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Americans Are Buying More—and More Lethal—Guns

Domestic firearm production increased dramatically beginning in 2005.

American manufacturing may be in decline, but new research suggests one sector of the industrial economy can't churn out products fast enough.

Unfortunately—at least from a public-health perspective—that would be firearms manufacturers.

A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports "a dramatic increase in domestic firearm production starting in 2005 and peaking in 2013." It further finds "a shift toward more lethal weapons."

Enjoy the movie franchise, suffer the consequences of the phenomenon.

The trend in gun ownership among Americans has been clear for a while now: An "ever larger number of guns is concentrated in a shrinking number of homes," as NPR reported two years ago. In other words, fewer families own guns, but those that do own more of them.

A research team led by Victoria Smith and Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health decided to examine a different part of the equation: trends in manufacturing. It used data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives covering the years 1990 to 2015.

Fewer families own guns, but those that do own more of them.

"The number of firearms manufactured in the [United States] for domestic commerce ranged between three and five million between 1990 and 2005, but then grew exponentially, from 3.2 million firearms in 2005 to a peak of 10.3 million in 2013," the researchers write.

This increase "was primarily attributable to increased production of pistols and rifles," they add. "After declining from 1990 to 2005, annual pistol production increased by more than fourfold from 2005 to 2015, peaking in 2013 at 4.4 million."

The researchers also found a large increase "in the share of firearms produced that are of higher caliber, and therefore greater lethality. In addition, the growing production of .380 pistols, which are generally compact, suggests a shift towards more-concealable weapons as well."

The fact this spike began in 2005 suggests some of the speculation about the reasons behind the surge in gun sales has been overly glib. The timing suggests the increase isn't a direct reaction to the 2001 terrorist attack, and it preceded the 2008 election of our first African-American president.

So what happened? While they can't answer that question, the researchers conclude by asking "whether industry marketing is contributing to a change in the demands for firearms, and the cultural perception of guns in society." While that's worth exploring, a deeper driver may be the intensification of free-floating fears in a changing, seemingly unstable society.

Another recent study found gun ownership is rooted in a vague but deeply held belief that the world is a scary place, and firearms provide our only real protection. In fact, incidents in which people defend themselves against criminals with a gun are extremely rare, and having guns in the house greatly raises the risk of both fatal accidents and suicide.

In other words, guns provide a sense of security, but it is largely illusory. And for a handful of manufacturers, that illusion produces real-life riches.