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A man kneels at a memorial outside Robb Elementary School to honor the victims killed in a school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., on May 29.Dario Lopez-Mills/The Associated Press

The U.S. has seen a rapid acceleration in the production of firearms over the past two decades and there is little sign demand is abating.

Recently released statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) show that U.S. gun manufacturers made 3,400 firearms for every 100,000 Americans in 2020, up sharply from 1,800 in 2010. Gun production grew at a slower pace in the previous decade: In 2000, 1,400 firearms were created for every 100,000 Americans.

“Most people understand that guns are prolific in the United States and that regulating them is very challenging,” said Christopher Rea, a politics professor at Ohio State University. “But I don’t think they understand the unprecedented acceleration of the sale of firearms and firearms-related equipment in the last 20 years, which really puts us in a new era.”

Although the overall sales and ownership of firearms in the United States are not tracked by any government agency, several metrics illustrate the surging demand.

The ATF says four million handguns were imported into the United States in 2020 compared with 1.8 million in 2010 and 750,000 in 2000.

The U.S. National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) tracks law-enforcement reviews of applications for gun permits and firearm sales. These mandatory reviews are triggered in most U.S. states when someone tries to acquire a firearm from gun shop owners, pawn shop dealers and retailers.

The number of checks has grown substantially. In 2021, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted nearly 40 million background checks, double the 20 million performed in 2012. In 2002, 8.5 million checks were performed.

Americans have their hands on more guns than anywhere else in the world, according to the most recent estimate from the Small Arms Survey, a research group based in Geneva, Switzerland. The group estimated there were 393 million civilian-held legal and illicit firearms in the U.S. in 2017 – more than its entire population of 330 million. India, whose population tops a billion, placed second, with 71 million firearms.

The surge in domestic demand in the U.S. has spawned what American gun enthusiasts call “the great ammo shortage” as bullet factories struggle to keep up. And some communities have grown dependent on the gun economy. In a tour last fall of an ammunition plant that has doubled its work force in the rural town of Lonoke, Ark., Governor Asa Hutchinson said: “Arkansas recognizes the role that the ammunition industry serves in growing our economy.”

Gun-control experts such as Jack McDevitt, a criminologist at Northeastern University, say it is frustrating to see the firearms floodgates open so wide. Crises spawn fears among Americans that can further stoke demand for guns, he said, explaining these events can include everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the 2020 protests against police following from George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.

“Many of the people who are buying guns are buying guns for protection,” said Prof. McDevitt. “Protection from groups they are afraid of. Protection from the government coming to get their guns. Protection from a virus.”

In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, in which a gunman slaughtered 20 schoolchildren and six teachers in Connecticut, the state government in neighbouring Massachusetts tapped Prof. McDevitt to figure out how to prevent active shooters from getting assault rifles.

Better background checks have since helped curb the proliferation of these weapons in that state.

But Prof. McDevitt said the continuing political gridlock in Washington undermines regional measures. Few national controls means that Americans from states with lax gun control can easily bring firearms they bought elsewhere into states that impose more restrictive measures.

Another problem, he said, stems from gun manufacturers who make subtle alterations to their wares and rebrand them to get around state lists that ban certain models of firearms for being too deadly.

“They are trying to skirt the laws that they know are trying to save lives, by making technical changes to the weapons so they can continue to make profits,” said Prof. McDevitt. “It is wrong and nefarious.”

Investors and analysts are betting on surging sales to come, despite a hate-motivated mass shooting in Buffalo on May 14 and the school shooting in Texas 10 days later.

Stocks in leading U.S. gun and ammunition manufacturers went up again last week, rising between 2 and 15 per cent during the week of the fatal shootings of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex.

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