by Frank Miniter
When news broke that gun sales are booming in a mostly down economy, many national media outlets quickly concluded—as ABC put it—some fear “a second Obama administration might restrict gun ownership.”
No kidding. When the Supreme Court twice comes within one vote of ruling that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights doesn’t protect an individual right, Americans have a right to be concerned. When an incumbent president seeking a second term has already appointed two people on the nine-member Supreme Court who would likely vote away this basic human freedom, citizens have the right to be doubly concerned. And when you realize that, if re-elected, the incumbent president would have a good chance of getting a few more Supreme Court picks—and so could reshape the high court into an anti-gun last word for decades—people are going to be motivated to buy firearms right now.
However, while all that is true, there is a deeper truth the media is missing—or maybe avoiding.
Although the Obama factor has contributed to the recent spike in the sales of some types of firearms, this simplistic answer ignores the fact that gun sales have basically been increasing for decades. Also, saying the increase in gun sales is only about President Barack Obama allows some in the mainstream media to imply this trend is being driven solely by people they characterize as government-loathing, “red state” rednecks. This way they can write off the whole thing as a simpleminded fear held by those who, as Obama himself once put it, “cling to guns and religion.”
The truth is there are many factors driving the sales figures, and sales are up everywhere, even in “blue states.” The top reason hasn’t been President Obama, but rather the movement for freedom spearheaded by the National Rifle Association and its robust membership.
To make this clear, let’s go through the statistics and details to see the big picture the media would rather not address.
Understanding NICS Background Check Trends
Since it became operational in November 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has conducted more than 150 million checks, over 70 percent of them for firearm transfers by federal firearms licensees other than pawn shops and 24 percent of them for firearm permits.
NICS checks are not a perfect barometer of gun sales, of course. Some of these checks are for more than one firearm and in other cases individuals who pass the check decide not to buy a firearm. Some involve a buyer trading in one gun toward the purchase of another. In many Right-to-Carry states, permit holders don’t have to go through separate NICS checks. And a small percentage of NICS checks result in denials.
Nevertheless, the numbers of firearm transfer-related checks provide some insight into year-to-year and month-to-month trends in firearm sales. And because the FBI releases updated figures on NICS checks every month, NICS is where the media look when trying to draw their own conclusions on the subject.
In January, newspapers and TV news shows were abuzz with stories about how the number of NICS checks was 14 percent higher in 2011 than in 2010, including a 22 percent higher figure in December 2011 than in the same month in 2010.
The December 2011 tally was an all-time monthly high for NICS checks, and because polls were showing potential Republican challengers not faring well against President Barack Obama in hypothetical “match-ups,” some in the media concluded that the increase in NICS checks was largely due to fears of what Obama might do on gun control if re-elected.
The spike in NICS checks in December 2011 may have been largely driven by this “Obama factor.” The same thing happened in November 2008, when Obama was elected; NICS checks rose 29 percent compared to the previous month, and were 42 percent higher than in November 2007.
The effect was so profound that during the 2009 Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show a few months later, the going gag was that President Obama was the “greatest gun salesman of all time.”
However, the surge in firearm transfer-related NICS checks didn’t begin in 2008. While check numbers have fluctuated from year to year, the average annual number for the last five years, 2007-2011, is 25 percent higher than for NICS’ first five complete years, 1999-2003—a trend that far exceeds the rate of the U.S. population growth.
Measuring Gun Sales
A better insight into gun sale trends is provided by hard data showing how many firearms U.S. manufacturers produce and don’t export, and how many foreign-made firearms are imported.
At the SHOT Show last January, Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), said, “The $4.1 billion shooting industry has been growing in an otherwise anemic economy. We’re grateful and proud that our industry has helped maintain jobs from the manufacturer through retail levels during these difficult economic times.”
He has reason to be pleased. In general, firearm manufacturers have been beating the downturn. In one example, last March Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc. (which trades on the New York Stock Exchange as “RGR”) completed the fourth and final quarter of its “1.2 Million Gun Challenge to Benefit the NRA.” During this year-long challenge, Ruger donated a total of $1,254,000 to the NRA as it built and shipped more than one million firearms. Ruger’s CEO, Mike Fifer, said, “We achieved this milestone because of the strong support of our loyal consumers.”
Ruger’s employees have certainly been busy. According to Ruger, the company received so much interest in its firearms it “had to stop taking orders.” A notice on the company’s website stated, “Despite the company’s continuing successful efforts to increase production rates, the incoming order rate exceeds our capacity to rapidly fulfill these orders. Consequently, the company has temporarily suspended the acceptance of new orders.” (At press time, Ruger expected to resume accepting orders at the end of May.)
Not all guns, however, have been selling.
Scott Grange, Browning’s director of public relations, says, “I’ve spent 30-plus years watching sales cycles in the firearm industry. This particular one has seen a fast rise in the sales of handguns and black guns, but for the last two to three years, traditional long-gun sales have been slow. We’ve been back-ordered on our .22-caliber 1911 pistol for some time, but sales of bolt-action rifles and hunting shotguns haven’t been as brisk; however, we’re now seeing a turnaround. We just had a good fourth quarter—partly due to some of our new gun introductions that are really exciting dealers.”
Overall sales figures from the NSSF certainly show that handguns and “black guns” (AR-style semi-automatic rifles) have been driving the numbers over the past few years. The number of U.S. semi-automatic pistols produced (imported and exported) was in the 900,000 range from 1998 to 2000, but then fell to a low of 626,836 in 2001. Since then, this category has risen nearly every year. In 2009, some 1,868,268 pistols were imported or exported by U.S. manufacturers, according to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) data. Revolver sales show a similar rise over the same period.
The BATFE data doesn’t separate “black guns” from other rifle styles, but anyone who has tried to purchase an AR-style rifle in recent years probably had to get in line. Many of these rifles have been back-ordered for months, if not for more than a year.
Other numbers also show the trend. For example, the number of muzzleloaders imported into the U.S. fell 20.8 percent between 2009 and 2010; meanwhile, the number of muzzleloaders exported fell by 17.4 percent. The imported-rifle category plummeted 37.5 percent between 2009 and 2010, though the overall 10-year trend for rifles sales (again including all rifle types) has been up.
Also, the number of imported shotguns and combination guns was 163,663 in 1998. This number rose each year until peaking in 2007 when 725,752 were imported, according to the BATFE. Comparatively, the number then fell by almost 200,000 in 2008 and 2009. These are the numbers Grange was referring to, as Browning predominantly sells traditional long guns.
Though some categories have been softer than others, the firearm industry is healthier than most American manufacturing sectors. For example, before the 2012 shot Show, the NSSF actually had to ask exhibitors to voluntarily reduce their booth space so smaller companies could get in to the sold-out show. The NSSF represents about 7,000 firearm manufacturers and related companies and attracted approximately 60,000 people to the trade show last winter. Overall, the feeling in the firearm industry has been cautiously optimistic—that’s a big difference from most manufacturing sectors at the moment.
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