Gun buys after Parkland: Four charts that show why people respond to tragedy with firepower

Surges in gun purchases are influenced by mass shootings, but the events alone aren't enough to consistently cause spikes in background checks.
AR-15 style guns are displayed at the In Guns We Trust LLC booth during the Tampa Gun Show. [CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times]
AR-15 style guns are displayed at the In Guns We Trust LLC booth during the Tampa Gun Show. [CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Apr. 13, 2018|Updated Apr. 16, 2018

It's a familiar cycle: mass shooting, wall-to-wall media coverage, then politicians and activists reignite the debate over gun control.

According to Gary Kleck, a criminology professor at Florida State University and one of the state's preeminent researchers on gun control, it's that last one that has the greatest effect on whether there will be a surge in people buying guns following a major tragedy.

"It's the publicity that counts because it communicates to prospective gun buyers that there may be more gun control and their thinking is to get while the getting is good," he said. "It's not just reporting of the event — it's reporting of people after the fact saying, 'This means we need more gun control.'"

That could explain why, following the February shooting in Parkland which killed 17, Florida saw a surge in gun buys despite headlines that the event had not sparked a national rush to gun stores.

While no major policy changes were in the spotlight in Washington, less than a week after the massacre, Florida's political leaders in Tallahassee proposed what would become the state's first gun restrictions passed in more than a decade.

In fact, the spike in gun sales after Parkland didn't hit its peak until February 24, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That's the day after Gov. Rick Scott proposed to raise the age from 18 to 21 for all gun purchases and create a process for law enforcement to remove guns from the possession of people deemed mentally unstable. The Legislature released a similar plan the same day, also calling for a three-day waiting period for gun buys.

But how did the post-Parkland gun spike compare to other tragedies, and why can there be such a difference between the responses to these events?

The following four charts explain:

The two weeks after the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14 show a significant surge in background checks in Florida after the event.

Background checks, while a reliable measurement, aren't a direct representation to the number of guns sold – only one background check is done for the same person buying multiple guns, and only registered dealers will run a check and not private sellers.

At its peak, about 6,500 Floridians underwent background checks on Feb. 24, a number higher than the surge following the Pulse shooting and less than the number of people who got checked shortly after the San Bernardino tragedy in December 2015.

But that doesn't tell the full story.

This chart shows the number of background checks conducted in Florida per day since 2012.

It’s easy to see that gun purchases go through annual cycles, as more guns are purchased around hunting season in the fall and winter months as well as for gifts around the holidays. Therefore, in order to get an accurate sense of how outside events affect gun purchases, it’s better to compare how many background checks were conducted each month versus the same month the previous year.

Filtering out the noise, this chart shows major swings in background checks correlated to events in the news – and not just shootings. Bars on the left-hand side, below zero represent fewer background checks in that month compared to the previous year, and vice versa. The first major dip, in December 2013, is the inverse of the earth-shattering spike in gun sales after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. in December 2012.

The massive spikes in December 2015 and June 2016 represent the San Bernardino and Pulse shootings. The increase in background checks in the two weeks following Pulse surged at a higher rate than any other two-week period in the previous five years. However, the two events are also surrounded by hearty percent increases on either side.

Kleck explained that a contributor to the massive size of those surges as well as the general increases in that time period was "the Obama effect."

"Barack Obama himself kind of jokingly admitted he was the gun industry's best salesman because everyone pointed out that the more he talked on gun control, the more people went out and bought guns," he said.

Then Donald Trump was elected in November 2016. In December, sales dropped off onto the left side of the chart for the most part.

In October 2017, the Last Vegas shooting left 58 people dead, more than any other single shooting in modern American history. Yet Floridians did not rush out to buy guns in numbers high enough to even make it a percentage increase over the previous October, while Obama was still president.

"If all you're saying is, 'We're going to ban bump stocks,' which most people didn't have anyway … that wouldn't be very threatening," Kleck said, referencing the mechanism the Las Vegas shooter used to essentially convert his gun into an automatic weapon.

Here is the percentage change zoomed in for a smaller time period:

Considering it happened during the Trump presidency, the percentage spike after Parkland, while small compared to Pulse, was hugely statistically significant.

In other words, in the two weeks after Parkland, background checks increased by 44 percent. That before-and-after jump around that day is greater than on 98 percent of days since late 2011.

After the shooting, the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School began loudly calling for a ban of assault weapons.

"When you talk about banning whatever is vaguely defined as 'assault weapon,'" Kleck added, "the fact that it isn't well-defined makes it more threatening to gun owners because they don't know what they need to go out and get."

Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report.