Monday, February 18, 2013

The run on guns and ammunition - is this mass psychogenic illness?

I was watching my usual Sunday morning news programs two weeks ago when I heard that Wal-Mart had such a run on their ammunition supply customers that they were limiting sales to three boxes per customer per day.  That brings up the image of tens of thousands of people going to Wal-Mart every day to buy their three boxes of ammo.  What is it about the American psyche that drives this behavior and the recent stockpiling of guns?

It reminded me of the Y2K situation from over a decade ago.  Do you remember that scenario?  In the antithesis of the Terminator series, computers would be crippled by inadequate programming to account for the change to the 21st century.  The power grids would collapse.  The logistics of food and medical supplies would be paralyzed.  There would be chaos in the streets.  In Minnesota in the middle of winter that translated to a run on electrical power generators.  It got to the point that one of the big home stores cancelled their return policy for generators.  I never noticed it but I wonder if the generator aisle at the Home Depot ever looked like this gun shop display.

All of the signs point to this being a record year for gun and ammunition sales.  The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has a record number of checks.  Nine of ten of the top highest days and 10/10 of the top ten highest weeks for gun checks since the system was started in November 1998 have occurred within the past two months (see below).   The charts below give the NICS checks month by month since then and the actual listing of top days and weeks for checks.  Although there is usually a disclaimer about how checks do not necessarily equate to gun purchases, the issue has been studied and for each check there is about a 70% chance that a firearm will be acquired taking into account all of the possible outcomes. (click to enlarge)

Another perspective comes from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.  They keep a record of firearm manufacturing in the US by the type of firearm and also whether or not a firearm is exported.  The data going back to 1998 is available on their web site.  I plotted that data for rifles, pistols, revolvers, and shotguns on the following graph.  Some interesting trends noted include the fairly recent increase in rifle production. There were relatively flat revolver and shotgun sales, and a sharp increase in pistol production over the past decade.   The year 2004 is also an interesting inflection point for rifle sales since that was the year that the ten year ban on assault rifles expired.   Without knowing the exact breakdown of rifle sales, the rise at that point combined with flat rate of shotgun sales suggests that the rising rate represents sales of assault rifles or military style weapons that are not necessary for hunting.

All of the signs point to a greater prevalence of guns in homes and communities especially hand guns.  Not only that but it appears that Americans are arming themselves at a much higher rate than at any time since we started to keep these statistics.  They also appear to be arming themselves using handguns and possible military style weapons that are not typically used for hunting.  Hunters are frequently mentioned in NRA and pro-gun rhetoric but they certainly are not responsible for the huge increase in hand gun sales.  If we are ruling out hunters who is buying the guns?

My guess is that it comes down to people arming themselves because they believe that they need protection.  Although a previous post here clearly shows that the violent crime rate is at an all-time low there are numerous self protection ideologies.  At one time or another I have heard the following arguments:

1.  Protect yourself against violent criminals (even though there are fewer of them and they seem to be committing fewer violent crimes than at any point in the past 30 years).

2.  Protect yourself against terrorists.  My guess is that terrorists would not be foolhardy enough to walk into any well armed American neighborhood and start a gun fight

3.  Protect yourself against the government.  This is an interesting argument because it basically is the same thing as treason.  When I argued that point with a famous gun advocate he pointed out that it would depend on "who won".  Some conservative and liberal politicians of both parties have made this argument, including Minnesota's well known liberal Senator Hubert H. Humphrey.  The basic argument is that if the government becomes completely unresponsive to the people for one reason or the other - we should have enough firepower to overcome it.  I guess if we can't vote the bums out - there is always another way.

4.  Protect yourself against your neighbors.  This is the survivalist argument.  The survivalists believe that we are always "9 meals away from chaos".  It is therefore logical to stockpile food.  When the apocalyptic event happens, you need enough guns and ammo to shoot anyone who threatens you or your food stockpile.

5.  Protect yourself against the zombies.  That's right - you thought the zombie apocalypse was just fiction.  I happened to catch an episode of Doomsday Preppers that was full of information ranging from how zombies might scientifically happen to staircase design that would slow them down long enough so that you could administer the old "double tap". 

An inspection of the above list suggests that there are many more imagined than real threats.  Possibly several orders of magnitude greater if you are considering that all of your neighbors who ignored your warnings about the apocalypse are either coming for your food or have contracted the virus that turns them into zombies and want to eat you for food.  In that scenario - how much ammo is enough?  All of this would be more fodder for the film industry if it was not true at some level.  Very few real threats and many imagined would seem to be driving the current gun buying frenzy.  After all - what would happen if any of the mass scenarios unfolded and we did not have enough guns and ammo?

I don't want to go too far out onto a limb here.  For all of you DSM5 detractors - don't worry there is no diagnostic category to critique.  I think that there is room for studying the problem, but it would involve collecting data from the gun purchasers and we all know that would not fly.  Anyone knows that if you can be identified - the government can kick your door down and take your guns.  

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


FBI Instant Background Checks November 30, 1998- January 31, 2013.

ATF Annual Firearms Manufacturing Report and Export Report 2011.

ATF Statistical Web Site


  1. I think a lot of people are buying these guns as an investment, hoping to turn around and sell them for more, later, and this is contributing to the increase in gun sales. I believe this sort of thing happened with llamas, pot bellied pigs and beanie babies at one time. Many people bought these because they wanted to make money with them. Guns are their own category, but I think a lot of this is beanie baby type investment frenzy, and also some false justifications thrown out there by purchasers (just as a person remodeling their kitchen will often justify the expense by saying it will increase resale value, when they have no plans to sell their house and the kitchen will be dated by the time they do sell. They can't admit to themselves that they just want that commercial quality $4000 range). In the same way, I think a lot of people just want these assault type rifles, because it makes them feel tough To justify an expensive rifle, other false reasons are given, like home defense. I wish I had enough money lying around that I could afford a bunch of assault rifles, and I'd remodel my kitchen or get a new boat. Beanie Babies were only 5 bucks. I got a few kitties because they were cute and I liked them. I have some prepper/patriot relatives and I'm very familiar with the mindset. Many are stocking up to make a profit, taking advantage of peoples' psychological reaction to a perceived potential shortage, which doesn't revolve solely around guns.

  2. "Protect yourself against the government. This is an interesting argument because it basically is the same thing as treason."

    It's hard to argue that a populace arming themselves is automatically "Treason" when the founders themselves pointed to an armed populace as a necessary check against usurpation and made it a point to codify it in the first amendments to the constitution itself.

    If you're talking about a government abiding within its constitution and using it's powers to suppress crime or insurrection and other legitimate applications of force then you are absolutely right. If you are talking about people using force just to change things in a way they'd like them to go you are absolutely right. Those circumstances are clearly treason.

    On the other hand, the 20th alone century shows more than one example of governments that turned predatory, and the consequences for the people were often steep and horrifying. The worst of these tended to occur amongst disarmed populations. From a certain point of view, a well armed populace serves as a credible deterrent against those kind of events. In a worst case scenario, the nation's very founding demonstrated the utility of an armed populace in preserving their existing system of laws and governance in the face of violent threat to overturn their system (unless you're of the camp that call's the nation's founding "treason" rather than defense against "usurpation"). Defense against predatory governance is never a desirable state to reach, but it does befall populations around the world over time.

    The real question is, how well founded is concern or fear that motivates an increase in the defense posture of the people at large, and is the aim really to cause insurrection or is it to maintain domestic peace through credible deterrence against usurpation? To what extent are historic precursors observable that would substantiate or refute the reality of concerns for usurpation, or motivations for insurrection?

    Food for thought.