Gun records checks, fueled by a post-Newtown boom of gun sales, hit a new high in 2013, and industry analysts expect ammunition to be the big seller this year as consumers catch up to all of those firearms purchases.
More than 21 million applications were run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System last year, marking nearly an 8 percent increase and the 11th straight year that the number has risen.
Background checks serve as a proxy for the number of gun sales, which soared in the months immediately after the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. But NICS checks plummeted in November and December compared with a year earlier, suggesting that the boom may be over.
"2013 was the best year for firearm sales (commercial, domestic) in history — period! That's true for NH to Hawaii," said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association in Rindge, N.H. "Ruger alone sold well over one million guns this year."
Mr. Feldman said to expect the next surge to be in bullets.
"Ammunition will still be very strong in 2014 as it hasn't caught up nationally with the demand," he said.
Gun sales spiked as Congress and a number of states debated whether to impose more restrictions on firearms purchases after Sandy Hook. Congress stalemated, but some states moved forward.
Monthly gun checks set an all-time peak in December 2012, the same month as the school shooting. The next four highest monthly totals for the national background check system all were in 2013.
Virginia, which has its own Firearms Transaction Program, reported a similar trend with last year's 479,253 background checks marking the highest total since the project began in 1989.
Gun sales don't perfectly track with background checks.
Thomas R. Baker, a criminology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, said if buyers are purchasing more guns per visit, sales could be even higher.
"If, for example, an individual walked into a store and wanted to purchase a handgun and rifle they would only go through one NICS check," he said in an email. "So it is possible that NICS numbers could drop with gun sales going up if a large number of individuals are purchasing multiple firearms per transaction."
John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution who studies the gun issue, said the fading of a post-Newtown boom in sales also was coupled with a subsiding of fear among some that the federal government would enact sweeping laws to curb gun ownership.
He pointed to the high numbers leading up to and following the 2012 presidential election as well.
"I think there are a few downward pressures acting on the NICS checks," he said. "Not just the Newtown effect wearing off, but the 'fear of Obama' effect wearing off."
If ammunition does become the focus for gun owners, that could become another hot-button topic.
Last year, the Homeland Security Department had to explain to Congress its contracts to buy up to 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition.
Some gun owners believed the department was trying to crowd out private consumers in the ammunition market, but federal officials said their purchases amounted to a tiny fraction of the ammunition produced every year.
The national background checks have been part of the Newtown debate.
Only federally licensed dealers are required to check customers through the system, but Sens. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, and Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, proposed expanding the mandate to include many private transactions. That plan failed to clear the Senate.
The Obama also took steps, including two last week designed to encourage states to post more data about mentally ill residents to the national system.
The Department of Justice is moving to clarify who is prohibited from having a gun because of mental health issues, and the Department of Health and Human Services is proposing a regulation to help states submit more information on such people to the national background check system.
The administration says some states have indicated that federal privacy provisions might be preventing them from submitting information about people who cannot legally buy guns because of mental health issues. HHS now is proposing a rule to give certain entities express permission to disclose identities to the national background check system to keep such people from buying guns.
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