Todd looked over the array of pistols on display in the glass case at his local gun store. A resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, and an avid hunter and supporter of the Second Amendment, he was shopping for a handgun for concealed carry. The salesman handed him a 9mm HK P2000SK. Todd grasped the gun and pointed it in a safe direction, appreciating its feel and heft. He considered Barack Obama’s recent election to President of the United States. That event certainly seemed, he thought, unfavorable to the freedoms of responsible gun ownership as well as to the economy in general. He handed the firearm back to the salesman. “I’ll take it,” he said.
That kind of scenario played out thousands of times in gun stores across the nation over the last year, marking a veritable firearms sales frenzy and earning President Obama the tongue-in-cheek honor of “Gun Salesman of the Year” in January 2009 from The Outdoor Wire, a Birmingham, Ala.-based daily electronic news service for the outdoor industry. Outdoor Wire Publisher Jim Shepherd says he never anticipated the mainstream media’s response—“In the U.S., everyone from The Wall Street Journal to Fox News had some fun with President Obama’s new ‘honor,’” he says—but the title stuck.
Now, according to Shepherd, “even if Obama’s popularity is slipping elsewhere, he’s a shoo-in to win Gun Salesman of the Year for a second year as firearms sales in 2009 have hit modern highs across the board.” There are several reasons for this, says Shepherd, “but not to give the Obama administration credit for a lot of the firearms sales would be as inaccurate as Obama failing to credit Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher with having played major parts in the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall 20 years ago.”
A FRENZY DEFINED
Apparently the Obama-induced firearms sales frenzy is not over. In fact, a continued increase in demand for firearms and ammunition throughout the United States is clear, says Ted Novin, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown, Conn. “This is largely being driven by the political concerns of gun owners,” says Novin, and is certainly legitimate as many lawmakers, including President Obama, have a long history of supporting anti-gun legislation. “Gun owners,” says Novin, “are not easily fooled. They recognize the reality and have responded accordingly.”
Shepherd and Novin cite the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) data as one gauge of gun sales: In September 2009, NICS reported 1,093,230 checks. This figure, says Novin, is a 12.4 percent increase from the 973,003 reported in September 2008 and demonstrates that sales of new and used firearms are remaining strong and continuing to grow.
While NICS background checks are a reliable indicator of how firearms sales are going, says Novin, another means of measuring gun sales is the firearm and ammunition excise tax. According to a September 2009 Firearms and Ammunition Excise Tax Collection Report, firearm and ammunition manufacturers paid more than $109.8 million in the first calendar quarter of 2009; up 43 percent over the same time period reported in 2008. According to Novin, this dramatic increase follows a 31.3 percent increase in excise taxes from the previous quarter (4Q, 2008) and 11 straight months of increased FBI background checks—another strong indicator, he says, of firearm sales.
FROM BLACK RIFLES TO SNUBBIES
For most of 2009, says Shepherd, AR-style rifles were the most popular firearms sold. Why? Most young people with military service have been trained on AR-style rifles. ARs are light, manageable, and easy to shoot. Further, says Shepherd, ARs “can be tricked out to any level imaginable, or they can be absolutely as plain as generic packaging.” They’re also available in a myriad of calibers, colors and configurations.
“The big sellers at Brownell’s, Inc.,”—the world’s largest supplier of firearms accessories and gunsmithing tools—“were AR-15s of all types, calibers and manufacturers,” says Randy Lehmann, marketing director at the Montezuma, Iowa-based company. At first, says Lehmann, the demand was for complete firearms, then complete uppers and lowers, and then stripped uppers and lowers, and then high-capacity magazines. At last year’s SHOT Show, “new suppliers were coming out of the woodwork trying to sell AR lower receivers, barrels, and other accessories. The demand was unprecedented in our 70-year history.”
Another big seller, says Shepherd, are small guns for personal protection and concealed carry. These include the Ruger LCR/LCP, Smith & Wesson J-frame revolvers, Kahr, North American Arms, and others in calibers such as .22 LR .32 Auto, .380, 9mm and .38 Special/.357. While these have not necessarily been the focus of any recent restrictive legislation, Shepherd says they sell well as the public realizes that law enforcement cannot protect us in an unstable economy. According to Shepherd, “Some people are going to become desperate.” As that happens, he says, crime rises.
AR-style rifles and small guns for personal protection may have fared well, but other categories of firearms did equally well. According to Jason Morton, director of marketing at Kansas City, Kan.-based CZ-USA, the company saw a sales increase primarily in handguns, especially those with a magazine capacity over 10. He says CZ-USA handgun magazines also experienced a spike in sales. According to Morton, who could not release actual sales numbers, “By the end of the second quarter of 2009 we had sold more handguns than in all of 2008.”
Craig Dutton, national sales manager at Smryna, Ga.-based Glock, Inc., had a similar report: “We probably sold more pistols than any other firearms manufacturer,” he said. “It was the best sales I’ve seen in my 20 years as an employee at Glock.” Dutton says Glock enjoyed a 73 percent overall increase in sales from this point last year, with 20 percent of those sales to first-time buyers. He says orders didn’t slow down until September 2009 and backorders quadrupled over the previous year. “It was difficult to meet the demand,” says Dutton, “but we increased production without overloading the market, even with the sales of almost 5,000 Glock 19s in one week in May 2009.”
FIREARM BUYING IN TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES
Analysts who watch the firearms industry are hard pressed to explain an increase in spending on firearms when the economy is generally experiencing a downturn. Scott Yaw, a brand strategy consultant in the firearms industry who heads up Scott Yaw Associates in Wycombe, Penn., says “high unemployment and overall financial stress normally leads to serious consumer retail sales declines, but not in the case of firearms and ammunition from 2007 to 2009. The entire category defies economic gravity.”
Shepherd offers an explanation: “The government appears to be seeking to regulate everything it likes and ban everything it doesn’t,” he says. “So some people have decided to spend their money to procure something that they feel is both essential to personal defense/responsibility and guaranteed to them under the Constitution.”
Not only have firearm sales soared in traditional “brick and mortar” gun stores, sales are also booming online. Steve Urvan, founder and CEO of Gunbroker.com, an online firearms auction site, says that on Nov 2, 2008, two days before the election, Gunbroker.com’s gross merchandise value jumped 70 to 80 percent. In March 2009 it was up 115 percent compared to March 2008. Now Urvan anticipates being up almost 80 percent year to date over 2008.
“We expected to see some increase in sales due to the election of Obama and the big increase in Democrats in Congress,” says Urvan. “For me, the surprise was how big the increase was and how long it has lasted.”
Gunbroker.com facilitates transactions of firearms, ammunition, and accessories. “At first it was black rifles, things like AR-15s, AK47s,” says Urvan. “More recently online sales of ammo have been strong and semi-automatic handguns also have been popular for the last several years,” he says. The biggest sales increases, says Urvan, have been with firearms and accessories from the expired “Assault Weapons Ban” or anything people thought might become scarce should a similar ban be renewed.
Even though Gunbroker.com added almost 370,000 new registered users in the last 14 months and has grown about 40 percent each year—fueled primarily by fear of liberal agendas and increasing crime—Urvan expects the poor economy to cause Gunbroker.com’s growth to subside through 2010.
Overall, manufacturers and suppliers have varied expectations for sales in 2010, depending on a host of factors such as the threat of liberal legislation. Regardless, Shepherd credits President Obama for the firearms sales frenzy of 2009: “The Clinton Administration drove some panic buying, 9/11 spurred some as well, but Obama has done more than anyone or anything to galvanize the formerly unmotivated, uninterested, and in many instances, people who would normally not even want a gun,” says Shepherd. “These people feared the administration taking the opportunity to ban them from owning guns. So I’m not taking nominations for Gun Salesman of the Year for this year, Mr. Obama’s already sewed this one up, too.”
Mark Kakkuri is a freelance writer in Oxford, Mich.