This is SafeHome.org’s annual update on guns in the United States, including firearm background checks, estimated gun sales, gun-related deaths and crimes, and mass shooting events.
Table of Contents
- Gun Sales and Background Checks
- Gun Laws
- Firearm-Related Deaths
- Firearms Used in Crimes
- Police-Related Shootings
- School Shootings and Other Mass Shootings
Where this data comes from:Data sources are cited throughout the report, and include: FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System, NICS Firearm Checks, Month/Year by State, U.S. Census Bureau population by single year of age, Guns to Carry, Giffords Law Center, Centers for Disease Control, FBI UCR Crime Reports, The Violence Project, K-12 School Shooting Database from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at Naval Postgraduate School, and the Washington Post.
If you would you like more information:If you are researching this topic, and would like additional information, feel free to reach out to us and we will connect you with our research team.
Gun Sales and Background Checks Gun Sales in 2021After a record year in 2020, gun sales in the U.S. dipped slightly in 2021. Still, with nearly 19 million guns sold, 2021 was the second-highest year for gun sales in the U.S. — behind only 2020, when estimated gun sales topped 21 million. The previous record year was 2016, with about 16 million guns sold. Total estimated gun sales fell 13 percent between 2020 and 2021, but they remained higher than they were in 2019 (up nearly 40 percent). The total number of guns sold in 2021 is more than double the number sold in 2001; in fact, sales in the U.S. rose by about 155 percent between 2002 and 2021. No state had more gun sales in 2021 than Texas, where an estimated 1.6 million firearms were sold in the nation’s second-largest state. Florida followed closely with 1.4 million firearms sold. Hawaii’s total was the lowest, but this is likely due in part to how state officials there report firearm background checks to the FBI.
|State||Total estimated guns sold in 2021||Guns sold per adult aged 21+|
|District of Columbia||4,934||0.01|
The three largest U.S. states had the three highest totals for estimated gun sales, but after adjusting for differences in population, other national leaders emerged. For example, Wyoming, which ranks 43rd for total estimated gun sales, is first for per-capita gun sales (0.19 guns sold per adult 21 and older). And Texas, where more than 1.6 million guns were sold in 2021, according to our estimates, comes in at 34th on a population-adjusted basis. In addition to Wyoming, several other small states are near the top of the list when it comes to per capita gun sales. Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota, which are all among the 10 smallest states, rank in the top five for estimated per-capita gun sales.
FYI: People purchase firearms for a variety of reasons, one of which is home protection. Other means of home protection include installing a home security system or purchasing reliable security cameras.
As we mentioned, 2021 marked a slight decline from the previous year in the number of guns sold across the U.S., and most states reflect this as well with a few exceptions. Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, and New Jersey all saw total estimated gun sales climb between 2020 and 2021, with D.C. posting a 37 percent gain. Nevada had the biggest single-year decline in estimated gun sales — 25 percent.Percentage Change in Estimated Gun Sales by State, 2020-21 vs. 2002-21
|State||2020-2021 change||2002-2021 change|
|District of Columbia||37%||1,750%|
But while most states saw gun sales fall in 2021, taking a longer look reveals that on an overall and population-adjusted basis, more people are buying guns in almost every state. And in some cases, the increases are significant, but they must be understood in context.
In D.C., for example, gun sales per capita rose by more than 1300 percent between 2002 and 2021. But gun sales in the district were extremely low before a court ruling in 2006 struck down the city’s ban on handguns. Still, Washington D.C continues to lead when it comes to upward trends in gun sales. Total sales have risen by almost 1,800 percent, which means no other state gets half as close.And all states have seen total gun sales rise over the past 20 years, though numbers vary pretty widely from state to state.
Background ChecksOur analysis of gun sales is based on background checks requested from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and while it’s far from a one-to-one comparison, understanding background checks can help you understand how demand for guns rises and falls.
About 4.6 million background checks were processed through the NICS in March 2021, the highest number on record. The second-highest month? Just two months earlier — January 2021, when almost 4.3 million checks were processed.The top 10 months for background checks all occurred in 2020 and 2021, and all but four of the top 25 months have occurred since 2019.
Gun LawsWhile there are a few federal gun laws, permit, registration, background check, open carry, and age limit laws for firearms vary from state to state, and legislatures across the country regularly consider changes to their gun laws. Looking at some of the most common types of gun regulations, including permit and purchase requirements for handguns and long guns, registration, open carry, and background checks, a few states are considered to have the most restrictive laws on gun purchases and ownership. California, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York have some of the strongest laws in place. On the other hand, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming have the fewest restrictions in place.
Gun-Related DeathsAfter dipping slightly between 2018 and 2019, gun deaths in the U.S. climbed by more than 14 percent from 2019 to 2020, the most recent year for comprehensive national data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And since 2001, gun deaths have climbed by about 50 percent in the U.S. Fifty-five percent of gun-related deaths in 2020 were the result of suicide, which has been the leading cause of gun death for at least two decades. But notably, that rate is a steep one-year decrease from 2019, when about 61 percent of gun deaths were suicides. Similarly, the rate of fatal assaults involving guns rose to 43 percent in 2020 (from 36 percent in 2019). On a population-adjusted basis, gun deaths occurred at a rate of 13.6 per 100,000 people in 2020. This is higher than the death rates for breast cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and motor vehicle accidents. And between 2019 and 2020, the gun-related death rate in the U.S. rose by about 14 percent, going from 11.9 per 100,000 people to 13.6 per 100,000. Similarly, a majority of states saw their gun death rate rise in 2020, led by an 83 percent increase in Rhode Island, while 16 other states had increases of 20 percent or more in the space of just one year. Age-adjusted Gun Death Rate by State, 2019-2020
|State||2019 gun-related deaths per 100,000||2020 gun-related deaths per 100,000||Percentage Change 2019-2020|
|District of Columbia||16.1||20.1||25%|
Guns Used in CrimesAbout three-quarters of homicides in 2020 involved a firearm, according to FBI crime data, while 37 percent of robberies and 35 percent of aggravated assaults were committed using a gun. But these figures vary pretty dramatically from state to state. For example, 35 percent of homicides in Hawaii involved a gun (which much lower than the national rate), while almost 60 percent of aggravated assaults in North Carolina did, which is much higher than the national rate. Percentage of Crimes Involving Guns by State, 2020
|District of Columbia||87%||46%||30%|
Police-Related ShootingsFor as well-studied as certain aspects of gun ownership and gun violence may be, there’s one area that remains shrouded in uncertainty: the rate at which police and law enforcement officers shoot and kill people. According to data from the Washington Post, more than 6,800 people have been shot and killed by police officers since 2015. Another study published recently in the medical journal The Lancet determined that nearly 31,000 people were killed by police between 1980 and 2018.1 The Lancet study also found that in addition to thousands of people having been killed by police officers, a majority of those deaths were not reported as being law enforcement-related in federal health statistics. According to the Post’s database, 2020 was the deadliest year for police violence, with 1,021 people being killed by law enforcement officers, while 2021 had the lowest total since the project’s records began (888 deaths).
Number of People Shot and Killed by Police by State, 2015-2021
|District of Columbia||4||5||2||1||1||1||7|
Mass & School ShootingsSimilarly to police violence, there are no formal federal resources devoted to studying mass violence, including mass shootings and shootings in schools. In both cases, outside organizations have stepped in to better understand these types of incidents. Mass Shootings A mass shooting is generally considered an incident in which at least four people are killed, not including the shooter, in a single location or sites that are nearby with no connection to another crime. The Violence Project (TVP), a nonpartisan nonprofit maintains a database of mass shootings going back to 1960, and according to TVP’s research, only two mass shooting incidents occurred in 2020, while there were five in 2021. These figures are both lower than the preceding two years, when a total of 17 incidents occurred. These types of incidents are incredibly unpredictable, with incident numbers and casualties swinging dramatically from year to year. That said, between the 1960s and 1980s, such incidents occurred at an average of about 1.8 per year; since then, the U.S. has averaged 4.4 mass shootings per year. They also have become deadlier. In 2020, nine people total were killed in mass shootings, and in 2002, four people died in mass shooting incidents. School Shootings Since the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado, American schools have become unfortunately regular sites for gun violence, deaths, and injuries. According to the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security, which tracks incidents in which a gun is brandished or fired on school grounds, more than 250 school gun incidents occurred in 2021, which represents a massive increase from 2020. In fact, in 2020, as many schools shifted to remote learning in an effort to reduce the impact of Covid-19, school shootings and attempted shootings fell to 114, a decline from both 2018 and 2019. In addition to a high-water mark for incidents, 2021 also had the highest number of school shooting injuries (165) and the second-highest number of fatalities (42). Only eight states had no school shootings or gun-related incidents in 2021, while Illinois had the most (23), followed by California (21), New York (15), and North Carolina (15). Shooting or Gun-Related Incidents in Schools by State, 2017-2021
|District of Columbia||2||1||1|
About This Data
The information in this report came from a variety of sources, and where possible, we have linked the original data below. In some cases, custom database queries were created that can’t be linked directly.
Background checks: The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check; we used data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia2 but excluded territories. For this reason, our national data may vary slightly from other research on the topic.
Estimated gun sales: With the NICS data, we calculated estimated gun sales by state per month and year using a formula that’s generally accepted in the firearms industry.3
Gun-related deaths: We conducted a custom query using the CDC’s WONDER database, covering all deaths from firearms except those related to military service.6
Guns in crimes: We analyzed data from the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer tool covering the use of guns in homicide, robbery, and aggravated assault. As noted, data on all crimes was limited for Alabama, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and detailed homicide data was unavailable for Florida.7
Shootings: We used data compiled by the Washington Post on police shootings8, data compiled by the Violence Project on mass shootings9, and data from the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) on school shootings10. School shooting data includes incidents that did not involve active shooters.