Firearm background checks in the Dakotas return to pre-pandemic levels after record highs
Firearm sales reached record levels in the Dakotas in 2020. Though those numbers have since fallen, they're still trending upwards over time.
GRAND FORKS — Firearm purchase inquiries in the Dakotas declined for the second-straight year in 2022 but are still generally trending upward after a surge of “panic buying” saw record-high sales in 2020.
The states combined for more than 160,000 purchase inquiries in 2022, a 20% decline from 2020 and a 14% decrease from 2021. South Dakota saw more inquiries than its neighbor to the north over the past three years, accounting for 56.5% of the duo’s inquiries.
Purchase inquiries are the number of National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) conducted through the FBI. Most states require each buyer to be run through NICS to validate that the buyer is legally allowed to purchase a firearm. Some states, such as California and Florida, run their background checks through state authorities.
While purchase inquiries are not an equivalent to the number of firearms actually sold, the FBI notes that purchase denials after an NICS are incredibly rare, as just 1.5 million inquiries have led to sale denials out of more than 300 million inquiries since 1998.
In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic saw much of the United States shut down, Travis Chiasson, co-owner of Brothers Firearm Shop in Grand Forks, estimated to Forum News Service that he noticed business increase in his store by 20-30%.
"It's substantial," he said at the time. "I couldn't give you an honest number, but it's definitely substantial."
Chiasson said the store had seen a few first-time buyers stopping in to purchase a firearm, but most of the traffic was driven by returning customers looking to stock up on ammunition. While Chiasson at the time called the phenomenon "panic buying," he said customers seemed more concerned than panicked.
He may not have known it at the time, but Chiasson was in the midst of what would become the busiest month for purchase inquiries North Dakota had ever experienced, performing more than 9,100 NICS checks across the state. South Dakota processed more than 11,000 checks that month.
Though firearm purchases across both Dakotas have slowed, Chiasson told Forum News Service this week that Brothers, which opened in 2016, has continued to operate at a quicker pace since that boost in 2020.
“We’re still a younger business and still growing so it’s kind of hard to gauge what a spike business is from, with what’s going on around the country versus just our awareness becoming bigger,” he said. “Year-over-year this year we’re probably about the same, and we’ve been operating at definitely a higher tempo.”
Chiasson repeated the idea of panic buying, but said he believes stimulus money has also helped drive in business since.
“Back then, yeah, it was more panic pressure or panic driven, but now it’s not. In 2020, people were purchasing anything they could get, now it’s more pick and choose, and we’re seeing a tick in better quality firearms being sold,” Chiasson said. “What ultimately drove that was the stimulus money, the extra money. These are major purchases for our clients. Typically around $500 to $600.”
Though firearm sales may be down from the peak in 2020, NICS data published by the FBI demonstrates that gun purchases are generally continuing to trend upward in the Dakotas. Since the purchase inquiries were first tracked in 1998, annual NICS checks in North Dakota and South Dakota have increased 161%.
Estimating that his store sells between three and 10 firearms each day, Chiasson said the upward trend could be a result of buyers seeing increased value in their guns.
“The Midwest is kind of an anomaly in the firearms industry,” Chiasson said. “We have a lot of repeat buyers and a lot of collectors, and I think that they’re seeing the value in the firearms that they are collecting increase substantially.”
But with an increase in potential buyers also comes an increase in purchase inquiry denials.
“[NICS denials] have gone up significantly. It’s rare still — typically people that are prohibited from purchasing a firearm aren’t coming to gun stores and buying firearms, but we’re seeing maybe one a month,” Chiasson said. “It’s weird, you could go three months without seeing one and then you have a group of friends come in and all get denied.”
Chiasson added that the system works extremely well, but that wait times for results have increased. Despite that, he still maintains a positive — but realistic — outlook for the future of the business.
“It’s firearms — prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” he concluded. “The industry is always under fire, but it’s kind of been holding steady the last few months and we’re always looking for creative solutions and other products to bring into the store and interact with the community in any way we can that’s positive.”
North and South Dakota combined account for just half of a percent of the nearly 31 million NICS checks conducted annually, while Illinois and Kentucky together make up more than 30%.