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Nation & World

2020 Saw A Boom In Gun Sales. These New Buyers Could Shape The Future Of Gun Control

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

2020 was the biggest year ever for gun sales in the United States. Some 20 million guns were purchased legally, and some firearms industry estimates say as many as 40% of the purchasers were buying a gun for the first time. Steve Gutowski is the founder of the publication The Reload, and he's long covered firearm policy and gun culture. And he joins us now. Hello.

STEPHEN GUTOWSKI: Hey. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is good to have you. I want to start talking a little bit about this huge growth in gun ownership in this past year. It seems to include many more women, people of color than in the past. I mean, are you seeing a general trend towards more acceptance of gun ownership among a wider population, or do you think this was more a one-off during a chaotic, upsetting year?

GUTOWSKI: Yeah. I think it's actually a - part of a larger trend. We've seen this going on for over a decade now. Gun owners have become more suburban. They've become less white and less male and younger over that time period. And what you saw last year was just an acceleration of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what was behind it? Is it just the idea that they have the right, and they should have a gun, or is something else driving it?

GUTOWSKI: Yeah. Well, I think there's actually a number of factors. First, you had the chaos that came along with the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns. You had people being released from prison early. You had what happened with George Floyd being killed. That led to concern among African Americans for their safety. And then, of course, you saw a lot of racist attacks on Asian Americans. That motivated a lot of them to purchase guns, as well. And then you also had the rioting across the country in multiple cities, which really pushed a lot more people to buy guns for themselves. You know, on top of all that, you had the normal motivator for gun surges, which is politics.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm curious - is there a common ground? What does your reporting tell you about what gun owners do support when it comes to laws that regulate firearms?

GUTOWSKI: Certainly, you do see in polling, generally speaking, a high level of approval for things like, you know, universal background checks. And you'll even generally see a majority of support for things like assault weapons bans. But even, for instance, universal background checks, which poll very well - when those are actually put up for a vote - for instance, Maine had a vote, ballot initiative on universal background checks a few years ago, and it actually failed - there's oftentimes a disconnect, I think, between public opinion polling and motivated voting.

But certainly, I think, there are common grounds between gun owners and people who want to, you know, reduce gun crime and gun violence. And oftentimes, you'll see some levels of agreement in areas that don't involve restriction of firearm access but instead focus on violence interruption. Even the president has proposed a great deal of new funding for violence interruption programs, which I think are far less controversial than things like new gun bans because they focus on trying to zero in on the people who are more likely to commit gun crimes and try to, you know, prevent incidents from escalating into violence.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Looking ahead, as we see, you know, this huge spate in gun violence, where do you think this conversation's headed?

GUTOWSKI: Yeah. I think two important things to come for guns in America are, one, whether or not this murder spike that we've seen over the last year and a half or so continues to pick up steam and we get back to the violence levels we had in the 1990s because we're still - even with this spike, we're still at near historic lows when it comes to gun violence and murder in the United States. But if it continues on, that, obviously, could change the conversation around guns in America.

At the same time, all those new gun owners, especially ones from traditionally Democratic demographics - like, who vote for Democrats - how they progress in their gun ownership is going to make a big difference, I think, five, 10 years down the line on how not just the Republican Party deals with guns but how the Democratic Party deals with it. If they become less willing to vote for politicians who advocate stricter gun laws, you could see the Democratic Party adapt to that new reality and move back towards the center on the issue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stephen Gutowski - he's the founder of the publication The Reload. Thank you very much.

GUTOWSKI: Yeah. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.