Maine background checks for guns rise after national tragedies

There are so many ways to be upset by the horrific terrorist attack in Orlando early Sunday morning.

If you’re not looking for more ways, then perhaps this post isn’t for you.

In the wake of the country’s deadliest mass shooting, shares of gunmakers Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger were up by 6 and 8 percent, respectively, by the market’s close.

The bets on Wall Street say clearly enough what public health researchers have not had the resources to definitively conclude: Gun sales are expected to go up in response to the latest mass shooting.

I’ve done a little digging, trying to see whether that’s likely to happen in Maine. The data on the topic aren’t great, as there’s no central database of gun sales, but only background checks. Those background check figures are imperfect stand-ins for actual sales data, but are the best source available (some checks may happen without any purchase and some purchases may happen without a background check).

While hardly an exhaustive study, an afternoon with data on background checks and past mass shootings shows a few odd blips signaling more to explore.

Going back to 1998 — the earliest year for which the FBI has background check information from gun sellers — two periods stand out for background checks in Maine:  late 2012 and early 2016.

Leading up to those periods were horrific shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In late 2015, there was San Bernardino.

There were still others in between those shootings that dominated multiple news cycles and, in 2013, raised the profile of efforts to pass gun control legislation. Gun sellers large and small in numerous news reports have linked the threat of gun control legislation — typically in response to a mass shooting — to rising sales.

If that holds, the fight over mandatory background checks at the ballot box in November could perhaps add to demand in Maine, leading up to November.

I’ve not identified and ruled out other causes for the uptick in Maine, but sought to find whether the trend perceived in national numbers pertains here, too.

At the national level, the Washington Post reported that separate data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives suggests existing gun owners buying more guns has driven the increase, rather than first-time buyers. 

To look closer, a feel for the seasonal trend in Maine gun sales is helpful but also fairly obvious: long-gun background checks make a huge bump before hunting season in October, based on averages by month from 1999-2015.

Background checks for handguns have peaks in March and December.

Looking closer at the recent statistics alongside mass shooting events, the two notable anomalies present themselves again: Late 2012 and early 2016.

In December 2012, permit requests for rifles and shotguns beat out totals for peak hunting season sales in surrounding years (if anyone has a hunting-related reason for this boost, let me know).

Handguns also surged during that same time, with January background checks uncharacteristically exceeding December totals.

In the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack in late 2015, handgun background checks hit an all-time monthly high, though coming in the month during which those checks are typically their highest anyway in Maine.

If the current trend holds, demand for guns will rise again as we continue to reach for a future where the violence, somehow, won’t.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.