LOS ANGELES (NewsNation Now) — While mass shootings dropped out of the headlines last year, the guns never went away. In fact, the legal sale of firearms across the country reached a record level. And as the U.S. inches toward a post-pandemic future, gun and gun violence continue to increase.

More than 21 million people completed a background check to buy a gun last year, shattering all previous records, and a survey found that 40% identified as new gun owners — many of whom belong to demographics not normally associated with firearms, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade association.

According to gun analysts, sales are up for the 13th straight month, and demand is still high.

Mark Oliva, with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, says inventory is moving so fast, store shelves are often empty.

“We’ve been averaging between 1.5 to 2 million background checks every month for the sale of a gun, and that’s been maintaining. So what that tells me is that while you’re not seeing a whole lot of guns in the stores in the display cases, we’re still able to make those sales happen,” Oliva said.

Fuquay Gun Store, in North Carolina, reports the busiest three months ever with many customers concerned about personal safety.

“There’s a tremendous amount of people still buying firearms for home defense this year. Also, a ton of interest in conceal carry classes and conceal carry firearms this year,” said Clay Ausley, who works at Fuquay Gun.

While responsible gun ownership is prevalent, so is an increase in gun-related crimes.

In Los Angeles, police stats show shootings are up by 67% and homicides are up by more than 26%.

For law enforcement across the country, stolen guns remain a significant problem.

“Just looking at the reports that we have produced, a number of them are stolen, so they have either been stolen in a home burglary or vehicle burglary,” said Austin Police Department Interim Chief Joseph Chacon. “We do run across from time to time ghost guns, or guns that are illegally manufactured.”

“We’re particularly concerned about the continued rise of people stealing firearms from vehicles,” said Denver Police Department Division Chief Ron Thomas.

In Los Angeles and other major cities, much of the increased gun violence is attributed to gang activity.

Mental health experts cite more stress and anxiety due to the pandemic. In New Orleans, police say they’ve seen more minor disputes escalate. In one incident over the weekend, five people were shot and two killed. 

“The coronavirus is enough, and all this killing is senseless,“ said Reginald Lee, a New Orleans resident. “Put the guns down man, talk about it, pray about it, but put the guns down.”

Gun advocates also tie the increase to a loss of faith in the ability to police officers and government institutions at all levels to keep the public safe amid what at first was a little-understood, invisible menace. The eruption of sustained racial injustice protests after the police killing of George Floyd and calls to reduce police funding also contributed to more interest in firearms.

One of those buyers was Charles Blain, a 31-year-old Black man in Houston who purchased a Glock 43 handgun and a shotgun for the first time last year. Blain, who describes himself as a conservative, says “pandemic-related unemployment crime” and repeated calls over the past year to release hundreds of jail inmates because of soaring COVID-19 infections pushed him to buy.

“I was always gun-friendly, but never really felt the need to own one myself,” says Blain, who founded Urban Reform, which helps underserved communities get involved in policy decisions that impact them.

The dramatic rise in firearms ownership represents a “tectonic shift in the conversation on guns,” Oliva said.

“For these people, gun ownership and gun control was until now a rhetorical debate. It was something you could discuss at a cocktail hour, but they had no skin the game — and then they bought guns,” he says.

“It’s hard to put today’s gun owner into a box,” Oliva added.

Gun rights advocates feel good about what this could mean for gun policy, with a broader swath of society seeing themselves when they hear about gun control efforts.

At the same time, gun-related homicides in midsized and big cities in America have skyrocketed during coronavirus, and criminologists believe the pandemic and the socioeconomic loss in many communities are factors driving that trend.

A study by the Council on Criminal Justice tracked a 30% increase in homicides overall in a sample of 34 U.S. cities in 2020 as well as an 8% increase in gun assaults.

“We’ve been trying to sound the alarm, but the No. 1 priority is COVID because nothing happens until COVID is fixed,” says Alex Piquero, a criminologist and professor at the University of Miami who serves on a COVID-19 commission for the Council on Criminal Justice. “This is the long-term symptom of the disease and … the long-term mental health effects of this are going to be staggering.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.