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[(Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)]

The Business of Guns

Under Trump, A Major Gunmaker Finds That Business Just Isn’t As Great

Remington has laid off more than 100 employees in the last month. One executive said the company was “expecting a different political climate.”

The gun industry is finding out that a friendlier political climate is bad for the bottom line.  America’s largest firearms manufacturers, which had ramped up production in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton presidency, are suffering from a glut of supply.

On a Wednesday morning conference call with investors, representatives from Remington Outdoor Company said the results of the November election sapped consumer demand for firearms. With a Republican in the White House, Remington said gun buyers no longer feel urgency to stock up on weapons that Democrats want to restrict.

Steve Jackson, Remington’s chief financial officer, said the company and its distributors “were expecting a different political climate,” and had increased firearms inventory toward the end of last year, in preparation for a possible push by Democrats for a new federal assault weapons law. Now, Jackson said, “we do expect a market reset.”

Throughout the presidential campaign, Remington’s profits soared. The company reported $865.1 million in sales in in 2016, with a profit of $18.9 million. While Jackson did not say how much sales have dropped off since January, he cited a decline in the number of background checks completed by the FBI as evidence of an industry-wide slowdown.

In March, the total number of transactions completed by the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System fell by 3.4 percent compared to the same month in 2016, from 2.5 million last year to 2.4 million this year. It is the fourth month in a row to register a year-over-year decline.

To be sure, the pace at which Americans are snapping up guns only looks sluggish by comparison. Since the NICS system launched in 1998, only nine months have had a higher volume of checks than March 2017.

Remington executives said they plan on adjusting to diminished consumer demand in a two ways. The company will slow production, especially of modern sporting rifles, the industry term for weapons like the AR-15. Remington will also try to cater to shifting demand for “value products” — in other words, cheaper guns.

Remington is the third-largest gun manufacturer in the United States. One of its top competitors, Smith and Wesson, also felt the need to change course after the election. In December, it announced it was changing its name to American Outdoor Brands Corporation, and diversifying to gun accessories and other sportsmen’s products.

Remington’s workers are already feeling the effects of its effort to trim costs. In March, Remington laid off  170 employees,  most of them at its Ilion, New York, plant. While some elected officials blamed New York’s restrictive gun laws for the layoffs, a spokesman for the company said the job cuts were were necessary adjustments to a “rapidly changing marketplace.”

Background check totals are generally regarded as the best proxy of gun sales, but come with some important caveats. The figures include background checks for people applying for a concealed carry permits, and do not specify the total number of firearms sold or transferred with each check. The background check system also only records screenings completed at licensed firearms dealers — it’s estimated that about 22 percent of all gun sales or transfers occur between private parties, without a background check.

Several organizations prepare adjusted NICS figures in an effort to provide more accurate figures. An analysis by Small Arms Analytics, a research and consulting firm focused on the gun business, determined that gun sales actually rose slightly in March, by 90,000 over the same month in 2016.

Still, Jurgen Brauer, the founder of Small Arms Analytics, said sales are significantly below expectations. In January, his company predicted 4.3 million guns would be sold during the first three months of the year. The actual figure, according to Brauer, was 3.9 million.

Brauer said consumers aren’t rushing to stores in the same numbers because they have no reason to expect restrictive gun laws on the horizon. President Donald Trump is a close ally of the National Rifle Association, and promised on the campaign trail to loosen gun laws, not strengthen them. Under Barack Obama, sales surged after Democrats called for gun control in the wake of mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and San Bernardino, California.

The absence of any federal gun control legislation coming down the pike “is stilling the industry’s fire,” said Brauer. “I don’t like cute headlines, ‘Trump slump’ or otherwise, but, yes, that’s the present trend.”