Fear & Loading: Strange Claim on New NICS Record

posted on May 9, 2018

The FBI processed a record number of NICS background checks for the reporting period of March at 2,223,213, nearly 80,000 more than the monthly high water mark set in 2016, although Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting (SAAF) shocked some when it issued a press release on  May 7 [PDF] stating, “April 2018 U.S. firearms sales fall to lowest level since 2015.” A few firearm-related websites are carrying it verbatim, and quoting the  organization’s Chief Economist Jurgen Brauer—a German-American economist and sometime blogger for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute—claim that, “… the sum total of likely firearm sales for the first four month [sic] of 2018 is slightly below sales for the same period last year suggesting continued softness in the U.S. firearm market.”

Differing conclusions are common because each NICS check doesn’t necessarily reflect a gun purchase. Processing of new carry permits and renewals are included, along with a host of others. To confirm Brauer’s statement, we employed an amateur relative gauge of firearm sales by summing the FBI’s long rifle, handgun, NFA item and “multiple purchases” columns (doubling the latter, because at least two were transferred). Pawned and redeemed firearms were omitted from our calculations, which may explain the discrepancy between our modest gun-purchase total for April at 1,024,191, compared to SAAF’s press release figure of 1,131,533.  

The “lowest since 2015” claim doesn’t stand up with our methodology. May of 2017 is below last month’s figures at 943,485. Even when pawn and individual purchases are added (which comes to 1,005,942), it remains well short. January of last year was also below, totaling 992,188 (without pawn).  

Brauer has taught at universities around the world and undoubtedly has a better understanding of the math, although the FBI numbers appear straightforward enough for even journeyman calculations. His credentials also include being a “… contributor to the growing field of peace economics,” according to his Wikipedia page.

In 2016 the high water mark for gun sales were set when NICS checks totaled 27,425,512. At this point last year—which wound up being the annual background check volume runner-up—the FBI had processed 8,716,431 requests. So far this year the total is 9,230,094 with March also setting a new monthly record.

Jurgen Brauer, Ph.D., contacted American Rifleman and politely clarified how he arrived at the “lowest since 2015” statement. His observation is based on summing estimated firearm sales—as computed through his formula applied to the FBI’s NICS data—for the first four months of each year. Using his methodology, the final tally up to and including April of this year (5,049,072) is the lowest since 2015, a year he estimated stood at 4,703,127. The scalding pace of 2016’s sales and cool-down period of early 2017 certainly add weight to his observation.

His numbers don’t indict our findings that it was not the worst month since 2015—in fact, his data confirms January 2017 was lower (and add January 2018 to the list). The information he provided didn’t allow comparison with our May contention. Total NICS checks for the first four months of 2017 came to 8,756,657, compared to this year’s running total of 9,354,635—although, when complicating factors noted above are removed by Brauer’s method, he estimates firearm sales for the year are slightly down. His work also indicates April’s numbers were the lowest since 2015 for that 30-day reporting period.      

The Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting, “… is a research consultancy focusing on the business and economics of the global small arms and ammunition markets. Politically unaffiliated, we are an independent, evidenced-based resource for industry, advocacy, research, and policymaking alike, as well as for financial analysts and members of the media,” according to its website.


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