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Gun companies have made billions of dollars since the pandemic began, report says

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde have horrified Americans - 19 children and two adults shot to death in Uvalde, 10 people killed in Buffalo and then again, this week, four more people shot and killed at a medical building in Tulsa, Okla. And the list goes on and on.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Mass shootings make headlines. But gun violence is an everyday problem in the U.S., and it skyrocketed during the pandemic, as did gun company profits. Publicly traded gun manufacturers have netted some $3 billion since the pandemic began. That is according to The Trace, a journalism nonprofit covering gun violence. Champe Barton reported the story and joins us now. Hi there.

CHAMPE BARTON: Hi.

KELLY: Three billion dollars since the pandemic began in net profits for gun manufacturers. How unusual is that, how far above what, you know, the profits that they'd been recording in prior years?

BARTON: For several of these companies, it was the most profitable years in their history, according to SEC filings, or at least in the past, you know, 10 or 15 years. And that squares with what we saw from the gun sales increase of 2020 and 2021, which is that those were two of the highest years on record for gun sales. It's also important to note that these gun manufacturers and ammunition manufacturers, it seems, were able to also keep costs down during the pandemic. Their sales numbers - their profit numbers, rather, outpace their sales numbers slightly. It's not entirely clear what was causing that disparity between the sales numbers and the profit numbers. But certainly, they were able to keep costs down in addition to having these record sales.

KELLY: This is based on public filings, or how were you able to verify this?

BARTON: As far as gun sales writ large across the country are concerned, that information is essentially kept by the FBI. They record background checks on legally purchased firearms from federal firearms licensees. And those background check numbers are a proxy for gun sales. They obviously undercount because there are a number of private sales that do not get background checks. But the FBI keeps those statistics, and we reached the highest number of background checks ever in 2020.

KELLY: So why? What was it about the pandemic that motivated people to go out and buy a lot of guns, buy a lot of ammo?

BARTON: It's a combination of factors. I mean, typically, these sales spikes are seasonal, and they tend to follow the election cycle a little bit. But what drives the sale surge in 2020 was not really the most standard event. When the pandemic started, there was a lot of fear of sort of social unrest and sort of a breakdown of the social order. There was sort of fear that the institutions would not be able to protect us. If you had a problem, could you call the police in the middle of a pandemic? Would the police show up in the middle of a pandemic? There were these overwhelming, you know, questions and fears about whether or not people could be protected or could count on their institutions to protect them. And so that had driven an early surge in gun buying, at least as far as sort of anecdotal evidence confirms.

But then there was the George Floyd protests, and fear around social unrest related to those protests certainly spurred a continuation of that gun-buying surge. Then there was the election, which added to it some more. And then there was the insurrection in January, you know, which further added to these persistent fears that people were going to need to protect themselves at a certain point from one group or another. And so it was, like, kind of, like, a quadruple whammy there that led to these record numbers.

KELLY: Let me circle back to where we started on the mass shootings from which America is reeling in Uvalde, in Buffalo and beyond. Do you see a connection? How do you see the link between what you're reporting - these record profits - and events like this?

BARTON: So I think that the events like we saw in Uvalde and in Buffalo are extremely rare. And it's important to remember that they're extremely rare. Overwhelmingly, gun violence in the U.S. is occurring in cities. It's occurring in personal disputes and interpersonal disputes that are carried out with handguns. And I think the connection between the gun industry's surging profits is - between the gun industry's surging profits and the more routine gun violence that we see every day in cities across the country warrants significantly more consideration than the connection between the gun industry's profits and these more unusual mass shootings.

There's certainly consideration to be had about the kind of advertising the gun industry does. The Sandy Hook parents in their lawsuit against Remington certainly explored that. But overwhelmingly, it's this handgun violence that causes the most gun deaths and that the gun manufacturers have sort of the most power to - arguably have the most power to reduce.

KELLY: Champe Barton, thank you.

BARTON: Thanks.

KELLY: He's a reporter with The Trace, a nonprofit that reports on gun violence in America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.