gun manufacturing in the United States. It shows that from 2010 to 2020, the number of guns produced every year doubled.

Yet the United States experienced a spike in certain kinds of crime in 2020. Most notable were the jumps in homicides and aggravated assaults.

Conservatives have their own explanation for this spike, of course: Democrats are at fault. Sure, Joe Biden didn’t become president until 2021, but aren’t there progressive prosecutors in cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia? They must have caused the increase in murders that happened all across the country, even in places with tough-on-crime Republicans in charge. And now that Biden is president, every new homicide is obviously his doing.

But why haven’t all the guns protected us?

The ATF report should force this question on us. It finds that in 2020, over 11 million guns were made in the United States. While rifles used to be the most common weapons made, 6.5 million of the 11.3 million guns manufactured in 2020 were handguns.

Now consider sales. We don’t have records of private sales, nor can we accurately document the increasing number of “ghost guns” ― untraceable guns manufactured at home, usually with parts ordered over the Internet and sometimes with 3D-printed parts. According to the ATF report, police recovered 19,344“privately made firearms” from crimes 2021, 11 times more than five years before.

The closest we can come to a count of gun sales comes from the National Instant Criminal Background Check system. It counts sales from federally licensed dealers (though not every gun sold; if you buy five guns at a shop, you’ll get one background check).

NICS data shows an explosion in gun sales when the covid-19 pandemic began, from 28.4 million in 2019 to 39.7 million in 2020. In 2021 those sales stayed high, at 38.9 million.

Altogether, approximately 400 million guns are in circulation in the United States, accounting for nearly half the privately owned guns in the entire world. If you believe gun advocates, this should make us the safest society on earth. Yet our homicide rates are higher than all our peer countries where guns are much harder to obtain.

So to repeat: Why didn’t all those guns stop homicides from happening? How could people still be killing each other with all those peacemaking guns on the streets?

But oh, no, gun advocates will say, all those new gun purchases in 2020 and 2021 were a response to rising crime, not the cause. But then why hasn’t homicide plunged as those tens of millions of new guns got into people’s hands?

To be clear, I’m not arguing that the increase in homicides was only the result of spiking gun sales. We don’t yet know, and it’s a complicated problem to unpack. We do know that people who own guns are much more likely to kill themselves. We know that states that pass “stand your ground” laws are more likely to see homicide rates increase.

We also know that the United States has more mass shootings than any other country on Earth, in part because it’s so easy for angry, hateful men to acquire the means to kill many people at once. We know that the presence of a gun allows ordinary arguments to turn deadly.

And we know that everyone in the nation just seems angrier lately, in large part because of everything that came with the pandemic. We see the results all over; for instance, vehicle deaths hit a 16-year high last year. It’s unclear exactly why, but it could certainly be that people are driving more aggressively; you may have noticed that yourself.

What we also know is that the bonkers argument that gun advocates make — that we’ll be safer if more of us are armed — is proved wrong, again and again.

From a policy standpoint, they’ve gotten just about everything they wanted in recent years. They persuaded the Supreme Court to declare in 2008 for the first time that people have an individual right to own guns. They defeated modest efforts to require universal background checks. They’ve gotten state after state to lift restrictions on gun ownership, in many cases allowing almost anyone to carry a gun almost anywhere — no license, training, or background check required.

Did any of that make us safer? Of course not.

It’s hard to believe that gun advocates really believe more guns make us all safer. They might think having a gun will make them safer, since they fantasize about taking out the home invaders or terrorist strike team that might lay siege to their castle, but they know what guns do more broadly.

No, their real belief is that the right to unlimited gun ownership is so profoundly fundamental to what it means to be a free human being that even if gun proliferation did produce more homicides and suicides, that’s the price we must pay.

Well, we’re paying the price. And we’re going to keep paying it.

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