Over the past two decades, America’s understanding of who a gun owner is, and what they own, has changed.
Asked to picture a typical gun owner in the 1990s, you’d have been right to think of a sportsman, a hunter.
That’s no longer the case. But if you think the typical gun owner today is toting an assault rifle, you’d be wrong.
The truth is that the sales that are driving the industry — and stock prices — to records, are of handguns.
They’re being sold to Americans who have been swayed by two-decade effort to push guns for protection — all to revive a once-flagging business.
Americans are buying nearly $2 billion worth of handguns each year, according to Smith & Wesson, America’s largest gunmaker. And business has been growing: In 2000, there were 10 million National Instant Criminal Background Checks. The industry uses that figure to understand how many people are buying guns. In 2015, that number hit 23.1 million.
What’s more, the data points to people stockpiling weapons, not just buying them. In 1994, a gun-owning household might have four guns, according to The Washington Post. In 2013, that number doubled. So just at Smith & Wesson, total sales — including ammunition and accessories — have ballooned to over $700 million a year.
So what changed? Yes, the product — and likely in ways you wouldn’t expect. But more important, the marketing changed: The gun industry changed its story, and that changed America’s story.
It’s part of how we got to where we are, which is a horrific place.
A new gun culture
“The problem is we have another culture in our country that, I think, has gotten confused about its objectives. We have a huge hunting and sports-shooting culture in America, and unlike many of you, I grew up in it,” President Bill Clinton said in 1999.
He was introducing gun-control legislation following the massacre at Columbine High School, when two senior students murdered 12 classmates and one teacher.
It was around that same time that gunmakers across the country were in the midst of trying to figure out a way forward. For decades, gun ownership had been on the decline as fewer and fewer Americans took up hunting. The market for fixtures of the sporting segment was vanishing along with the romantic notion of the American woodsman.
The National Rifle Association, of course, fought for the American hunter during every step of this process.
“Make no mistake — our hunting heritage faces threats from all sides. Its future cannot be taken for granted. At NRA we are doing everything we can to assure it will be passed on to Americans of the next century,” it said in a statement following Clinton’s 1999 speech.
While it was standing up for hunters, the NRA was also nurturing an emerging segment of gun owners. People were purchasing weapons for protection — spurred by the creation of a gun culture based on fear.
In 1999, 26% of Americans said they owned guns for personal protection, according to the Pew Research Center. By comparison, about half said they owned guns for hunting.
By 2013, that statistic flipped, and 32% said they owned guns for hunting, while 48% said they did for protection.
This was not an accident — it was a project gunmakers had been working on since the 1980s, according to research from the Violence Policy Center, a group campaigning for gun control:
“The National Rifle Association helped stoke sales with a series of sensational fear-mongering ads aimed at taking ‘gun owners’ rights down to gut level.’ The ads used garish photos, inflammatory copy, and hyped headlines to push for the use of firearms for self-defence. Typical captions included: ‘Should you shoot a rapist before he cuts your throat?’ and ‘If you’re attacked on your porch, do you want your neighbours to be opposed to gun ownership or members of the NRA?’
“Gun manufacturers saw the ‘personal-defence’ market as a lifeline out of flat handgun sales. For example, then-president of Smith & Wesson Ed Schultz said in 1992 that he expected to see growth in this personal protection market. By 1997, Shooting Industry boasted that ‘concealment handguns and other defensive firearms are the bright spots in gun retailing,’ and advised retailers, ‘It’s time to jump in on the defensive handgun market if you haven’t already.'”
And so handguns became the big sellers for gunmakers.
“Absolutely it has been intentional,” Jason Brown, an NRA spokesperson, told Business Insider about this push. “For the past 20 years, there have been repeated attacks on gun owners’ rights. Those law-abiding citizens and the 5 million members of the NRA see those attacks on the Second Amendment and are increasingly taking the initiative to arm themselves. They believe that their self-defence is ultimately their responsibility.”
This “attack” idea doesn’t come from nowhere. President Ronald Regan was an NRA member and rejected anti-gun legislation until two years after he left office. Then he flipped, supporting the Brady Law that required background checks for potential gun buyers with criminal records or a history of mental illness. He also supported a 1994 assault weapons ban.
The fear business
At Smith & Wesson, handguns made up 81% of firearms shipped to customers in its fourth quarter. For the year through April, the company had almost $723 million in sales, up from $552 million in 2014.
In a conference call with investors last month, CEO James Debney said that to run with this trend, the company was “obviously continuing to focus on handguns, personal protection such as the M&P SHIELD, which remains the number-one selling handgun in the US today.”
Other smaller players in the market have tried to jump into the handgun market as well, like Remington Outdoor, which entered it in 2010. By 2013, its 1911 R1 model was generating $325 million in sales. That’s why a year later the company told investors that it would be aggressively looking for acquisitions to gain more products in the handgun category.
As Massad Ayoob, a gun writer and instructor, wrote in an issue of Shooting Industry magazine in 1993:
“Customers come to you every day out of fear. Fear of what they read in the newspaper. Fear of what they watch on the 11 o’clock news. Fear of the terrible acts of violence they see on the street. Your job, in no uncertain terms, is to sell them confidence in the form of steel and lead.”
And that is what has happened. The NRA and the gun industry skipped into this future together, and since then they have remained in lockstep. Gunmakers have little choice, as the consequences of being out of this rhythm are dire.
Smith & Wesson remains a perfect example of this. The company was almost destroyed in 1999 when it tried to develop a “smart gun” — basically a handgun with a sophisticated lock. The former CEO, Ed Shultz, wanted to stem the tide of lawsuits against the industry, which seemed likely to diminish it the way lawsuits helped to diminish the power and influence of Big Tobacco.
The NRA was furious about this move, though, and told its members to boycott the company. The gun was eventually scrapped, as was Shultz. In 2005, the Bush administration passed legislation protecting gunmakers from being sued for any violence done with their products.
Shultz has since been laying low. Evan Osnos, a writer at The New Yorker, tracked Shultz down for a recent article on guns. Shultz asked how Osnos found him.
“I need to know where the hole is so I can plug it,” he told Osnos.
As for the NRA, they say the do not have any data that proves that the fear that’s leading to more guns in our streets is also leading to more Americans dying.
Brown, the NRA spokesperson, said the organisation could not draw any “particular statistical correlations between the rise in guns and the rise in gun violence.”
“That’s not something we can do,” Brown said. “It’s something we won’t do.”
Gunmakers aren’t shy about the fact that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 has been great for business. They get to live in a sweet spot with Obama’s administration — enjoying the threat of gun control without the real fear of its passage. That’s awesome for sales.
“We experienced strong consumer demand for our firearm products following a new administration taking office in Washington, DC, in 2009,” Smith & Wesson’s management said last year. Its stock is up 933% since January 2009.
And again, that demand isn’t for the scary-looking assault rifles associated with mass shootings. The demand is more closely associated with handguns, which in reality are involved with more instances of gun violence.
According to a research paper by Harvard Business School titled “The Impact of Mass Shootings on Gun Policy,” only 0.3% of gun deaths are in mass shootings.
Turns out we’re not killing each other in random, horrific masses. We’re killing each other little by little, day by day.
Mass shootings, though, do elicit a policy response on the state level. The HBS study found that “a single mass shooting leads to a 15% increase in the number of firearm bills introduced within a state in the year after a mass shooting. This effect increases with the number of fatalities.”
Part of this is because the antigun effort has started to mobilize against what it considers the real problem here — the idea that everyone needs a gun for protection.
“The ‘need’ to arm yourself after a tragedy is a myth perpetuated by the NRA, which uses fearmongering to sell more guns,” said Kate Folmar, a spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, told Business Insider. “That’s because they have shifted over the years from an organisation that once represented sportsmen and hunters to what it is now: the gun lobby that represents manufacturers.”
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