While raw FBI data makes it seem as though consumers were more interested in purchasing guns in March than at any time previous, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) adjusted figures show the number of unique background checks performed actually fell 14% year over year.

But don't be fooled. Demand remains elevated and 2021 is still on track to break last year's record.

Handgun laying atop $100 bills

Image source: Getty Images.

According to the firearms industry group, there were 2.04 million background checks performed in March, well below the 2.38 million recorded last year. However, because the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 caused millions of Americans to buy a firearm for personal safety and defense, many for the first time, that month was the single greatest month for background checks on record.

The NSSF adjusts the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System data to account for duplicate checks the system makes, such as for investigations performed on existing concealed carry weapon permit holders to see if they're still eligible to hold a permit. The NSSF numbers are a closer approximation to actual consumer demand for firearms, though it's not a one-to-one relationship.

Although down year over year, the number of background checks represents a 47% increase from February, and year to date, criminal investigations of potential gun buyers are running 49% higher the same period in 2020.

Smith & Wesson Brands (SWBI -0.07%) and Sturm, Ruger (RGR 0.46%) have enjoyed white-hot gun sales over the past year while ammunition manufacturers Vista Outdoor (VSTO 1.61%), Olin (OLN 1.51%), and AMMO (POWW 1.51%) are having trouble keeping up with demand, creating an ammunition shortage.

While the stocks of the ammunition makers are running away from the firearms industry pack this year as a result, the gunmakers remain depressed. Shares of Ruger are up just 4% year to date while Smith & Wesson is only 2% higher.