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Trump rallies and social justice protests may have driven a big year for gun sales, study says

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Gun sales in the United States soared in 2020, and those purchases correlated with participation in pro-Donald Trump rallies or protests against racism and police violence, according to a new study by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers.

The online survey of 10,000 people, conducted nationally from mid-December to mid-January, asked participants whether they or someone in their household had bought a gun in 2020. In all, 23 percent of survey respondents who attended a Trump rally, a protest against pandemic lockdowns, or a protest against the presidential election outcome purchased a firearm.

Meanwhile, 13 percent of marchers in anti-racism or police violence rallies purchased guns, the survey found. 

In contrast, only 8 percent of people who did not attend a rally or protest purchased a gun.

David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information science. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“There’s a striking pattern,” says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern, and one of the researchers who conducted the study.  

Echoing the results of other gun studies, the survey found Republicans were more likely than Democrats to have bought a gun. The survey also found that people who already owned a firearm were more likely to purchase a gun than were first-time buyers.

“Whether these were individuals who were in some sense both predisposed to already buying guns for various reasons, versus the participation in these events spurred them to purchase guns, we can’t really know based on the data,” Lazer says.

But he notes that people who attended rallies and protests, on either side of the political spectrum, likely share a mistrust of government.

“Black Lives Matter is really a protest against the government,” says Lazer. “On the other hand is the traditional mistrust of the government from the right wing, so 2020 has amplified fears about the government from the left and the right, although for very different reasons.” 

The researchers also found correlations between gun purchases and party affiliation. In all, 14 percent of Republicans surveyed bought a gun compared to six percent of Democrats surveyed. White respondents were slightly more likely than Black and Hispanic respondents to have purchased a gun, though Black respondents were more likely than white respondents to have purchased a gun for the first time. 

All told, weapons purchases caused FBI background checks to skyrocket last year to a record 21 million, up from 13 million the year before, federal data show. 

Researchers also noted that among prior gun owners, those who lived in households that had been infected with COVID-19 were significantly more likely to purchase a new gun.

“It’s striking that we only see this connection among existing gun owners and not first-time buyers,” says Matthew Simonson, a doctoral student in Lazer’s lab who analyzed the data. “For gun owners, buying a new gun may be a familiar and comforting act. They can’t use it to ward off a deadly virus, but it may compensate for that loss of safety by making them feel secure in other ways.”

But Simonson cautions that researchers don’t know whether those respondents purchased guns before or after the virus infected their households. “It’s possible that some underlying personality trait or behavior related to gun ownership also increases the risk of coronavirus exposure,” he says.

Higher levels of stress are correlated with both COVID-19 and gun purchases, though that doesn’t fully explain the association between them, researchers noted.

However, all protesters, regardless of their politics or the events they attended, were more likely than non-protesters to list the coronavirus as a reason for buying guns.

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