Culture and Politics

2020: A Year of Social Panic,

Spiking Gun Sales, and 

a Pandemic That Still Rages 

By Steve Rensberry
Opinion / Analysis

    EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. - 1/1/2021 - The year 2020 was one for the history books. Gun sales went through the roof, murder and violent shootings practically doubled in major cities across the country, political tensions and polarization was fiercer than ever, and the leader of the free world -- angry at losing an election -- has repeatedly tried to redefine reality, peddle election conspiracies, and downplay a pandemic that has claimed more than 330,000 American lives.
Firearms manufactured in the U.S. by type. Source: ATF
    The trends are worth documenting, and analyzing, though at least one writer on the subject urges patience given the uncertainty and complexity of the situation. Yes, murder and shootings were up significantly in Chicago, but they were also significantly up in most every other major city in the country. Crime analyst Jeff Asher, in fact, looked at 50 major U.S. cities this past year and concluded that murder was up on average by 35-36 percent relative to 2019, all but blowing away the previous year-to-year record change of 12.5 percent.

    Also, while people have been buying guns like it was bread at the supermarket, experts have noted that an estimated 40 percent of those purchases have been by first-time buyers, at least in Illinois, and most were handguns -- which I suppose is a bit more comforting than AK-47s or rocket launchers.

    One indication of just how record-shattering gun sales were in Illinois in 2020 comes from the Illinois State Police (ISP), who reported in early December that they were battling an enormous backlog of Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card applications.

    The demand has been outstripping the ISP's capacity for years, the ISP said, with the number of FOID card holders growing from 1.2 to 2.2 million in just the past decade. The number of concealed carry permit holders in the state grew from 90,301 in 2014 to 343,2099 in 2020, a three-fold increase.

Firearm registration per state. Source: ATF

"Due to the lengthy budget impasses, the Firearms Services Fund (FSF) was 'swept' in 2015 and 2018 and no plan to maintain or expand staffing was developed during that period," the ISP stated in the notice. "The current administration has not swept the fund and, in 2019, new leadership over ISP FSB (Illinois State Police Firearm Services Bureau) initiated a hiring plan and metrics-based strategic plan focused on outcomes and accountability. This year, the ISP FSB was confronted with a massive work increase across all categories."

    From 2017 to 2020, FOID card applications increased in Illinois by 167 percent, and Firearm Transfer Inquiry Program (FTIP) requests increased by 45 percent from where it was in 2019, to 506,104.

    "ISP FSB processed an unprecedented 64,000+ FTIPs in March 2020 -- the largest number recorded for one month until that record was broken in June with 65,000+ FTIPs," the ISP stated. "More than 400,000 calls came into the FSB Call Center from May to November when a new automated phone system with metrics was activated."

    In 2019, ISP data showed there were 2,285,990 active FOID card holders in the state and 325,187 people with permits to carry a concealed weapon. Although submitting one's fingerprints can speed up the application process, especially for a concealed carry permit, it is not mandated. "Only 0.06% of FOID card holders were fingerprinted as part of the FOID/FCCL application process," the ISP states. 

    FOID card applications totaled 170,178 in 2014, 163,172 in 2015, 187,947 in 2016, 166,649 in 2017, and 256,353 in 2018. In 2019, they climbed slightly higher to roughly 262,000. However, from January 2020 to November 2020 the ISP received 445,945 applications. The number of Illinois residents with concealed carry licenses, meanwhile, has climbed to more than 343,300.

    What is fueling the historic rise? That question has been asked by multiple experts since at least mid-summer. In a Dec. 12, 2020 news story for the Peoria Journal Star, writers Ann Sweeney and Stacy St. Clair quote Illinois State Police Director Brendon Kelly as saying the increase is "undeniable," and describing it as a reflection of tensions seen across the country.

    Sweeney and St. Clair cite an initial spike in March as COVID-19 began to spread and Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued stay-at-home orders. "In that month alone, there were 64,000 background checks performed in anticipation of a firearm sale," they write. Another spike happened in June when racial protests began to spread, with more than 65,000 inquiries.

    Because the tracking of private sales is limited, the total number of guns sold during 2020 is likely to be higher than the 506,104 logged through the Firearm Transfer Inquiry Program, they said. It is also unclear exactly how many firearms are being sold to one individual following just one background check.

    To me, the surge in violent shootings is horrendously sad, and another indication that we simply have a long way to go in reducing crime in the country. Is it due to a lack of policing effectiveness? The result of police being less aggressive for fear of a backlash, or undertaking fewer patrols because too many officers are off sick with COVID-19? Some officials have speculated as much.

    The good news, if you can call it that, is that the current spike in violent crime follows several years of declining numbers, representing mostly a setback.

    As for the spike in gun purchases, it smacks me as both reactionary and fear-driven, yet sadly understandable given the spirit of the times. A lot of people don't feel safe and they don't trust the police, and sometimes even their neighbors. The downside is that experts fear it could seriously increase the risk of suicides, lead to more overall crime through firearm theft and misuse, and lead to more injuries or accidental deaths by first-time buyers, many of whom may have received less than rigorous training because of the pandemic.

    Meanwhile, here we are at the start of another year and COVID-19 infections continue to claim lives, despite the roll-out of promising vaccines. It needs to happen faster.

    What can be said about the pandemic this past year that hasn't already been said? Although it has been highly politicized in the U.S., the fact that it has spread the world over, leading at last count to 1.82 million deaths worldwide and 83.4 million total cases, should be enough for people to pull together and defeat a common enemy.

    As we head into 2021, we can only hope.