Some analysts attribute the weakness to an absence of significant federal gun-control legislation, or to the firearms industry’s cyclical nature. Another possible factor: a nationwide surge of gun-control activism after the fatal shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
This holiday season is not shaping up to be the gun industry’s best.
Firearms sales slumped after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, as fears of gun control melted away with the administration’s vocal support of the gun industry.
But two years later, demand still appears weak.
In October, slightly more than 1 million background checks of prospective firearms buyers were conducted through the FBI, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation trade group, which adjusts federal figures to roughly approximate market conditions.
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That’s 11.2 percent fewer checks than in the same month a year earlier. This year, nine out of 10 months had fewer checks than the same period in either 2016 or 2017.
Some analysts attribute the weakness to an absence of significant federal gun-control legislation, or to the firearms industry’s cyclical nature.
“We are definitely in a business cycle,” said Jurgen Brauer, chief economist of Small Arms Analytics, a research firm. “For those who have been around for 30 years, this kind of thing is old hat, and you just deal with it.”
Another possible factor: a nationwide surge of gun-control activism after 17 people were fatally shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February. Companies distanced themselves from the National Rifle Association, major firearms manufacturers faced pressure from Wall Street and local politicians proposed a raft of gun control measures.
And if the past few weeks are any indication, gun companies have more stress coming.
After the Parkland killings, Dick’s Sporting Goods took a bold step, declaring that it would stop selling assault-style rifles and require any gun buyer to be at least 21 years old. Edward Stack, chief executive of the chain, which has more than 700 stores, went to Washington, D.C., to talk about gun control. He spoke publicly about the emotional impetus for the decision. Gun-rights activists threatened to boycott the company.
The company’s financials are still adjusting.
The retailer, which is based an hour from the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 people died in a shooting in late October, said last month that sales at stores open more than a year declined 6.1 percent in the third quarter from the same period a year earlier. Dick’s hunting segment, which includes firearms, was responsible for half the decline.
Lee Belitsky, the chief financial officer, said on a conference call with analysts that “the broader industry has decelerated and remains weak.” Stack said on the call that the company stripped hunting products from 10 stores and replaced them with outerwear, licensed products and baseball items.
The company warned in a regulatory filing that future results could be affected by “negative reactions to our policies related to the sale of firearms and accessories.” In May, the National Shooting Sports Foundation expelled Dick’s from its roster after learning that the retailer had retained gun-control lobbyists. Firearms brands like Mossberg and Springfield Armory also severed ties.
Black Friday has historically been one of the strongest selling days of the year for firearms, accounting for five of the top 10 days for background checks tracked by the FBI (most of the rest reflect the days after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012).
This year was far less busy. Unadjusted background checks slumped more than 10 percent, to 182,093 checks, from last year’s record high of 203,086 checks, which had followed shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas.
It was the lowest number of background checks since 2014, even as retailers like Bass Pro Shops offered discounts on handguns and rifles for the shopping event. The National Shooting Sports Foundation noted that a high number of checks were performed on the days surrounding Black Friday.
Background checks are only a rough estimate of sales figures. The true number is likely to be much higher, as buyers can submit to a single check and then purchase multiple guns, and in many cases can skip the process entirely when buying a firearm in a private sale.
After the Parkland shooting, major businesses cut ties with the NRA. (FedEx, however, said its recent decision was not motivated by gun policy.) Leading investors like BlackRock voted with activist groups on shareholder proposals asking for more accounting from gun makers of crimes tied to their products.
More companies are pushing the firearms industry for reform. Last month, money managers with more than $4.8 trillion in assets, including pension funds in California, Florida and Maryland, issued a set of standards they urged gun companies to follow. Among the requests: Make firearms safer and easier to trace and enforce background checks for all sales.
“This is not a political statement about constitutional rights,” Christopher Ailman, chief investment officer of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, said in a statement. “It is a joint assertion by all of the involved signatories that investors have a stake in advancing public safety.”
Even businesses with few obvious ties to the gun industry have inserted themselves into discussions of gun policy. Toms, a shoe seller, said last month that it would donate $5 million to organizations fighting gun violence. Levi Strauss, famous for jeans, took a similar stance in September.
Some companies, however, are offering discounts and promotions for gun owners. One gave handguns to all of its employees as Christmas gifts.
The NRA reported a $55 million drop in income, according to a review of tax records published recently by The Daily Beast. Contributions fell to $98 million last year from nearly $125 million in 2016. Membership dues also slumped more than $30 million.
The implication — that the powerful trade group’s grip on American gun owners might be loosening — did not escape investors of several gun companies, whose stock sank on the news. The share price of American Outdoor Brands, which owns the Smith & Wesson brand, sank nearly 3 percent Tuesday. Sturm Ruger shares dropped 1.2 percent.
Other companies have also struggled since Trump took office: Vista Outdoor said in the spring that it would sell off its gun-making business, and Remington Outdoor is going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.