New United States federal data shows 2015 was a record-smashing year for the American firearms industry, with gun sales appearing to hit the highest level on record.

Background checks for gun purchases and permits jumped 10 per cent last year to 23.1 million, the largest number since the federal background check system began operating in 1998.

Black Friday 2015 was the single biggest gun-purchasing day ever, with more than 185,000 checks processed, according to background check figures from the FBI.

December saw the highest number of background checks processed in any month. The last five weeks of the year ranked among the 10 biggest weeks ever for firearm background checks.

Advertisement

The year-end surge happened partly in response to the mass shooting in San Bernardino, followed by calls by President Barack Obama for more restrictions on gun sales.

Obama unveiled a package of executive actions that seek to curb gun violence, including conducting more background checks. This matches a familiar pattern: tragedy, followed by calls for gun control, followed by surging firearm sales. Interest in concealed carry permits has followed a similar pattern.

READ MORE:

Emotional US President Barack Obama unveils plans to cut gun violence

Obama gears up to impose new gun-control curbs

The FBI stresses that you can't draw a 1-to-1 correspondence between "background checks" and "gun sales". The numbers include background checks for gun permits too, which may or may not be accompanied by a sale. Different states have different procedures in place for running permit checks.

Some unknown but likely significant percentage of transactions don't involve a federally licensed dealer, and aren't accompanied by a check at all. Still, the FBI's figures provide a useful approximation of overall gun transactions in the US.

One interesting wrinkle is that national surveys indicate that the number of households owning firearms is either flat or trending downward, depending on whether you prefer measurements by Gallup or the General Social Survey.

Black Friday 2015 was the single biggest gun-purchasing day ever, with more than 185,000 checks processed. Photo / AP
Black Friday 2015 was the single biggest gun-purchasing day ever, with more than 185,000 checks processed. Photo / AP

If gun sales are increasing, as these numbers from the FBI and different data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms suggest, the implication is that most of the growth in the firearms industry is coming from existing owners stocking up, rather than new purchasers.

In 2013, for instance, calculations suggest there were about eight guns in the typical gun-owning household. That's double the number in 1994, when the typical gun-owning household had only four firearms.

The gun control actions announced by Obama are so modest - clarifications on who needs a federal firearms license and calls for more research - that the biggest impact may simply be another month of record gun sales in January.

- Bloomberg

How effective?

• President Barack Obama's executive action expands mandatory background checks to gun shows, flea markets and online sales; adds more than 230 staff to process them; calls on states to submit accurate and updated criminal history data.

• Those measures are seen as crucial to stemming gun suicides, the cause of two-thirds of gun deaths, by blocking immediate access to weapons.

• They would have had no impact in keeping weapons from the hands of suspects in several of the deadliest recent mass shootings.

• The shooters at Sandy Hook and San Bernardino used weapons purchased by others. In Aurora, Colorado, and at the Navy Yard in Washington, men undergoing mental health treatment were cleared to purchase weapons because federal checks look at criminal histories and court orders for signs of mental illness.

• The suspect in the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting should have been flagged, but errors and delays allowed his purchase.

- AP