Utah gun sales broke all records in 2020. Here’s why.

Pandemic and political unrest prompted many Utahns to buy firearms last year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dave Larsen, manager of Doug's Shoot'n Sports in Taylorsville, on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Larsen said sales at his store last year were the highest of any year since he began working there in 1984. State statistics confirm that 2020 was a banner year for firearms sales.

Editor’s note: This story is available to Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting important local journalism.

Gun sales soared to record heights last year in Utah, with gun owners and sellers citing the pandemic and an intense political climate as driving factors.

Criminal background checks required for firearm purchases nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020, topping 180,000, according to data from the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification’s (BCI) Firearm Statistical Review. It was the highest in a decade and, probably, the most ever in a single year.

This data aligns with anecdotal evidence from Utah Gun Exchange, a website where Utah residents can advertise firearms for sale and get in contact with potential buyers. Utah Gun Exchange CEO Sam Robinson said website traffic doubled in March of 2020 — the same month Utah began issuing pandemic-related restrictions — and is now triple what it was in 2019.

Dave Larsen, manager at Doug’s Shoot’n Sports in Taylorsville, said his store made the most sales since he began working there in 1984.

“It was kind of the perfect storm,” he said of 2020, pointing to the pandemic, the summer protests over the killing of George Floyd, the earthquake and the election of a Democratic president who favors gun control.

“Turns out emergencies are pretty good for business,” Larsen noted.

National figures also show gun sales at records highs, with USA Today reporting 39.7 million sales last year, a 40% increase, based on background checks.

FBI data shows that 1.2 million total firearms background checks were performed in Utah last year — as many as in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming combined. But this figure is tremendously inflated as a measure of gun sales because the vast majority of Utah’s checks were for concealed carry permits, mainly from out-of-state residents, noted Utah Department of Public Safety spokesman Lt. Nick Street.

Background checks for gun sales saw their biggest spike in March of last year — at the same time COVID-19 was first reported in the state and then-Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency. The state also was hit by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake around that time, the largest in nearly three decades. Utah BCI recorded a whopping 23,211 checks that month.

Other sales high points came in late summer amid Black Lives Matter protests and counterdemonstrations and in the three months surrounding the Nov. 3 election.

‘Crazy’ politics

“It’s just politics have gotten so crazy in the last five, six years. I think everyone’s just concerned with the political climate,” said Taran Bailey, an EMT from Orem. Bailey was a gun owner with a concealed carry permit before 2020, but during the tumultuous year, he bought a smaller gun he could more easily conceal on his person.

Though gun ownership is often associated with right-leaning politics, a Tribune survey of more than three dozen Utahns who purchased firearms last year showed them scattered all over the political spectrum.

Robinson, of the gun exchange, said most of the new gun owners he knows came from the political center or center-left.

Daniel Masterson, a printing specialist from West Valley City, probably falls in that range. He said home protection motivated his gun purchase.

“Once I saw a lot of people panic buying groceries and other goods, it got me slightly nervous. As [the pandemic] wore on, I saw how many right-wing militant groups were radicalized in their rhetoric,” Masterson said. “People are scared not only of the disruption that COVID-19 brought, but also the extremism and lies coming from the right that culminated in an attack on the Capitol.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Paul Neiderman, a package handler from Salt Lake City, said gun sales tend to increase during an election year, and the trend was magnified in 2020 because of the summer protests and election unrest.

“Utahns on the right were buying guns to protect property, while Utahns on the left were buying guns to protect lives,” Neiderman said, adding that buying guns “offered some folks a sense of control” and that both sides of the political spectrum were feeling increased hostility toward the government.

Nancy Halden, communications director for the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, said purchasing guns out of fear of other people is a relatively recent phenomenon. People used to buy firearms mainly for sport, but research indicates self-defense is now most gun owners’ primary motivation.

Ammo sales increased right alongside gun sales, with many gun owners telling The Tribune they had a hard time finding ammo at all last year because stores were so often out of stock.

“It was very hard to find, and then when you do find it, it’s triple, maybe even quadruple the price of normal 9 millimeter ammo,” Bailey said.

Some stores also limited ammo purchases.

“I was able to get ammo relatively easily up until around May of 2020, and since then each box I have bought has been limited in quantity to how many you can buy, and most ranges don’t even get 9mm in for weeks or months due to the supply chain being broken,” said Pete Schlendorf, a college student from Salt Lake City.

Gun control

Several Utahns also expressed the concern that Second Amendment rights will be slashed in the near future.

Gun control legislation was already on the agenda in Washington with Democrats taking control of the White House and Senate in the recent elections. Pressure ratcheted up more in recent days in the wake of mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo., that killed at least 18 people.

“I decided to [buy] a rifle that was less likely to get banned in the event a Democrat won [the presidency],” said Tad Garland, an archivist from Taylorsville. He said he bought a lever-action rifle because of 2020′s political upheaval, election uncertainty, protests and riots, and because of the emergence of groups like the Proud Boys.

“Banning AR15s or standard capacity magazines … is not going to change human nature,” Garland said. “It’s not the guns that are the problem, it’s the people holding the guns.”

Schlendorf bought his first handgun in March 2020, another handgun in June, and a rifle this past January. The May 30 protest in downtown Salt Lake City in the wake of the George Floyd killing “sparked a lot of fear,” Schlendorf said, which may account for the increase in gun purchases.

Schlendorf said he was concerned gun ownership rights may be limited in the future, and that President Joe Biden may implement magazine bans and a 10-round magazine limit.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah Student, Pete Schlendorf, bought his first handgun in March 2020, another handgun in June, and a rifle in January 2021. Thursday, March 25, 2021.

It’s remarkably easy to purchase a firearm in Utah. Joe Nelson, a real estate agent from Layton, said anyone can walk into a gun store, submit to a quick background check and, as long as they have a clean criminal record, walk out with a gun in about half an hour.

Nelson purchased his seventh gun in 2020 because the pandemic left him with increased free time to spend hunting.

“I obviously am not against guns or the Second Amendment. But I do think that a more extensive background check, or waiting period or even having to obtain a gun license would make sense,” he said.

When Nelson got his hunting license, he had to take an 8-hour online training course and demonstrate to an instructor that he knew how to operate the gun safely. He said he thinks similar training, plus some kind of screening process for mental health concerns, should be required of anyone looking to purchase a gun.

More guns = more deaths?

Halden, of the Gun Violence Prevention Center, is concerned about the big wave of new firearms and gun owners.

“Our two biggest gun violence issues here [in Utah] are gun suicide and domestic violence assault,” she told The Tribune in an interview. “I think more guns is going to lead to more gun violence in both of those arenas.”

Halden referenced one study conducted across Memphis, Tenn., Seattle and Galveston, Texas. Of the 626 shootings that occurred in or near a residence during the study period, only 13 were legally justifiable acts of self defense.

“For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides,” the study said.

Gun violence rates in Utah have outstripped the national average for the past decade. Suicides account for 84% of firearm deaths in Utah, and firearms are the No. 1 cause of death among children and teens in the state, according to data compiled by the Gun Violence Prevention Center.

Utah over the last six years has averaged 379 gun deaths annually, or more than one per day, according to Centers for Disease Control data. The biggest fatality count during that period was 410 in 2017. Statistics haven’t yet been compiled for 2020.

Though the Legislature passed measures this year to allow Utahns at risk of self harm due to a mental health crisis to voluntarily restrict their own access to firearms, Halden still warned about the hazards of keeping a firearm in the home.

“People buy guns because they are fearful, and they think that they are protected by their guns. And, in fact, research does not back up that claim,” Halden said. “You’re much more likely with a gun in your home to have that gun harm somebody in your home than you are to be able to defend off an intruder.”

For those who fear threats to their person, property or family, Halden recommended bear spray as a safer alternative to firearms.

Robinson was more optimistic about Utah’s increasing number of gun owners. Referencing the research of John Lott, author of “More Guns Less Crime,” Robinson said that increased gun ownership results in lowered rates of violent crime.

“For each additional year that a concealed handgun law is in effect the murder rate declines by 3 percent, rape by 2 percent, and robberies by over 2 percent,” Lott’s research indicated.

Lott’s research has come under fire from other researchers, including a 2017 Standford study that found violent crime was higher in right-to-carry firearms states.

Robinson, however, believes gun owners as a whole are law-abiding and civic-minded.

“I also believe that when people show the responsibility to become firearms owners, they become better citizens, because they realize they are now being watched more closely than someone who is not a firearms owner, and they need to be more careful with their actions than someone who’s not a firearm owner,” Robinson told The Tribune. “The same is true when people elevate that level of engagement and become a concealed firearm permit holder, or start concealed carrying on a regular basis.”

Utah is due to become a constitutional carry state beginning in May. Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, sponsored HB60 to allow concealed carrying of firearms without a permit for Utahns age 21 and older with no criminal record. It easily passed the Legislature after years of unsuccessful attempts and was signed into law by new Gov. Spencer Cox.

Not everyone should feel like they need to buy or carry a gun, but those who do need to take the extra responsibility seriously, Robinson said.

“I think that it’s only appropriate for people to own firearms,” he said, “if they are willing to shoulder the responsibility that goes along with the freedom of owning firearms.”