As the pandemic―and then the riots, lootings, fires and defund-the-police movements―raged across America, and as then-candidate and later President Joe Biden’s (D) anti-Second Amendment rhetoric grew ever more belligerent, millions of Americans reacted by buying guns. And it wasn’t just “traditional” gun owners who were buying guns and ammo.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), approximately 8 million new gun owners entered the market in 2020 alone. The fastest-growing demographic of new gun owners has been Black Americans, whose purchases in 2020 increased by 56% over the previous year. Women accounted for 50% of all first-time gun buyers in 2020. Many of the people buying guns live in urban or suburban areas. Independents, Republicans and Democrats are buying guns. This basic right is being embraced by people who fit into every demographic.
The increasing diversification of the gun-buying public elicits important questions. Most notably: Will first-time gun buyers become Second Amendment advocates?
To answer questions like this, we reached out to three people who have significant expertise in this field. The first was David Yamane, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University. He is completing a book about his journey through American gun culture, and he runs the “Gun Culture 2.0” and “Gun Curious” blogs. The second was Sarah Cade Hauptman, co-host of the podcast “Guns Guide to Liberals.” And then we spoke to Annette Evans, owner of the self-defense lifestyle brand “On Her Own.”
A New Trend or an Amplification? First, we wanted to dive into the issue of whether the increase in firearm purchases by minority groups was a trend unique to 2020 or an amplification of an existing trend.
The NSSF’s data suggests it is an amplification of an existing trend. The number of “non-traditional” gun buyers has been slowly but steadily increasing since 2016. According to professor Yamane, “Even prior to 2020, compared to long-standing gun owners, new gun owners tended to be more racially diverse (though still not very racially diverse), more urban and suburban, more politically liberal and more female than other gun owners.”
Evans also agrees that this is an amplification of an ongoing trend: “There has not only been more attention paid to the non-traditional gun market, but it has also snowballed because folks on the fence are seeing the coverage of others who look like them becoming gun owners, which makes gun ownership more possible in their minds.”
However, while the change in gun-buying habits is mostly the amplification of existing buying patterns, there is an element of uniqueness to it. Hauptman, a resident of Minneapolis, offered some thoughts on urban residents who’ve had eye-opening experiences during the periods of civil unrest. She said that “social unrest brought unique perspective changes for city dwellers, who have historically been neutral or cool toward guns. A big part of the trend was from people who suddenly realized there was a practical application for guns, even in the city.”
It seems the explosion of new-gun purchases in 2020 reflects the diversification trend, but what was a small spark before last year suddenly had a gallon of gasoline poured on it.
Are New Gun Owners Just Buying on Impulse? Based on the NSSF’s data, we can extrapolate that many of the firearms purchased by new gun owners have been sudden purchases. Gun purchases can be broadly grouped into two categories: opportunist and affinity. An affinity purchase is when a gun buyer, first-time or existing, buys a gun not out of an identifiable need but rather a desire. This could be as simple as “I want a new carry gun because this new product seems better,” or it could be a desire to grow their collection. An opportunistic purchase, on the other hand, is based around an identified need for a gun coupled with the opportunity to make the purchase. A good example of the 2020 opportunistic gun buyer would be someone uncomfortable with the growing civil unrest in the summer of 2020 who purchased a shotgun for home defense in case the unrest spread to their neighborhood.
Most affinity firearms purchasers value the Second Amendment and will often rate gun rights as one of their important political issues. Opportunistic purchasers, on the other hand, often do not, and are not invested in gun ownership beyond their specific need or desire to own a gun for self-defense. This gets to the most-important question about the new gun purchasers of 2020: How can these buyers be grown into Second Amendment advocates?
Professor Yamane explained the problem in detail: “Gun-owner identity and pro-gun political attitudes are not mechanically related to gun ownership. The mere fact of owning a gun does not make someone a ‘gun owner’ in terms of their identity. Individuals who come from non-traditional gun-owning demographics will not necessarily adopt a gun-owner identity or become reliable political allies in the struggle for gun rights, as many in the pro-gun movement hope or expect.”
Professor Yamane’s first suggestion on how to combat potential apathy regarding the Second Amendment simply boils down to being kind and welcoming to new gun owners.
Hauptman provided some specific details on how existing gun owners as a community can welcome people into the fold. She emphasized that bringing new gun owners into training, shooting sports and community shooting activities is more likely to convert them into firearms advocates, because “shooting is fun, and it’s more fun with friends.”
Theopportunity to create a larger and more bipartisan pro-Second Amendment voting block is greater than it has ever been.
Participation in shooting competitions and training events correlates with a deeper involvement in Second Amendment activism. Hauptman says, “The person who puts the gun in a drawer and never thinks about it again will not become an advocate. The person who feels unwelcome at the range because of their skin color, sexual orientation or gender expression will not become an advocate. The person who hangs out with you every Tuesday night at trap league, and goes out to dinner with you afterwards and knows your kids’ names and how little Susie is doing in kindergarten has deep social ties in the community. Such a person is more likely to listen when you talk about why you value the Second Amendment, and is more likely to become an advocate.”
One of the other ways to convert new gun owners into advocates is to educate them about the effects of gun laws. Evans points to a particular strategy around concealed-carry reciprocity laws. Carry permit applications also spiked in 2020, making this a potentially effective opportunity to educate. She says, “For example, talk about the impacts of not having concealed-carry reciprocity on travel or even just trips around town for those who live near state borders, but resist the urge to blame the lack of national reciprocity on a particular political party. Being politically non-partisan is vital if we want new advocates for gun ownership.”
Was Any of This a Surprise? As we’ve seen, the purchase boom in 2020 clearly points toward an amplification of existing trends in firearms purchases. But there was one slightly surprising data point revealed: 50% of new gun purchasers in 2020 were women.
For years, firearms-industry organizations have been attempting to market to women. While they’ve been somewhat successful, the enormous spike in purchases by women, specifically for home/family protection, is on an order of magnitude not seen before. Popular holster maker Phlster, for example, reported a “significant increase” in the number of its products sold to women, on a level they had never experienced. Social-media watchers have also documented an increase in accounts themed specifically around concealed carry for women in the past year.
However, this data makes sense when viewed as part of a larger trend of unease during the events of 2020. While record gun sales grabbed the headlines, the home-security industry also enjoyed a dramatic increase in sales. In the United States, we have a cultural connection that associates guns with protection; in 2020, the validity of that connection was reinforced by civil unrest and political instability.
Where Do We Go From Here? The surge in gun purchases from non-traditional demographics in 2020, which is continuing in 2021, presents an opportunity to help first-time buyers understand the importance of, and advocate for, their Second Amendment rights. As we’ve seen, the best route to convert new gun owners into advocates is some form of kindness and friendship. Getting all kinds of gun owners to become involved in the shooting sports, in training and in group shooting activities is a way to make gun ownership a part of their identity, instead of just something they happen to be. Having that identification as a gun owner then means that person will have an emotional association to their rights.
That plays out in real life when a new gun owner, who has become involved in shooting activities with their friends, sees a media outlet demonizing gun owners. Suddenly, those gun owners aren’t an out-group, they’re not an “other,” they’re a group that the viewer has become a part of, and so their reaction to that message will have changed.
Clearly, the events of 2020 accelerated changes that were already occurring. More people bought guns for protection than ever before, and more people bought ammunition in quantities never seen before. As a very diverse community, the supply-and-demand ripples of 2020 will be felt for years; it’s just as important that we embrace the ripples created by so many new and non-traditional gun buyers who are now taking their Second Amendment rights in their hands.
The opportunity to create an even larger and more bipartisan pro-Second Amendment voting block is greater than it has ever been. Major pro-gun organizations can be instrumental in influencing this movement, but the most powerful influencer is also the smallest. It’s you. It’s me. It’s every single American gun owner who loves freedom, loves the Second Amendment and loves to hunt, compete, carry concealed or defend their home. We have the power and the obligation to reach out to these new gun owners to welcome them in their use of this fundamental right, first as friends, and then as fellow advocates. That’s how we secure gun rights for generations to come.
Caleb Giddings is a professional shooter, firearms journalist and military firearms instructor. He appeared on the first season of “Top Shot” on the History Channel.