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Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

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2020 was a record-setting year in New Mexico for the sheer number of guns purchased, a new analysis of background check data shows. New Mexicans purchased 202,322 guns last year, setting a new record for annual gun sales for any year since data was first available in 2001. If the first two months of 2021 are any indication, gun buyers will set a new record this year, too.

Each month the federal government quietly releases a report on the number of background checks performed at sales points for firearms. On their own these individual monthly reports provide little insight, but when The Trace, an independent and nonprofit news organization focused on gun violence in America, compiled all of the data from the past two decades, startling national and statewide trends emerged. 

Gun Sales in New Mexico

In the first eight years of the 2000s, gun sellers in New Mexico requested just under 7,000 background checks for buyers per month. But in November 2008, the same month Barack Obama was elected president, background checks skyrocketed to a record 12,532, a 57 percent increase over 2008’s average, according to federal data. While not all checks result in a sale, some checks result in multiple sales to the same authorized buyer. The Trace uses these transfer checks to produce estimates of gun sales, taking into account the share of transactions that include multiple guns.

Fast forward to 2020, a year that witnessed a pandemic, a summer of protests and a chaotic election and gun sellers were submitting checks an average of 16,000 times per month in New Mexico. Boosting those numbers were two big spikes: one in March as the pandemic emerged and lockdowns began, and three months beginning in May when national Black Lives Matter protests were gaining steam. Statewide sales exceeded 19,000 in March and May and 20,000 in June and July.  June’s sales were 104 percent, or more than double, those of the same month a year before.

In June of last year, there was a nationwide increase of 146 percent in gun sales from June 2019. The Trace analysis showed the demand for firearms spiked after events like mass shootings and elections.

source: The Trace

Since the pandemic hit in March of last year, The Trace estimated that there have been 226,784 firearms purchased in New Mexico. To put that into perspective, New Mexico bought 66,074 more guns last year than the year before. That’s a more than 40 percent increase in gun sales in New Mexico.

In 2019, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law a law closing the so-called “gun show loophole” exempting private sales from checks. But data from the months before and after that law went into effect show that background checks for sales were steadily increasing since President Obama’s election in 2018 and continued at roughly the same rate throughout 2019 before spiking at key moments in 2020.

The increase in gun sales has also placed a greater strain on the ammo shortage. 

In February The Paper. reported that most gun stores in Albuquerque and at least half of the gun shops called were out of stock of not only AR-15 ammo, .223 and 5.56 ammo, but were also running low on nearly all popular ammo. But New Mexicans are not only buying long gun ammunition. The dramatic spike in gun sales also produced a dramatic shift in the type of firearms being purchased. The Trace data shows that out of the 17,180 firearms sold in New Mexico, 10,000 of which were handguns.

New Mexico is not an anomaly.

USA Today reported that nationwide gun sales increased by 40 percent in 2020 from 2019; and so far, the trend has continued into 2021. In January over four million guns were sold nationwide. The year 2021 is expected to surpass 2020’s record. CBS reported nearly five million Americans bought a firearm for the first time in 2020, pointing to factors including the pandemic and nationwide protests against police brutality that at times included violence and looting.

Source: The Trace

New Mexicans continue to rush to their stores for guns in 2021. Data shows a 33 percent increase in background checks at the point of sale in the state. 

During the first four months of 2021, New Mexican gun sellers requested 74,767 background checks for new gun purchases — 22,000 of those in March as the US House debated background check legislation. At that rate, gun buyers are on track to buy another 300,000 firearms in 2021, a new record.

The Paper. spoke to Erick C., a new gun owner in Albuquerque. He says his primary motivation for buying a gun was the state of the economy and the potential unrest caused by the pandemic. “Lockdowns have wrecked the economy, and economic desperation is dangerous. Last summer police all across the country showed that they would step aside while businesses burn,” he said. “While I’m not too worried for myself, I want to be prepared for my loved ones’ sake. I hope I never need it, but I started to feel I would regret not having it if the time came when I did.”

What the Feds Say 

In early March the Democratic-controlled US House passed two firearms bills, including the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 requiring universal background checks on all commercial gun sales. It also closes the “Charleston loophole,” which allows the sale of a gun if a background check hasn’t been completed in three days. New Mexico’s Republican Rep. Yvette Harrell voted against the measures, while her Democratic counterparts, Reps. Teresa Fernandez and Deb Haaland, voted in favor of the bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed the Senate will hold a debate on the topic this year.

As the debate over gun control rages on, polarizing social conditions of the past year are pushing gun buyers into a panic while Democratic lawmakers attempt to use their slim margin of opportunity to pass reform and curb gun violence.

Related Reporting from The Paper.

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