Minnesotans have bought 1.5 million new guns since the start of the pandemic

By: - November 8, 2023 6:00 am

Shoppers try out guns during a gun show at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Close to 1.5 million guns have been sold in Minnesota since the start of the pandemic, according to a new Reformer estimate based on the latest background check data from the FBI.

Those numbers reflect a surge in gun purchases at the height of the pandemic, and the gun buying has yet to subside fully. And it came directly on the heels of a smaller spike during the Obama administration, when worries about new gun control proposals — most of which failed to come to fruition — prompted waves of panic-buying

Numbers through the first nine months of 2023 suggest that approximately 300,000 guns will be sold in Minnesota through the end of this year. The figures used throughout this article are estimates based on FBI background check data, which is published monthly. 

Those background checks don’t correlate 1:1 with actual gun sales. Some people purchase multiple guns at a time, and some sales — between private buyers and sellers — happen without a background check. For this story, background check numbers are converted to sales estimates following a method used by the New York Times and the Small Arms Survey

The trend data show that gun sales in Minnesota increased modestly in the first decade of the 2000s. But that changed during the Obama administration, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook mass school shooting in 2012. Fears of new gun restrictions prompted panic buying across the country, and Minnesota was no exception.

Sales didn’t return to their pre-Sandy Hook baseline until Donald Trump’s second year in office in 2018. But they rose again in 2019 and exploded in 2020, when fears of social breakdown at the dawn of the pandemic prompted another round of fear buying.

For most of the 21st century, sales of long guns, which include rifles and shotguns, outpaced sales of handguns in Minnesota. But the pandemic purchasing wave inverted those numbers, as handgun sales tripled between 2018 and 2020. That reflects a growing concern for self defense, as opposed to more traditional pursuits like hunting and target shooting.

The composition of long gun sales has changed too. While precise state-level breakdowns aren’t readily available, national estimates tell the story. In 2000, data from the National Shooting Sports Federation, an industry trade group, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms suggest that traditional shotguns and hunting rifles accounted for more than 95% of long guns manufactured and sold in the U.S.

But by 2019, close to three-quarters of those long gun sales are of what the industry calls the modern sporting rifle, a term for the AR-15s and other military-style weapons which are increasingly the gun of choice for both mass murderers and recreational shooters.

The breakdown in Minnesota likely follows a similar pattern, although the greater prevalence of hunting here than nationwide may boost the relative sales of shotguns, bolt-action rifles and other traditional long guns.

All told, the FBI background check data suggest that since the year 2000, Minnesotans have purchased more than enough guns to arm every man, woman, child and infant currently residing in the state. But those guns aren’t distributed evenly through the population. While definitive data is scarce, a RAND Corp. estimate from 2020 found that guns were present in about 39% of Minnesota homes in 2016. 

That share has likely increased since the pandemic. And with it, the odds of gun homicide, gun suicide and accidental shootings.

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.