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The bureau's National Instant Check System (NICS) does not track actual firearms sales - multiple guns can be included in one purchase. But the steady rise in background checks - from 8.5 million in 2002 to 16.8 million in 2012 - tracks other indicators that signal escalating gun sales.
Advocates on both sides of the gun-rights debate disagree over what is driving the trend. Gun-rights groups attribute the steady increase to the growing popularity of hunting and other gun-recreation uses, the impact of state laws allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns and concerns that the Obama administration will push for laws restricting weapons purchases.
Gun-control advocates, led by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, say existing gun owners are responsible for most new purchases (about 20% of gun owners possess 65% of the nation's guns, according to a 2006 Harvard study). Brady Campaign President Dan Gross said concerns about new gun-control laws are part of a "marketing ploy" to keep firearms moving.
No gun-control legislation was passed in President Obama's first term and no major proposal was offered during the 2012 presidential election campaign.
Still, there is an "expectation" that new gun-control proposals will surface in Obama's second term, said National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. "People expect a siege on the Second Amendment (right to bear arms).''
Larry Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said gun-related recreation - from hunting to target shooting on the range - is growing, too.
From 2006 through 2011, spending on hunting equipment grew by nearly 30%, according to a national survey published in August by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Keane said the overall firearms industry has thrived despite the sputtering economy and the decline in violent crime. "Personal safety still is a big reason people purchase firearms,'' Keane said. "The economic downturn, I think, raised fears that crime would eventually go back up."
"The industry appears to run counter to the economic cycle," he said. "When the economy is not doing well, the industry seems to be doing better."
In Wisconsin, when a law allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons took effect in November 2011, the FBI reported a corresponding surge in background-check requests by local gun dealers. Wisconsin was the 49th state to approve carrying a concealed weapon. Illinois is the only state without such a law.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)