Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Gun Sales Are Soaring in Wisconsin

Up 114% since 2000. A change in who owns guns, what kind they own and why they own them.

By - Mar 9th, 2021 04:44 pm
Hanging sculpture of guns from another angle. Photo by Craig Mastantuono.

Hanging sculpture of guns from another angle. Photo by Craig Mastantuono.

America loves guns. 

The U.S. has just 4% of the world’s population but owns about 40% of civilian-owned guns globally, according to a 2018 report from the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey. The report estimated that American civilians own 393 million guns, ranking the U.S. first in firearms per capita. 

The group compared all countries and found the U.S. has 120.5 guns per 100 civilians, with the tiny Falkland Islands ranking second at 62.1 guns per 100 civilians. Among developed countries, Canada was closest to America but far behind, with 34.7 guns per 100 civilians. 

How does Wisconsin fit into this picture? We rank ahead of 19 states and the District of Columbia in the number of registered guns, an analysis by found. Which is to say, Wisconsin has more guns than just about anywhere on earth, save for other states in America. 

It’s a surprise to see that Wisconsin, which ranks 20th in total population, ranks 31st in registered guns, suggesting this state is slightly below the U.S. average in per capita registered guns. After all, this is a big hunting state. 

But the state is doing its best to increase its stock of guns. “It’s projected that 2020 will be a record year for gun sales in Wisconsin, with an expected 42 percent single-year increase over 2019 and an increase of 26 percent over the previous record year (2016),” as a report by noted.

Since 2000, the report found, Wisconsin’s per-capita gun sales rose by 114 percent. “Wisconsin’s gun sales levels rose steadily before a huge single-year increase in 2012, and sales have remained largely at that level since then.” 

Yet, if it seems like the state is going crazy over guns, that 114% increase was actually behind 22 other states, the report shows. “The majority of states have seen triple-digit increases [100% or more] in the number of annual gun sales over the past two decades, though not every state has had such a dramatic rise in firearms sales. In Iowa and Nebraska, for example, gun sales rose between 2000 and 2020, but by just about 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively.” 

How did these states resist America’s ongoing rage for ever more guns? The report offers no theories, but its statistics do suggest that Iowa and Nebraska are likely to have fewer gun deaths as a result. The report notes that over the last two decades the population-adjusted rate of gun deaths rose by about 15 percent with two-thirds of the deaths involving suicides. Many studies have linked gun ownership to such suicides. Women who own handguns, for instance, are 35 times more likely to die of gun suicides.

Why are gun sales soaring in most states? A key factor is the rise in the number of fatalities from mass killings in America, with the number of lives lost more than doubling since the early 2000s, the report notes. After highly publicized mass shootings, at Sandy Hook school in 2012 or San Bernardino in 2015, there were spikes in gun sales, perhaps “because of the perception that lawmakers will respond to gun violence with measures that might make it more difficult to purchase firearms,” the study suggest. Other spikes came after Democratic presidents have taken office, perhaps for the same reason, with a big surge in 2009 and in January of this year.  

For most of modern America’s history, gun ownership was tied up with hunting and rural culture, which seemed to point to a long-term reduction in gun ownership. As the Violence Policy Center has found, the number of American households with an adult hunter dropped from nearly 32% in 1977 to 17% by 2017. During the same period the percent of households with a gun dropped from 50% to 31%

This counter-intuitive finding seemed to foretell a move away from guns in America, even as total sales were increasing. But in 2018, the percent of households with guns rose slightly to 34 percent, the study found. And there are increasing signs of gun buying from different kinds of customers. “According to a survey conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation,” the Washington Post reported, “roughly 40 percent — or 8.4 million — of the guns purchased in 2020 were by first-time buyers. It also found that 40 percent of the purchasers were women and… the largest demographic group of buyers was Black Americans.”

The SafeHome study found the leaders in gun sales since 2000 were DC, with a 755% increase, and Rhode Island, with a 325% hike. Those increases came on top of a very small base, as both areas have low rates of per-capita gun ownership and are Democratic strongholds that are more likely to support gun control. But they are clearly beginning to change.  

Another change comes in the kind of gun being bought in the U.S. Since 2005, the SafeHome study found, the percent of gun purchasers buying rifles has plummeted while hand gun sales have soared. 

The Post found that 2020 was a huge year for gun sales, with nearly 23 million firearms purchased. Panic buying begin in March after the pandemic and spiked even higher in June and July as the protests over the killing of George Floyd led to confrontations and violence in many cities. Add to that the nomination of Democrat Joe Biden, who favored gun reform, and there were many factors causing worries and driving gun sales. In Wisconsin gun sellers reported increases as high as 500% in sales since the pandemic began. 

Steven Dulan, who teaches firearms law at Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School, pointed to “reports from first-time buyers who say they no longer trust police departments to protect them, especially after some agencies were overwhelmed by protesters during the summer.”

“The year 2020 has been just one long advertisement for why someone may want to have a firearm to defend themselves,” as Douglas Jefferson, vice president for the National African American Gun Association, told the New York Times. The group saw the biggest increase in membership in 2020 since the group was formed in 2015, the story reported.

All of which suggests America may be undergoing a change in who owns guns, what kind they own and why they own them. At a time when passions and partisanship are at an all-time high in America, adding an increase in hand guns to this combustible situation is not a recipe for restoring calm.

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