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New Studies Show Impact of Racism on Recent Surge of Gun Purchases

July 22, 2020

Amid a historic surge in gun sales, the Washington Post reported on two new studies from the Brookings Institute and University of California, Davis analyzing the daily firearm purchases from January 2020 to June 2020 to understand the impact of coronavirus and police violence protests on firearm sales. 

The Brookings researchers found that firearm purchases in June 2020 coincided with peaks in Google searches for racial epithets and that firearm purchases have been higher in states where these searches are more common. Researchers measured levels of racial animus using data on Google searches for the n-word — a method previously used in a 2015 study. The 2015 study noted that everyone searching the n-word is not motivated by racism, and that not all racists search for that word, but that “aggregated over several years and several million searches, the data give a pretty good approximation of where a particular type of racist attitude is the strongest.”

Additionally, the UC Davis researchers concluded that the surge of gun buying might also have led to an increase in gun injuries and deaths. While their analysis “cannot prove causality, particularly at a time of massive social upheaval in a country dealing with an unprecedented public health crisis as well as a nationwide protest movement,” but could be used as a marker given their attention to many confounding factors and similar results to other studies on surges of firearm purchases.

Taken together, the two studies suggest a “bleak picture of the United States in 2020.” According to the Washington Post, the research notes that “at least some of the spike in gun purchases is driven by racist beliefs and attitudes among white Americans,” and that every gun purchased by a new gun owner may be a step toward more gun violence —despite their motivations.

More findings from the studies:

  • Researchers found that the June increase in firearm sales coincided with an increase in racial animus. Beginning in late May, Google searches for racial epithets increased. The peak was on Juneteenth — which had more than twice the number of searches as previous months. States that were more likely to search for racial epithets had, on average, higher firearm sales in June 2020.
  • Background checks for firearm sales stabilized in April and May near the previous 2020 average (~92,000 per day), and did not immediately spike following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.
  • On June 1, the day of the Lafayette Square protest in Washington D.C., gun sales spiked again, exceeding 140,000. The single day counts did not reach the high of March, but stayed above 120,000 for most of the month.
  • An Everytown analysis of data from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) estimates that an additional 2.6 million firearms were sold from March through May 2020 compared to 2019. June 2020 sales alone were 49% higher than June 2019, with nearly 1.4 million additional firearms sales. The spike is similar in volume to the spike in gun purchases observed following the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting.

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