Handgun sales in California rose again last year, new data released by the state show, marking the 11th consecutive year in which more handguns were sold than the year before.

While no one is certain why the steady increase in sales continued last year, the trend mirrors purchasing patterns nationally. Some experts suspect that it isn’t that more people are buying guns for the first time, but that existing gun owners are buying more guns.

More than 500,000 handguns were purchased in 2014 by California buyers who passed a background check. That’s more than twice the number of handguns sold five years ago.


Credit: Aaron Williams/Reveal

While the popularity of handguns continues to rise, the sale of rifles and shotguns dipped slightly in 2014. State officials attributed this to their ability to more closely monitor the ownership of long guns. Prior to 2014, regulators were required to discard records of long gun purchases after a background check was completed.

Now, information about long gun sales is archived in the same way as handgun sales.

Timothy Lytton, a professor at the Albany Law School in New York who studies the gun industry, attributed the surge of long gun sales to anticipation leading up to the change in record retention; long gun purchases more than doubled between 2010 and the end of 2013. Lytton likened trends in guns sales to any other consumer product that becomes the focus of new regulation, in which there is a rush to buy in advance of changes to the law.


Credit: Aaron Williams/Reveal

“People are especially sensitive about guns, because there’s a widespread nervousness that restrictions are a slippery slope,” said Lytton, who edited a book about lawsuits filed against the gun industry. “Whether that is true or not, I think the perception is prevalent.”

Lytton said concern over increased regulation likely contributed to the jump in handgun sales right before a 2000 state law limiting the number of handgun purchases to one per month took effect. Between 1998 and 1999, when the law was passed, handgun sales increased nearly 30 percent.

Handgun sales fell more than 36 percent in the two years that followed, then steadily rose – and have continued to do so since.

Spikes in gun sales historically have been linked to major violent events. Gun sales in several states surged after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, for example. In California, sales jumped more than 31 percent in the months following the rioting that ensued after four Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted in the 1991 beating of Rodney King.

Overall, more than 931,000 guns were sold in California last year. And virtually everyone who tried to buy a gun was allowed to do so. Of the people who applied for a background check, less than 1 percent – 8,569 people – were denied. Although that number may seem low, it was the most denials since the state started tracking this information in 1982.

Most guns used to commit crimes aren’t purchased legally at gun stores with a Federal Firearms License. Instead, they are bought from unlicensed dealers or, as in the case of the gun used to kill two New York police officers in December, obtained through “straw buyers,” who purchase guns on behalf of people not legally allowed to own them.

 One aspect of gun sales that has vexed researchers for years is the link between legal purchases and violent crime.

“In the mid-1980s to early 1990s, when violent crime was high, gun purchases were also high,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency-room doctor in Sacramento who for decades has studied gun violence. “They were very strongly related, particularly with handguns.”

That link was decoupled about 10 years ago, when gun sales in California that were previously stagnant or decreasing quickly began to add up. Today, the state has relatively low rates of fatal firearm violence, Wintemute said, something he attributed to strict laws that prohibit gun ownership.

It’s important to note that the data is a record of background checks processed by the state and is not a one-to-one representation of gun sales. This is because more than one rifle or shotgun can be purchased with a single background check. A buyer could buy five rifles, for example, but the purchase would appear as a single transaction.

 The data exclude guns that changed hands between family members via the Intra-Familial Firearm Transaction form, among other exemptions in state law.

Notes on charts from the Bureau of Firearms about its data:

1972-90: Figures represent handguns only; legislation requiring eligibility check on long gun purchasers and expanded prohibiting categories effective Jan. 1, 1991.

1972-74: The Department of Justice was required to notify dealers and law enforcement of prohibited firearm purchasers but was unable to stop delivery because the waiting period was limited to five days.

 1975-97: A 15-day waiting period in place.

 1997-present: A 10-day waiting period in place.

 2000: Limit handgun purchases to one in a 30-day period.

 2014: Records of long gun sales are archived the same way that handgun sales are. Previously, the state was required to discard this information.

Matt Drange is a reporter for Reveal, covering the business of guns. He previously reported on Silicon Valley and the intersection of technology and the environment. He won a James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists' Northern California chapter for his work on the Toxic Trail investigation, which exposed how mismanagement of Superfund cleanup sites often leads to substantially more harm than good. Prior to joining Reveal, Drange worked for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, where he wrote about malfeasance in state government and the influence of money in politics. Drange started his career covering police and courts for the Eureka Times-Standard in California. He earned a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and did his undergraduate work at Humboldt State University. Drange is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.