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March 4, 2021

Political and economic upheaval pushed a record number of Americans to buy guns in 2020, but firearm purchases slowed last month, according to industry estimates, though it’s unclear whether it marks a turning point after a yearlong streak of astronomical sales.

 Around 1.5 million guns were sold in the United States in February, a 32% drop from the previous month but a 10% increase over February 2020, according to estimates from the consultancy Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting (SAAF).

Similarly, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group representing the gun industry, estimates about 1.39 million guns were sold in February.

Sales last month hit their lowest level in about a year and were more than 1 million short of March 2020’s record-breaking total according to SAAF, but February was still an indisputably busy stretch for gunsellers, rounding out 12 months of higher-than-usual sales linked partly to last year’s economic crisis and political events.

Some experts think purchases decreased in February because many potential customers took care of their gun-buying needs during last year’s surge: SAAF economist Jurgen Brauer told Forbes “a slow-down might be on the horizon due to saturation.”

Mark Oliva from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, meanwhile, said purchases may have dropped in February because many gun dealers and manufacturers’ inventory was drained by last year’s unprecedented sales.

22.8 million. That’s how many total firearms SAAF estimates were sold in 2020, the busiest year on record for the gun industry, up 60% over 2019 sales.

The gun industry uses FBI firearm background check data as an indicator of sales, though the two figures don’t line up perfectly because not all background checks are connected to gun purchases. Last month, the FBI ran over 3.4 million background checks, making it the bureau’s busiest February on record but somewhat lower than the busiest months of 2020.

Firearm sales are closely linked to the news: When gun enthusiasts fear for their own safety or expect gun control measures to get stricter, purchases increase. And last year’s onslaught of economic, public health and political crises gave people ample reason to worry, fueling unprecedented demand for guns, Brauer and Oliva said. Sales shot up in the early days of the pandemic, stayed high during a summer of tense protests, increased after last year’s election, and spiked yet again after the riots in the U.S. Capitol building. “I don't know of any other industry that has to deal with these extraordinary swings,” Brauer told Forbes.

After February’s dropoff, it’s unclear whether sales will continue falling to pre-pandemic levels or stay at a heightened pitch. Oliva thinks President Joe Biden’s desire to pass stricter gun control legislation could continue driving sales, though he says it’s difficult to predict. Plus, he suggested inventory at gun stores is still fairly low, a signal of solid demand.

 “Display cases ... are still pretty sparsely populated, and there's not a whole lot of guns on shelves,” Oliva told Forbes. “That tells me we still haven't met that market demand.”

The gun industry has faced a decade of politically driven sales spikes and declines, posing challenges for manufacturers and dealers, Brauer and Oliva said. Former President Barack Obama’s desire to tighten gun control laws drove sales up, but former President Donald Trump’s victory gave way to an industry slump marked by excessive inventories for dealers and financial peril for some gunmakers.