Viewpoints: A vicious circle of fear, shootings and gun sales

Gun News

By Todd C. Frankel / The Washington Post

In 2019, one of the nation’s largest gunmakers, Sturm, Ruger and Company, was in trouble. Profits fell by half over three years. It shuttered factories for a few days here and there. No reason to make so many guns. A top competitor, Remington Outdoor, went bankrupt. So did a key Ruger distributor.

But everything changed for Ruger — and the U.S. firearms industry — in 2020. The pandemic hit. People got nervous. Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest filled the summer. And a presidential election loomed over it all. U.S. gun sales surged an estimated 60 percent last year to an all-time high.

Ruger chief executive Chris Killoy called the sales boom “historic” and “ferocious” in an earnings call with investors on Feb. 18. Company profits jumped nearly 40 percent. Killoy said he saw a connection between the year-long turmoil and the sales explosion. But he’d never seen it like this.

“In my 30 years plus in the industry frankly, I think it’s different than what we’ve seen in some of the past demand surges,” Killoy said.

One model he mentioned as popular: the AR-556 pistol, a smaller version of the AR-15 military-style rifle.

A month later, a Ruger AR-556 pistol was sold at a gun shop in Boulder, Colo., bought by the alleged gunman who killed 10 people Monday at the King Soopers supermarket. Authorities have not said whether he used it. But he’d purchased it six days earlier, the same day as a mass shooting that killed eight people at massage parlors in Atlanta.

Last week’s aftermath: Now, these two mass shootings are likely to spur even stronger gun sales, as President Biden and some Democrats push for new gun regulations; launching a now-familiar cycle of fear over violence and the political reactions to it that generates more demand for guns, raising the potential for even more shootings.

Fear and uncertainty about what it is next has long been a boon to gunmakers’ bottom lines.

“They will sell more guns as a result of this, no doubt; out of fear,” said Benjamin Dowd-Arrow, a public health professor at Florida State University who studies firearms and mental health.

People often buy firearms when they feel threatened, said the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s leading trade group. Mark Olivia, a spokesman for the group, compared it to stocking up on milk, bread and toilet paper before a storm.

“People become very concerned that they will not be able to buy the firearms that they are choosing,” Olivia said, “and there is that concern right now.”

The biggest limitation on gun sales is that demand is already so elevated, said Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College who studies the topic.

“All of the anxiety from the past year is still hanging over our heads,” Levine said. “We have no precedent for this. We’re already in a spike. So are they really going to go up more?”

Firearms sales over the last decade have tracked a pattern of surging with mass shootings and political uncertainty, according to Levine’s research.

And gun rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association, have become expert at using worries about new gun regulations to argue that firearms are about to disappear, which drives more sales.

Peaks followed previous shootings: Monthly gun sale estimates collected by Levine show dramatic peaks followed infamous mass shooting, such as the one seared into memory by their names alone: Sandy Hook, San Bernardino and Parkland.

President Obama’s entire tenure was marked by sustained growth in gun sales because of stoked fears that at any moment he was going to instruct the government to take away Americans’ guns.

Racial resentment also drove gun sales during the Obama era, said Dowd-Arrow. A Brookings Institution report by Levine and another Wellesley professor, Robin McKnight, suggested some of the growth in gun sales last summer might have been attributed to racial tensions as Black Lives Matter protesters hit the streets.

But the Trump era was trouble for gunmakers. Even mass shootings during that time — such as the one in Las Vegas in 2017 — failed to boost firearm sales.

“The concerns about gun control were essentially zero,” because no one thought Trump and the Republicans would try to restrict firearms, Levine said.

In 2019, gun sales nationwide stood at about 13.2 million, down by 2.5 million from a record set in 2016, Obama’s final year in office, according to gun industry’s estimates using federal background check data.

The firearms industry was hurting that year, even though sales remained elevated by historical standards. Some companies had ramped up production expecting Hillary Clinton to win the election. But after years of driving sales with fear, there was nothing to scare their customers into making purchases.

“Demand has remained soft throughout this year,” Killoy said during an investor’s conference call in November 2019.

Ruger — whose corporate motto is, “Arms Makers for Responsible Citizens” — did not respond to requests for comment.

What fueled 2020’s surge: The following year, 2020, was different for the gun industry. The pandemic led to lockdowns and talk of police not being able to respond to emergencies, along with stories of prisoners being released to reduce overcrowding, Olivia said.

“I think those things pushed that surge in buying,” Olivia said.

Protests drove more fear; and more sales.

The election of Biden worried gun enthusiasts because of comments he made about wanting tougher gun control.

“It was not lost on members of the industry,” Olivia said.

Gun sales were so brisk last year that Ruger struggled to keep firearms in stock. It warned of shortages on its website. It hired new workers. It was feeling bullish enough about the future that it paid $28.3 million to snatch up Marlin Firearms — known for its rifles — from bankrupt Remington.

Killoy explained to investors in October what he thought was behind his company’s turn in fortunes.

“The surge in consumer demand likely continues to be driven by the call by some for the reduction in funding and authority of law enforcement organizations, protests, demonstrations, and civil unrest in many cities throughout the United States and concerns about personal protection and home defense stemming from the continuing COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

He ended that call by thanking “first responders, nurses, doctors, and other emergency and medical personnel.” He was talking about the pandemic, not gun violence.

2020’s toll: And in a year of record gun sales, gun violence killed nearly 20,000 Americans in 2020 and another 24,000 people died by suicide with a gun, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, more than any other year in at least two decades.

Now, after two high-profile mass shootings and facing a pandemic overhang, worries about what is going to happen next could drive additional gun sales.

“Guns are almost like Linus’ security blanket,” Dowd-Arrow said.

And then the cycle repeats.

“Talk of regulations and fear lead to more sales,” Levine said, “which leads to more violence.”

Todd C. Frankel is an enterprise reporter on The Washington Post’s financial desk, covering people and policy. He joined The Washington Post in 2014 and previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Herald in Everett and at newspapers in St. Louis and Charleston, W.Va.

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