You would think with the election of Donald Trump and a wave of Republican, pro-firearm representatives taking over state legislatures and Congress in 2016 that the subsequent years would be great for a small business in the firearms industry. Not so.
"Our business was off about 15 percent in 2018," said Anthony Filippello, who owns Delaware Valley Sports Center in Northeast Philadelphia which offers shooting ranges, a pro shop and educational and certification programs. "But based on what I've heard from other gun store owners I know around the nation some were off by about 30 percent. I guess it depends on where you are located."
According to Reuters, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), an advocacy group for the industry, reported last week that 2018 sales for firearms were approximately 13.1 million, a decline of almost 16.5 percent from 2016's record year. The reason? Donald Trump. When he won in November, 2016, the people who feared the policies of his opponents were so relieved that the urge to stock up on firearms dissipated.
"The political winds are kind of blowing against the gun industry," Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY-Cortland who has written extensively about the politics of gun control told The Washington Times. "So demography, politics, and the 'Trump Slump' I think are pretty good explanations for what's going on." That sentiment was echoed by others in the business, like Trisha Kinney, the owner of Blue Collar Firearms in Colton, California. "Obama was the best-selling president for guns, every time he opened his mouth," she told Reuters.
Are you happy that the gun industry isn't doing so well? Don't be.
According to figures provided by the NSSF, a decline in gun sales is not good news for the U.S. economy. That's because the $51 billion firearms industry in the U.S. employs more than 300,000 people who earn more than $15 billion annually. Average wages in the industry are about $50,000. The industry also contributes more than $7 billion in tax revenues a year to both federal and local governments. In other words, there are a lot of people - small business owners and their employees - who rely on this industry.
Make no mistake, this is not an easy place to run a small business either. Depending on where they're located and the products they sell, people in that industry face stiff regulations. They are unable to advertise their products on Facebook and Google. They are sometimes ostracized by their neighbors and community. I don't own a gun. But here's the thing: in this country, Americans have a right to own a firearm. It's the law and it's unlikely to change anytime in the near future.
Because of this, an industry made up of tens of thousands of small businesses - gun shops, makers of ammunition, distributors of supplies, manufacturers of accessories, trainers, hunters, and security firms - legally exists and provides the livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people and their families. Despite the horrific level of gun violence in this country just about all of the 100 million people who own firearms use those weapons for purposes other than killing humans. As long as its legal, business owners in the gun industry have every right to sell their products just like the business owner who runs an abortion clinic, a massage parlor or a marijuana dispensary. But when you run a controversial business you're sometimes faced with challenges that are based more on politics than the economy.
"Sales were down in 2018, " said Patricia Burris, who with her husband owns King Shooters Supply, a 24-year-old King of Prussia, PA retailer of handguns, rifles, ammunition and other weapon-related accessories that employs twelve people. "The public opinion seems to be that with the Washington politics where they are, gun rights are safe. This opinion may change with the shift in control of the House and I think it will become an issue again when we get closer to the 2020 election."
It's possible that the "Trump Slump" isn't the main reason for the industry's challenges. Many see the sales decline as part of a natural correction. "From 1945 to about 9/11 (2001), the gun industry was a 3-million-to-6-million-unit-per-year business in the United States," Brian Rafn, a gun industry said in a recent press release around the National Shot Show. "We went from a 3-million-to-6-million-unit-per-year business to 16, 17, 18 million units per year. It was triple the post-World War II high. We have an absolute motherlode of guns. ... You're seeing some rationalization in supply."
Regardless of the reason, it's still a fact that the business in the firearms industry just aren't doing as well as they did. But, like other industries that go through slumps, one has to have perspective.
Even with all their challenges, the marketplace is still enormous and not going away anytime soon. If I was an older business owner in this industry I'd be using these down years to - to the extend I can - clean up my shop, bolster my store's online presence, test new products, shore up my finances, implement new technologies, train my employees and focus on my core strengths, be it ammunition, training or certifications. Why?
Because all industries have cycles and someday, like most industries, things in the firearms industry will eventually turn around. Politicians come and go. Moods change. Things happen. Many in the gun industry think their best years are still ahead. That must be why representatives of the National Shot Show - an event that attracted more than 58,000 people and 2,400 exhibitors to Las Vegas in January - are expecting attendance to surpass 80,000 over the next few years as part of a planned expansion. Or maybe these people know something about the next Presidential election that we don't?