America's Handgun Boom—in 4 Charts

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According to CNN, police discovered a high-powered rifle as well as a pair of handguns at the scene of today's grisly shooting in Connecticut. Most violent crime, however, just involves handguns, and we're currently at the end of a significant ten-year pop in their sales.  

Let's start with the very big picture. Gun trade groups tend to peg firearm sales at a steady $4 billion annually. But there's evidence that, as of late, we've been on a buying spree. The number of criminal background checks on prospective gun buyers has roughly doubled since 2003. And although those stats don't actually tell us the precise number of firearms sold in the country -- about two out of every five guns are sold without a background check thanks to the so-called "gun show loophole" -- it gives us a sense of the direction gun sales has been headed.* 

FBI_NICS_Background_Checks.PNG


What kinds of guns are they buying? Pistols, it appears. As shown in this graph from George Washington University Professor John Sides the percentage of households reporting that they own a pistol or a shotgun has shot back up from its all time lows, even as the overall level of gun ownership has continued to slowly wane. We're still way off from the ownership rates of the 1980s, but the bounce-back is nonetheless remarkable. 

gun-ownership-declining1.png

That survey data dovetails neatly with manufacturing data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which has shown a positive boom in handgun making. Overall, firearms manufacturing has shot up 86 percent. About 70 percent of that growth was from pistols. ATF_Gun_Manufacturing.PNG

Imports of handguns have shown similarly impressive growth. 

ATF_Gun_Imports.PNG

So pistols and revolvers have been flying off the shelves. I won't try to guess why. A few press reports have attributed this burst of commerce to paranoia among gun enthusiasts that a Democratic administration would try to ban firearm sales. I'm not necessarily sold on that notion, given that sales started picking up before Obama was in office. But it's clear that the kinds of weapons firearms lovers have re-embraced over the past few years are the sort that tend to make gun control advocates nervous. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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