The team at Top Guns in Terre Haute, Indiana got what they considered a clear signal from the presidential campaign trail that this November would be busy. “The more Trump spoke, the more the nation seemed to lean in Hillary’s direction,” said manager Don Sabla, speaking by phone on Monday afternoon.
In recent days, sales have surged, Sabla said. The large shop, located in the heart of a county considered a bellwether for presidential politics, is one of several firearm retailers who told The Trace that their customers are buying more weapons than usual in anticipation of election results.
Assault rifle sales have been especially brisk, gun store owners and managers said. At Ace Firearms in St. Augustine, Florida, anywhere from a third to a half of customers in the past week have been buying assault rifles out of fear of a Clinton victory, said Harry, the store’s owner. (He declined to give his last name.)
Since the beginning of the campaign season, the National Rifle Association has cast Clinton as an existential threat to gun rights. Clinton, meanwhile, has eagerly taken up the gun control cause, supporting an expansion of background checks, which enjoys broad political support, but also more controversial measures, including a renewal of a federal assault weapons ban.
Though there is no comprehensive national database of gun sales, several indicators suggest they have increased in the final stretch of the campaign. Last month, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) performed 2.3 million checks — more than in any other October on record.
Sturm, Ruger & Co., one of two of publicly traded gunmakers, reported $120.9 million in sales during the quarter that ended October 1, up 34 percent from the same period in 2015. Ruger said in its earnings report that sales were “likely bolstered by the political campaigns” in which the issue of gun control and the Second Amendment has been so contested.
Smith & Wesson, the other large publicly traded gun company, has not yet reported earnings for its latest quarter, which ended on October 31. But in Smith & Wesson’s first quarter, which ended July 31, the company reported income in its long guns division — which includes assault rifles — had increased 109 percent over the same quarter of 2014, outpacing its handgun department’s 38 percent gains. The gun maker said that changing demand may be driven by “the current political environment that has caused concerns related to firearm ownership restrictions.”
It has become an article of faith that as gun buyers perceive the threat of new restrictions, they will buy more firearms, either as a show of defiance or in preparation for future regulations. Firearms merchants are well aware of this dynamic, and some allude to the threat of new gun control measures in their advertising.
Some, like Gander Mountain, a national sporting goods chain, do so obliquely. A circular for a sale stretching from October 23 to November 19 is splashed with a large image of a Ruger AR-15 style rifle, under the banner “EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS.” The ad also features the logo for #GUNVOTE, a political initiative launched this year by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade group.
Other stores’ marketing materials more explicitly raise fears of possible Clinton gun-grabbing. Westside Armory in Las Vegas ran a newspaper ad warning readers “prices will skryocket after Crooked Hillary gets in,” imploring them to buy Smith & Wesson’s own M&P model AR-15.
Ace Buyers, a Michigan firearms dealer, told customers “we try to run a politics free store” but that it’s “no secret” Clinton wants an assault weapons ban, which “will affect our business in a negative way.” Ace is trying to induce its customers to vote with gun issues top of mind, so it is raffling off a free AR-15 to any customers who make a purchase the between November 1st or 8th, or come in with an “I Voted” sticker.
These fears of a revived assault weapons ban are not unfounded. In the wake of the June mass shooting at Orlando’s pulse nightclub, the worst such massacre in American history, Clinton said that the ban “should be reinstated.” A previous ban expired in 2004.
Sabla, at Top Guns, said his customers are “purchasing items they’re hoping will be grandfathered in,” should Clinton and Democrats manage to push a new assault rifle ban through Congress.
The store beefed up its inventory of AR-15 and AK-47-style semiautomatic rifles, the sorts of weapons commonly vilified by Democratic politicians in anticipation of heightened demand, Sabla said. The store also hired seasonal retail workers a month earlier than in past years to make sure they could handle the rush, he said.
Sabla estimates sales in the past week are 20 to 30 percent higher than during the same period in 2015. The bulk of those increased sales were assault rifles, along with the high capacity magazines that feed these weapons 30 or more rounds at a time, he said.
If Clinton pursues a new assault weapons ban, she may have difficulty finding support even within her own party. Congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, and even leading gun violence prevention advocates, do not prioritize the policy.
A poll conducted by Gallup in October found only 36 percent of Americans support an assault weapons ban, the lowest level of support in 20 years. That’s at the same time that Americans across the political spectrum strongly support other gun control measures like expanding the range of transactions subject to background checks.
[Photo: Jens Buettner/AP Images]