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Ready, aim ... buy? Why gun sales spiked on Black Friday

Jeff Roberson / AP

Imagine finding one of these under the Christmas tree? A record number of background checks for gun purchases were performed over the Black Friday weekend, the FBI says.

Americans spent some $52 billion on Black Friday weekend. In addition to sweaters and iPods, though, shoppers were scooping up something else in large numbers: guns.

According to the FBI, which processes requests for background checks of prospective gun buyers, 129,166 such checks were performed on Black Friday, Nov. 25, breaking the previous single-day record -- set on Black Friday 2008 -- by nearly a third. The surge in gun sales was initially reported by USA Today.

Analysts who focus on firearms say this increase is part of a years-long trend toward increasing gun ownership. In a recent Gallup poll, 47 percent of respondents said there was a gun in the household, up from 41 percent just one year ago. 

More people are buying guns these days, particularly handguns, said Cai von Rumohr, managing director at investment company Cowen & Co. For all of November, the number of background checks processed by the FBI rose by around 16 percent vs. year-ago levels.

"These numbers have been relatively strong, and I think more of it has been the trend towards lower-priced, smaller weapons," von Rumohr said. For the most part, it's unlikely these weapons are being bought to wrap up and put under a Christmas tree; many states have laws that prohibit buying a gun for someone else.  

The number of first-time buyers and women buying guns has been on the rise for a few years, which may have contributed to the high numbers on Black Friday. Data from the National Sporting Goods Association show an increase in the number of female gun consumers, including a nine percentage point jump from last year to this year. Also, every state except for Illinois now lets residents carry concealed weapons.

"Retailers tell us 25 percent of customers are first-time buyers," said Larry Keane, vice president and general counsel at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade association. Many gun dealers that enroll firearm novices in safety and training courses report that their classes are full or wait-listed, another indication of growth in the number of new gun owners, he said. 

Caroline Brewer, director of communications at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, called the Black Friday surge a "one-time event." She said any increase in gun purchases "may be the result of marketing."

If marketing is the cause, it appears to be successful.

"Whereas five years ago it was politically incorrect (to own guns), ... what seems to be changing is social acceptance," said Bret Jordan, analyst at investment firm Avondale Partners. "I think there might be a changing view of firearms." 

Jordan said the industry saw a surge in gun purchases around the time of the last presidential election, apparently because hunters and other enthusiasts feared President Barack Obama would push for more gun-control laws or stronger restrictions.

"When Obama was elected, I think people rushed out and stocked up on their tactical rifles," Jordan said, referring to military-style weapons that were potential targets of legislative restrictions.

More recently, though, the focus has switched to handguns. In spite of the economic downturn, "The category of firearm that has continued to sell very well is something one would have if they were concerned about their personal safety," Jordan said.

"The general trend is it's more socially acceptable to own a gun in the United States than it was five to six years ago," he said.