In Uvalde, Texas, a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school, after picking up two powerful, AR-15-style rifles ordered through an online seller shortly after his 18th birthday — something that would have also been perfectly legal in Pennsylvania.
Here, over the last two years, more residents have been arming themselves than at any point in the last few decades or more. In Philadelphia, plagued by violent crime, firearm permit applications soared to likely the highest they’ve ever been.
In the city, the number of licenses issued in 2021 spiked by more than 600%, with 52,230 new carry permits. The year before: 7,444, according to an Inquirer analysis.
Statewide, gun sales surged in 2020 by 49% over the prior year, with a total of 1,141,413 firearms reported as either lawfully purchased or privately transferred, according to data from the Pennsylvania State Police. Licensed firearm dealers accounted for the vast majority of those transactions.
Although sales in 2021 declined slightly from what is likely an all-time high, the trend remains largely unchanged: Well over 1 million guns once again changed hands in Pennsylvania last year.
Val Finnell, a gun-rights advocate and Pennsylvania director of Gun Owners for America, said he’s noticed the recent surge.
“A lot of people coming to the table at gun shows are first-time gun owners,” he said. “The most common scenario I run into is people purchasing their first firearm for self-defense.”
A report released days before the mass shooting this month in Buffalo found gun production nationally has tripled since 2000. And gun sales across the nation boomed in 2020, amid the pandemic and subsequent social turmoil, including unrest following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, escalating political tensions ahead of the 2020 presidential election, and rising crime in big cities.
Gun-control advocates like Adam Garber, of CeasefirePA, linked this sustained increase in gun sales to fears of violence, but he also believes the sales helped fuel the recent rise in violent crime, which hit record highs in Philadelphia last year.
“Fundamentally people do not feel safe because of gun violence and crime, so they want to carry a gun for safety,” he said. “But record-high sales have come with record-high violence. And that’s every form of violence, from suicides to homicides.”
While a relatively small portion of the population historically accounted for the vast majority of gun purchases, it’s also clear that more and more people are seeking to legally carry guns in Pennsylvania than at any point on record.
In 2021, state police data showed 384,522 permits to carry a firearm were issued in Pennsylvania, a 24% increase over the year before – which was already the highest recorded since 1999.
Nearly all of that increase came from Philadelphia, which, unlike the rest of the state, requires a license for both concealed and open carries (such as wearing a visible, holstered weapon), and saw permitting increase exponentially last year.
Finnell agreed that crime was the likely cause, but added that the earlier months of the pandemic had slowed permit issuance, something his group sued to change.
“A lot of people had to wait for [licenses] during the pandemic because the gun permit unit was shut down,” he said. “So, now you see that backlog being cleared. I think it’s a response to the civil unrest during the pandemic. People who live in a higher crime area, they’re the ones who need access to that the most.”
That record-shattering figure could have been even higher, but 18,500 people were denied licenses. (State police say criminal history is the most common reason for denial.)
Meanwhile, an average of about 24,000 handguns were sold or transferred just in Philadelphia for each of the last two years, state police data show. Over each of the five prior years, the city averaged 11,096 handgun sales or transfers.
Licensing also notably increased in the city’s suburbs.
Garber said he understood why many sought to buy firearms over safety fears, but said research showed a strong correlation between increased gun ownership and homicide rates.
“What we know is that many people lack training, and carrying a gun heightens the aggressiveness of a conflict,” he said. “So we know more concealed carry, let alone without a permitting process, contributes to more violence.”
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Perhaps unsurprising, Philadelphia police say they set a record for crime gun seizures last year, confiscating 5,907 illicit weapons – a figure that excludes gun buybacks or turn-ins. Although arrests for possessing firearms began to tick up even before the pandemic or mass unrest in 2020, they have also notably doubled over the last five years, totaling 2,300 last year.
Gun-control advocates say Pennsylvania’s laws regarding gun sales are lax in some ways. Purchases from private sellers – unlike from gun stores – do not require background checks. But other states do not require concealed carry permits at all, and gun-control groups have praised the state’s background check system as “one of the best in the nation.”
Pennsylvania State Police reported yet another record on that front: 1.4 million gun-related background checks last year. That protocol flagged tens of thousands of people, including 138 people with active arrest warrants who nevertheless tried to purchase firearms last year.
The state’s gun regulations could change based on the outcome of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial election, a contest that underscores the divide in public opinion about firearms in a state where legislators have repeatedly attempted to weaken existing gun-control measures and courts continue to weigh the ability of municipalities to enact their own firearm regulations.
His Republican opponent, State Sen. Doug Mastriano, meanwhile, has campaigned on bringing Pennsylvania more in line with gun-friendly states like Texas. He has proposed making the commonwealth a “Second Amendment Sanctuary” – exempting residents from certain federal gun regulations – and shifting state gun rules to allow most adults with clean criminal records to carry loaded, concealed firearms without a permit.
In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, Mastriano called for an increase in mental-health funding and money to further fortify schools. He also joined others in his party by calling for more guns to be brought into schools for defensive purposes, by arming teachers and other staff.
Finnell, the pro-gun advocate, said that was the right strategy.
“These shooters — murderers, let’s call them — they look for soft targets,” he said. “We need to harden the schools. Defend them. Arm teachers who want to be — we don’t want to force them to do anything. We do it for politicians, for banks, for all kind of places.”
Garber rejected Mastriano’s call for more armed civilians, noting that armed enforcement officers were at the Uvalde incident and that the school had previously implemented security “hardening” measures.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over,” Garber said. “There’s more guns than people in this country. How much more will it take?”