The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 brought with it grave concerns about societal chaos, which drove Americans to wait in long lines outside gun stores just to get a chance to buy something to protect themselves and their families. As the pandemic set in and Americans faced lockdowns, prisoner releases, and shortages, accompanied by a spike in homicides, demand for guns stayed at record levels. Racial unrest and rioting sparked by the killing of George Floyd, and the attendant calls to “defund the police” drove even more Americans of all backgrounds to their local gun shops. Then Democrat Joe Biden, who has promised strict new gun-control measures, won the presidential election.
This all produced a perfect storm of motivation for buying a gun. Americans ended up buying 21 million guns in 2020—more than any other year on record—according to one industry estimate. That’s 21 times the number of guns estimated to be held by all American police departments combined.
But, more important, a dealer survey found 40 percent of those buyers were first-timers. A study from researchers at the University of California found the same thing. That means about 8.4 million Americans became new gun owners last year. And millions more have likely been added since then.
Since polling uniformly shows gun owners are more resistant to new gun-control measures than non-owners, that trend by itself will have a significant effect on the gun debate. It is likely we will begin to see first-time gun owners become first-time gun voters. Americans who have never thought much about the issue before—whether Democrats, Republicans, or independents—may look at it differently when their own guns are the ones on the chopping block.
Of course, some percentage of those new gun voters are also likely to become gun-rights activists and their impact could be even broader. In just a year, we’re already seeing that dynamic develop.
John Keys and Scott Kane are two examples.
Keys bought his first gun at a Virginia gun show in March 2020. The former Marine saw things getting crazy and wanted to be able to protect himself and his family.
“I didn’t know where all that was gonna go,” he told The Reload last week. “So, I just figured, ‘you know what, let me go to this gun show and just try to pick up a rifle and a pistol before I can’t get it anywhere.’ It was the last gun show before they shut everything down.”
He didn’t necessarily expect the purchase to reignite his passion for target shooting. And he certainly didn’t see himself becoming a TV show host and teaming up with another African American gun owner to be an example of what black gun ownership in America is really like. But that’s what happened.
Keys began going to the range on a regular basis. He bought more guns. He got his concealed carry license. Then he started shooting more and more with his friend Shermichael Singleton and came up with an idea for a new TV show designed to appeal to other black Americans and show them all the different experiences and opportunities the gun community offers.
“We felt we needed to step out,” he said. “We just noticed that a lot of the content out there looks a certain way and appeals to a certain audience. We wanted to broaden that audience.”
Guns Out TV has now been picked up by a leading streaming service and is currently filming a second season.
Kane’s story is surprisingly similar. The white California tech worker bought his first gun in April 2020 after his wife and child, who are of Chinese descent, faced racist harassment on the street near their home.
It took him nearly two months to actually make the purchase, thanks to California’s restrictive gun laws and the early COVID shutdowns. But after that, he became the default gun guy of his friend group and noticed an especially strong interest from his Asian American friends. After he noticed there was no gun group dedicated to Asian Americans, he decided to help found one.
That’s how Asian American and Pacific Islander Gun Owners was born.
So, the transformation has already happened with some of those new owners. Keys and Kane are among the most visible right now because they are actively representing groups that have traditionally been underserved in American gun culture. But there are likely more new gun owners who have become activists alongside them. And many more could become activists in the years ahead.
With the pandemic, racial injustice, and murder surge still at the top of mind for many and President Biden pushing for bans on popular guns including the AR-15, this year is shaping up to be another record year. April 2021 set a new record for gun sales, which helped the first quarter of 2021 surpass the first quarter of 2020.
The big question is exactly how many Keys and Kanes are among the millions of first-time buyers? How many have already become activists and how many will develop into them?
The answer will tell us what the future of American gun politics looks like.
Stephen Gutowski is the founder of The Reload, which focuses on sober, serious firearms reporting and analysis. You can subscribe here. He has appeared on the cover of Time and his work has been featured in major news publications from Fox News to the New York Times and beyond.