By Jade Moldae
As 2019 draws to a close, numerous headwinds that seem to have stalled the industry’s years of growth show no real signs of abating. This challenging, erratic year has had it all: unprecedented rhetoric on the campaign trail (“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15s”), the loss of a major wholesaler with others also following suit, continuing anti-gun battles at the local and state level due to perceived inaction from Congress, the decision of the world’s largest retailer to exit a significant portion of the ammunition market and prolonged virtue signaling efforts by major corporations, financial institutions, big-box retailers and e-commerce/social media giants to restrict business. To say it’s been a “grueling” 12 months doesn’t quite do it justice.
Very few industries have endured the peaks, valleys and multi-tiered attacks the firearms industry has over the past decade. The industry, however, is quite resilient. There are companies that have maintained momentum by streamlining their operations, honing their niche in the consumer market and continuing to deliver outstanding products and customer service.
Encouragingly, there has been news of notable expansion efforts from around the industry. In April, CZ-USA announced a $90 million investment to locate its North American headquarters at the Port of Little Rock, Ark., while Weatherby completed its relocation from California to Sheridan, Wyo., in June. Later this month, Taurus will hold a grand opening at its new 200,000-square-foot headquarters in Bainbridge, Ga. Additionally, Clenzoil, Lapua, Pietta USA, Meprolight USA and LMT Defense either established U.S.-based operations or engaged in expansion efforts of their own in 2019. And despite challenges facing wholesale distributors, both Davidson’s and Chattanooga Shooting Supplies executed expansions to better serve dealers, too.
At October’s NASGW Expo & Annual Meeting in Orlando, Fla., I talked with manufacturers and wholesalers on both ends of the spectrum — some were up by double-digit percentage points over 2018, while others experienced their worst performance in years.
Dealers have been hit hard by the widespread slowdown, as well. A conversation persisting throughout 2019 continued in this month’s Letters to the Editor installment, with Heritage Arms’ Owner Tom Klein detailing the devastating consequences of consumers valuing price above nearly everything: “Everyone wants the best price. Unfortunately, when it comes to the bottom line, there is very little loyalty to the dying breed of local hometown gun shops.”
Presidential Election To Bring Relief ?
With the 2020 election now 11 months away, there is still a level of anxiety in how the consumer market will respond — the circumstances facing the industry are considerably different now from those that were present in the run-up to 2016.
Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Guns in Charlotte, N.C., expressed some uncertainty in whether or not sales would increase for his store due to it being an election year.
“We’re nervous about next year, especially not knowing how anti-gun the Democratic candidate is going to be and with Trump’s possible impeachment,” he said. “We anticipate we’ll do well for this year’s hunting and Christmas season, but we have no clue what to expect when the political season heats up.”
Talk of confiscation and buybacks from the campaign trail has had an impact on Hyatt’s buying habits — but not in a way most would assume.
“I don’t see us stocking up and buying a couple hundred AR-15s to store in the warehouse this time,” he predicted. “When people are hearing about confiscations and buybacks, it’s not a motive to buy.”
Clay Ausley, owner of Fuquay Gun in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., anticipates a contrasting trend at his store due to the election.
“Next year should be a strong year as election years typically are,” he said. “The more talk of gun control, the stronger business will be. The anti-gun talk from politicians will surely be a business driver for us in 2020.”
Very few industries have endured the peaks, valleys and multi-tiered attacks the firearms industry has over the past decade.
Education Remains Key
Whether or not fear-based gun buying returns to impact sales for dealers, education promises to be a key factor to growing business. To this end, NSSF has inaugurated a few different initiatives for retailers and range operators.
Earlier this year in the July issue, NSSF President Joe Bartozzi emphasized dealer education remains a central objective for the organization.
“We’ve got a lot of programs in place that are trying to move the needle for dealers,” he stated. “Education is the key to being successful. My role as president is to make sure we, the NSSF, offer a variety of educational opportunities.”
One of these forums took place Aug. 19–21 in Denver: NSSF’s first Range-Retailer Business Expo. In addition to educational seminars, the event placed a heavy emphasis on networking — giving range operators and retailers the forum to connect with over 100 exhibiting vendors. I was able to attend the event, and several dealers likened it to a “mini SHOT Show.”
Casey Currey, co-owner of Ready Gunner (Orem, Utah), placed high value on being able to interface with the other 200-plus dealers in attendance.
“The biggest takeaway for us was the unique perspective from the other range owners,” she said. “It’s good to see what’s working in the industry, and what we need to change. It also helped solidify a lot of what we’re currently doing.”
Currey also claimed an educational event like this would have been helpful a few years ago before Ready Gunner opened its doors in 2016.
“We wish this range conference would have been around when we were first looking at building a range! It definitely would have helped to take a lot of the legwork out of it,” she added.
With an interest in adding a range component to his business, Denver-based Bighorn Firearms Owner Ryan Resch also gleaned some important insights.
“Whether it be retail/marketing strategies or compliance tips, events like this from NSSF help me to adjust and refine my current business model,” he shared. “I definitely strengthened some existing relationships at this event, as well as some new ones that may lead to some great expansion opportunities down the road!”
NSSF hosted another regional event in early November for southern California-based dealers in Temecula. The half-day Retailer Development Seminar had guest speakers to educate dealers on California DOJ inspection processes, spotlight important resources like Operation Secure Store and social media marketing tips.
Regional events like the two mentioned here are primed to have a broader impact in the future, with NSSF launching SHOT University Online in late October. (See page 43 in this issue for additional details.)
With the 2020 election now 11 months away, there is still a level of anxiety in how the consumer market will respond.
NICS Checks Continue Rebound
As reported in this column last month, NICS background checks have rebounded significantly recently to nearly match 2018’s total.
Oct. 2019 saw a 10% gain over the corresponding month from 2018 (1,005,062 to 1,105,335 [NSSF-adjusted]). This continued a recent trend, with Aug. and Sept. 2019 up 15.2% and 10% over the same months in 2018, respectively. These gains ensure total NSSF-adjusted background checks in 2019 (10,303,725) almost mirror those from 2018 (10,307,725).
To add some perspective, these Jan.–Oct. totals are still down compared to previous years — which recorded 10,576,229 (2015), 12,192,286 (2016) and 10,889,461 (2017) background checks through Oct. 31. (For those curious, 2014 was the last year NSSF-adjusted NICS checks were lower than this year’s total through Oct. 31 — with 10,136,171 checks conducted.)
While this certainly is welcome news, it’s not representative of a full-scale recovery. We’ll continue tracking this development as we move into 2020.