The gun industry, now facing renewed scrutiny in the wake of the tragic Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, has been booming in recent years. This year, while consumers were picking up bargains on Black Friday, gun lovers set a new record for single-day purchases. How’s that for the spirit of Christmas?
Although the FBI doesn’t track sales directly, data suggest domestic gun sales have spiked significantly over the last four years. The Bureau reported more than 16.8 million background checks by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System through the first 11 months of 2012, already the highest total for any year since the system was introduced in late 1998 – and nearly double the total from a decade ago even without data from December. Among states, the number of checks performed so far this year is highest for Kentucky (2,329,151), Texas (1,196,176), California (981,798), Illinois (923,920) and Pennsylvania (835,293).
As mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, a background check is required in order to buy any firearm at retail. The background checks don’t necessarily correlate to the number of guns actually sold as buyers might have changed their minds about their purchase, or might have bought multiple weapons.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a gun industry trade association that happens to be headquartered in Newtown, Conn., touted the record number of background checks conducted in November in a recent blog post. For the second straight year, Black Friday background checks set a single-day record, as the FBI reportedly handled nearly 155,000 requests, up about 20 percent from roughly 129,000 in 2011. The following day’s total of 88,419 background checks also earned it a place among the ten most active days. The NSSF blog also pointed to 30 straight months of increased checks compared to the same period a year earlier.
The rate of gun ownership has declined in recent decades, according to data from the General Social Survey, a long-running research project, and from Gallup pollsters. In 1959, when Gallup asked Americans if they had a gun in their home, 49 percent said they did. In 2000, that number was down to 39 percent, or 41 percent including those who had weapons elsewhere on their property. Yet a 2011 Gallup survey found that 47 percent of respondents said they had a gun in their home or on their property, the highest level since 1993, which prompted Gallup's Lydia Saad to suggest that, after a long downward shift, attitudes about gun ownership "may again be changing." Other recent analyses have found that while the percentage of U.S. households with guns has fallen, those Americans that do own guns have been collecting more of them.
Demand for firearms increased following the 9/11 attacks, according to an October report from IBISWorld, and background checks had been trending higher since 2003, but they rose sharply after President Obama was elected. The military is obviously a big buyer of guns and ammunition, and that helped drive some of the growth in sales seen during the years the U.S. was ramping up its anti-terrorism preparations and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Spending by the military and law enforcement groups, however, fails to explain the surge the industry has experienced since late 2008, says Nima Samadi, an industry analyst with IBISWorld. While the overall economy suffered through the recession and then painfully slow growth coming out if it, the guns and ammunition business grew by 5.7 percent a year from 2007 to 2012, according to Samadi’s October report, with growth from 2011 to this year expected to come in at 8.2 percent.
The gun industry “really just started its recent period of aggressive growth in 2008 with the wrap-up of the Obama-McCain election,” Samadi says. “The biggest driver has been concern over a potential change in gun laws.” There have been other factors, too. “A downturn in the economy probably reinforced some of those trends,” according to Samadi. While past downturns resulted in cyclically lower sales of firearms, which remain big-ticket purchases, the Great Recession did not lead to that kind of slump. “That reinforces some of the concern regarding a potential change in gun laws,” Samadi says, “and it also shows that in times of uncertainty people turn to things that give them a tangible sense of security, and firearms were a pretty good example of that.”
Measures of the total size of the U.S. gun industry vary, but the firearms industry now generates roughly $12 billion a year in sales according to IBISWorld. First Research, a division of Hoover’s, puts the figure at $7 billion a year, with guns and ammunition each accounting for about half of the total. However large the global industry is, the U.S. clearly dominates it, serving as both the largest importer and exporter of small arms, according to the Small Arms Survey (PDF), an international research group based in Geneva, Switzerland. That group estimated in August that the global market for “authorized international transfers of small arms, light weapons, their parts, accessories, and ammunition” has grown to at least $8.5 billion a year, more than double the $4 billion estimate from 2006.
The NSSF says the industry’s domestic economic impact goes far beyond just the sales totals for guns and ammunition. In a report released earlier this year, the group estimated that the firearms industry contributed $13.6 billion in direct economic impact in 2011, up from $6.8 billion in 2008. “The economic growth America’s firearms and ammunition industry has experienced over the years has been nothing short of remarkable,” the report said. Including suppliers, taxes paid and other related effects, the NSSF put the industry’s total economic impact last year at nearly $32 billion.
“During difficult economic times and high unemployment rates nationally, our industry has grown and created over 26,325 new, well-paying jobs over the past two years,” the report said. “Our industry is proud to be one of the bright spots in this economy.” Overall, according to the NSSF, U.S. companies that make, distribute and sell firearms employed as many as 98,752 people in 2011 and were responsible for another 110,998 jobs in “supplier and ancillary industries.”
The U.S. gun and ammunition industry overall includes about 300 companies, according to First Research. All told, the companies make more than 6 million guns a year. “Handguns are growing as a percentage of overall U.S. gun production,” a recent First Research report noted. Pistols and revolvers made up about half the guns manufactured in the U.S. in 2011, up from about a third in 2001. “Total U.S. gun production more than doubled over the same period,” the report notes. Rifles now account for about 35 percent of guns made in the U.S., with shotguns and other firearms represent the remaining 15 percent or so.
Even before the Newtown shooting, though, the industry faced pressures like lower government spending and the winding down of our wars that Samadi of IBISWorld expected would contribute to slower growth of 3.5 percent until 2017 – a level that would still exceed projections for overall GDP growth. “Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are projected to cut back on spending as stimulus funding dries up and budgetary constraints return,” Samadi’s report noted. Consumer demand would slow too, he projected. “As the economy continues to recover, fears about increased crime due to the recession and concerns about changes in gun laws will begin to subside, causing this segment’s uncharacteristically fast growth rate to slow.”
The irony may be that, if talk about gun control laws continues to grow louder, firearms makers should see a rush in sales before any legislation takes effect.