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[AP Photo/John Minchillo]

The Business of Guns

Gun Companies Hope Hunters and Target Shooters Will Bail Them Out of the ‘Trump Slump’

Fear doesn’t move AR-15s like it used to, and three big companies just reported a cumulative $111 million dip in sales.

With a gun-friendly, National Rifle Association-allied President Donald Trump in the White House, gun companies are finding that Americans are losing some of their appetite for further firepower.

Each of the three major gun businesses that made public earnings statements in August reported that sales of firearms, ammo, and other shooting products fell in the last quarter. The companies have experienced a disorienting reversal after gun background checks, a proxy for sales, surged to record-highs for 18 months through last November.

“We’re seeing unprecedented change, and it’s not likely to go back,” said Michael Callahan, the interim CEO of Vista Outdoor Shooting Sports, a holding company that owns gun manufacturers like Savage Arms and Federal Premium ammunition.

Vista announced in an August 10 earnings release that revenue from shooting sports fell 18.7 percent in the quarter that ended on July 2, a bigger decline than the company saw in its outdoor products division.

It’s a similar picture at the Olin Corporation, whose holdings include Winchester ammunition. The company’s ammunition-manufacturing business saw sales fall by more than $12 million last quarter, a 6.4 percent decline. A portion of Winchester’s sales are to the military, and the company said that commercial sales were down even more sharply, recording a 15 percent decline.

Sturm, Ruger, & Company, the largest gunmaker in the country by volume, said its net firearm sales dropped more than 21 percent. American Outdoor Brands, the parent company of Smith & Wesson, will not release earnings numbers until September 1.

Figures from the FBI’s background check system suggest the decline is industrywide. The agency has seen the total number of background checks on gun transactions (not counting checks for concealed-carry permits) decline in all but two months since Trump won the 2016 election.

The “Trump Slump,” as it’s become known, has hit both handgun and long gun sales equally, finer-grained data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System show. Background checks of “other guns” — a category which includes rifle receivers — fell at a greater rate.

Gun companies attribute the decline in sales to Republicans’ unexpected White House and Senate victories in 2016, which dissipated fears — eagerly stoked by the gun industry and the NRA —  of new federal firearms restrictions. Firearms businesses are sitting on a large volume of guns and bullets pumped out in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton presidency, which are sitting on the shelves of retailers and distributors unsold. That’s left the industry relying on smaller segments of of gun enthusiasts like hunters and target shooters to prop up sales.

On an earnings call, Vista Outdoors Chief Financial Officer Stephen Nolan said his  company saw particularly weak demand for .223- and 5.56-caliber ammunition, two of the most common rounds fired by AR-15 style rifles. The semiautomatic, magazine-fed rifles became an industry mainstay after the federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, and grew in popularity during President Barack Obama’s second term as a string of mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Aurora, Colorado, and elsewhere led to calls for tougher gun laws.

By contrast, sales of shooting accessories like targets and gun-cleaning supplies held steady, said Nolan, who is hopeful that the fall and winter hunting season will buoy Vista’s bottom line for the year.

Ruger’s executives sought to manage  analysts’ expectations.  “Honestly, I don’t know where that new normal is going to shake out at,” said Christopher Killoy, the company’s chief executive officer.

Still, Killoy said he’s optimistic about the future, and doesn’t think the industry is headed for a deep decline like the one it experienced during the late 1990s. Thanks to the NRA’s aggressive lobbying throughout the past three decades, gun companies can cater to markets that didn’t exist for much of the 20th century: “We have concealed carry, one way or another, in all 50 states,” Killoy noted.

The challenge Ruger, Vista and others face is the mindset fostered by the gun culture during the Obama years. “We just have to encourage our customer base to get back out to the range,” Killoy told analysts, “and remember how much fun it is to start buying a few more guns for fun, not just because you think they might be banned in the future.”