Central Pa. gun shops shrug off changes
As the national focus turns once again to gun rights and major corporations change their policies, gun dealers in Central Pennsylvania are bracing for another year of declining sales.
Leading the policy changes are Walmart, Kroger’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods, all three of which unveiled new restrictions at their stores within two weeks after a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead.
All three retailers will raise the minimum age required to buy a gun from 18 to 21 — matching a common policy proposal among gun-control advocates — and Field & Stream locations operated by Dick’s will no longer sell modern sporting rifles akin to the AR-15 used by the shooter in the Parkland shooting and numerous other high-profile crimes.
Dick’s originally banned the AR-15 from its Dick’s Sporting Goods locations in 2012, but continued selling them at its Field & Stream locations until last week. Walmart stopped selling the rifles in 2015, citing a lack of customer demand.
Midstate gun dealers are skeptical the changes will have much of an effect on gun buyers.
According to data provided by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group representing gun manufacturers and dealers, gun sales at big-box stores make up only 12 percent of the market for modern sporting rifles like the AR-15 and 22 percent of traditional rifles including bolt-action rifles.
One reason could be that gun hobbyists prefer stores that specialize in firearms and equipment, said Nathan Lamb, owner and founder of Lanco Tactical in Elizabethtown.
“If you’re really into skiing, you aren’t going to buy your skis at Walmart. If you’re really into cycling, you aren’t going to buy your bike at Walmart. They don’t provide the quality they’re looking for, the experience you’re looking for,” said Lamb.
Even a retailer specific to sporting goods like Dick’s, which also owns Field & Stream sports stores, aren’t likely to have staff knowledgeable enough to help a customer make an informed purchase, said Lamb.
“We hear it all the time. The customer went to a box store and the person working in the gun department was maybe working in the golf department two days ago. He came in that morning and the manager told him, ‘You’re in the gun department today,’” said Lamb.
The perception that a Democratic president like Barack Obama will restrict gun rights drives people to purchase more guns, said Lamb, while the election of a Republican president like Donald Trump can cause a decrease.
“It’s an oxymoron. Typically, a Republican candidate is good for our gun rights, but it’s not good for our gun industry,” said Lamb.
Data collected by the Pennsylvania State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation appear to bear out Lamb’s observation.
Every gun sale at a licensed dealer like Lanco is tracked by the Pennsylvania State Police through its background system. The gun industry uses figures run through this system and its federal equivalent to measure sales.
The state police issue an annual report detailing where and how guns were sold or transferred ownership based on data from the state system. From 2014 to 2016 — the last three years of Obama’s presidency — the state system saw a consistent 12 percent annual increase, from over 676,000 background checks in 2014 to over 755,000 in 2015 and over 846,000 in 2016.
And as the administration of Republican President Donald Trump moves into its second year, the inverse is proving true.
The background checks run by the state police are likewise tracked by the FBI through the national background check database, known as NICS. In 2017, NICS saw sales decline 12 percent in Pennsylvania. It was the same story at the national level with an 8 percent decrease between 2016 and 2017.
Known to dealers and industry-watchers as “the Trump slump,” the decrease is dragging down household names of the gun industry.
Remington Outdoor Co. filed for bankruptcy at the beginning of February after reporting a 27 percent decrease in sales — from $644 million in the first three quarters of 2016 to $466.7 million in the first three quarters of 2017. The company’s profits over the same period swung from a net profit of $19.3 million to a net loss of $60.5 million.
American Outdoor Brands, parent company of legacy gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson, recorded an even larger loss in its own quarterly report. In the first three quarters of the 2017 fiscal year, American Outdoor reported $434 million in sales, down 35 percent from $674 million over the same period in fiscal year 2016.
In a statement released with the earnings, American Outdoor CEO James Debney said the dip in gun sales “may continue for some time” and the company “will operate our business under the assumption that the next 12-18 months could deliver flattish revenues in firearms.”
While the media, politicians and retailers have poured attention on the rifles used in mass shootings, the increases in gun sales during the Obama years were primarily among the sale of handguns, not rifles.
According to the state background checks system, the increase of all gun sales in Pennsylvania from 2014 to 2016 was 25 percent. But while the sale of long guns grew 14 percent, handgun purchases over the same period jumped 35 percent.
The decline in sales between 2016 and 2017 reflected a sharp drop-off in rifle sales, buffered by a continued increase in handgun sales. In Pennsylvania, handgun sales continued steady growth, increasing by 18 percent in 2017. Rifle purchases, however, fell 54 percent in 2017.
According to Kurt Green, manager at Staudt’s Gun Shop in Lower Paxton Township, customers who bought rifles out of fear of regulations from Democratic politicians felt let down when those restrictions never materialized.
“Everybody was really worried that Obama was going to ban certain kinds of guns,” said Green, citing AR-15s and AK-47s among the weapons people feared would be regulated. “During his presidency, a lot of people tooled up. They spent more money than they normally would on items that they normally wouldn’t buy solely because they thought they’d be taken off the market.”
When those guns were not taken off the market as customers feared, said Green, gun buyers felt stuck with expensive weaponry they presumed would be in short supply — and stopped purchasing them when they weren’t.
“A lot of people were disenchanted by that, like they got duped,” said Green.
This may explain why rifle sales have declined in the last year, but it does not explain why handgun sales have steadily increased. Green notes handguns have a built-in market among those turning 21, which is when they can purchase a handgun and register for a concealed carry license — a major rite of passage for gun advocates.
“People take concealed carry really seriously, and that’s something that will never decline. If five kids turn 21 in my county, one of them is buying a gun,” said Green.
According to the state’s system, Pennsylvania saw over 336,000 background checks for license-to-carry permits in 2016, a 26 percent increase from 2015.
But alongside the growing rate of handgun purchases are the evolving reasons Americans buy guns. In 2013, the Pew Research Center found 48 percent of gun owners cited protection as the main reason for owning a gun. In a 2017 study, the share had climbed to 67 percent. Among those buying a gun for protection, a handgun was the most common type of firearm purchased.
The Pew study suggests those buying a gun for protection are driven less by their perception of danger in their community and more by their perception of danger in the world.
Gun owners who rate their local community as unsafe were about as likely to cite protection as their reason for owning a gun as those who rate their community as safe: 74 percent to 64 percent, according to the Pew study.
That divide widens when gun owners were asked to rate the world as safe or unsafe: 72 percent of those who rated the world as unsafe said they own a gun for protection, while just half of those who rated the world as safe did. In all, the Pew study found three-quarters of gun owners say the world has become a more dangerous place.
A tale of two weapons
Gun sales posted steady increases under the administration of President Barack Obama, which ended in early 2017. After President Donald Trump took office, rifle sales dropped off, though handgun sales continued to rise.
Shown below are the annual sales for both handguns and long guns (including modern rifles like the AR-15) as tracked by the Pennsylvania Instant Check System from 2014 through 2016. Figures for 2017 are sales in Pennsylvania as reported to the National Instant Check System.
Long gun sales