US gun production has tripled since 2000, fueled by handgun purchases


Buyers benefited from the relaxation of gun restrictions by the Supreme Court, Congress, and Republican-controlled state legislatures.

WASHINGTON — The United States is in the midst of a major gun buying boom that shows no sign of abating as the annual number of firearms manufactured has nearly tripled since 2000 and has risen sharply over the past three years, according to the first comprehensive federal report Balance sheet of the arms trade in two decades.

The report, released Tuesday by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – three days after a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York killed 10 people – painted a vivid statistical portrait of a nation breaking through to the teeth armed. Buyers benefited from the relaxation of gun restrictions by the Supreme Court, Congress, and Republican-controlled state legislatures.

The data documented a drastic shift in consumer demand among gun owners that had profound commercial, cultural, and political ramifications: As of 2009, Glock-type semi-automatic handguns purchased for personal protection outsold rifles typically used in hunting.

Embedded in the 306-page document was another statistic that law enforcement officials find particularly troubling. Police seized 19,344 privately made firearms, untraceable homemade guns known as “ghost guns,” in 2021, a tenfold increase since 2016. Law enforcement officials say it has contributed to a spike in gun-related killings, particularly in California , where ghost weapons are crafted up to half the weapons found at crime scenes.

Figures released on Tuesday showed an industry on the up, with annual domestic arms production rising to 11.3 million in 2020 from 3.9 million in 2000. A relatively small percentage of domestically manufactured guns are exported overseas, so these numbers are an accurate reflection of buying habits, according to ATF officials.

There are currently around 400 million guns in the United States, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the nonpartisan Small Arms Survey, which monitors gun ownership.

The statistics, compiled from industry, academic and government experts by ATF’s research department, offered few major surprises. Many of the broader outlines and conclusions have been well known through other sources or anecdotally for months, even years.

But the release of the report nonetheless marks a significant victory for gun control advocates.

While the Democrats have failed in their broader agenda to restrict easy access to firearms, particularly semi-automatic rifles, they are gradually managing to pull back an information curtain that has obscured arms trade data since the George W. Bush administration.

A year ago, President Joe Biden ordered the ATF, an undersized agency with the outsized task of enforcing the nation’s gun laws and regulations, to collect and analyze 20 years of gun data after a series of mass shootings across the country.

In the report’s introduction, Gary M. Restaino, the bureau’s interim director, wrote that the purpose of releasing the data was to “prevent the diversion of these firearms from the legal to the illicit market.”

During a White House summit on reducing violence on Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco underscored a similar point, saying, “We can only address the current surge in violence if we have the best information available and use the most effective tools.” and research to advance our efforts.”

Her comments came the same day Biden traveled to Buffalo to visit the scene of Saturday’s racially motivated shooting.

Before boarding Air Force One, Biden told reporters he would redouble his efforts to “convince Congress” to enact gun control measures, but acknowledged that without a major shift in sentiment from lawmakers, doing so would be difficult.

While highly anticipated, the report is seen as less momentous than an upcoming analysis of weapons used to commit crimes – which will tap into law enforcement, academic and public health sources – to provide an equally comprehensive picture of human trafficking patterns .

“It’s important to know the scope and size of the overall market, and the trade report sheds light on that,” Nick Suplina, senior vice president at Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group founded by former New York Mayor Michael, told Bloomberg.

“But the next logical step is to get the data on the recovery of criminal weapons, to bring this information back to the public, so we can figure out how these weapons go from legal manufacture to illegal use,” Suplina added added.

This report aims to highlight the role played by illegal straw buyers — legal buyers who sell guns to people prohibited from buying handguns — and possibly identify federally licensed dealers responsible for selling most of the guns later used in crimes.

Some of this information is already publicly available.

This month, gun control group Brady released an investigation into Pennsylvania firearms traceability data showing that six small retailers in South and Northeast Philadelphia sold more than 11,000 guns that were later seized during criminal investigations or seized from owners who owned them acquired illegally between 2014 and 2020.

The ATF report recommended the bureau hire more civilian employees to inspect arms dealers. Currently, the bureau has fewer than 700 inspectors overseeing more than 88,000 state-licensed gun shops, pawn shops and other retailers.

According to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal, gun thefts from cars and homes have increased in many major cities over the past two years, fueling violent crime.

The gun industry has long resisted the disclosure of some firearms data collected by ATF. A series of Republican-sponsored measures promoted by the National Rifle Association are preventing bureau officials from releasing trace data and other information to the public.

The arms production boom appears to have been driven in part by the 2004 expiry of the assault weapons ban.

After the law was repealed, “manufacture of semi-automatic rifles and pistols, previously known as assault weapons, increased steadily, particularly AR rifles and pistols, now commonly referred to as ‘modern sporting rifles’ ‘modern sporting pistols’ ‘ the authors of the report found.

Payton Gendron, the suspect in the Buffalo attack, used a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, one of many AR-15 clones legally available in the country.

Two manufacturers dominate the handgun market, the report said. Smith & Wesson accounted for 8.2 million guns produced from 2016-2020, 17% of the total market, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. was close behind with nearly identical sales and production numbers.

The data compiled by ATF covers a 20-year period, but the charts accompanying the report show three periods of intense consumer volatility. One was in 2013, after President Barack Obama’s re-election and the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which led to calls for stricter gun control. The second was in 2016 during the presidential campaign.

The third turbulent period began in 2019 and spanned through the 2020 election and the pandemic.

Weapons production increased across the board during this period. However, demand for semi-automatic handguns grew at an all-time high, with pistol production soaring from around 3 million to 5.5 million annually, the report said.

The number of imported weapons of all kinds has also risen sharply, doubling from around 2 million a year a decade ago to more than 4 million in 2020, a record.

Many of them were first-time buyers, who flooded ATF’s switchboard and email servers for information on how to buy a gun legally and which guns are best for personal protection, an ATF official said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. US gun production has tripled since 2000, fueled by handgun purchases

Rick Schindler

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