There didn’t seem to be much news coverage of gun violence last year. At least it seems that way. A killer pandemic, economic meltdown, coast-to-coast racial unrest and chaotic presidential election got most of the attention, which I suppose makes sense.
This doesn’t mean mass shootings went away; they just didn’t get the kind of airtime they usually do. But this month’s tragedies in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo., are a terrible reminder that the all-too American habit of gunning down our fellow citizens in large numbers is as ubiquitous as ever.
Actually, even more so. Gun violence killed nearly 20,000 Americans last year, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that’s the most in at least two decades. It gets worse: More than 24,000 people committed suicide by gun.
Not coincidentally, bad times like 2020 can be good times for the gun industry. In a conference call last year with analysts, Smith & Wesson Brands Inc.
CEO Mark Peter Smith estimated that 40% of gun sales were coming from first-time buyers, an estimate he called conservative and “double the national average” in recent years.
That was echoed by Jon Barker, his counterpart at Sportsman’s Warehouse Holdings Inc.
who said in September that stores across the country were seeing millions of first-time gun buyers.
Diverse customer base
The customer base is also widening. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a Connecticut-based trade association, says it’s more than “the traditional customer, older white males,” but “customers of all demographic backgrounds.”
It says during the first half of last year, sales jumped 58% among Blacks, 49% among Hispanics and nearly 43% among Asians. NSSF spokesman Mark Oliva tells me that sales remained high during the second half of the year and “are still elevated today.”
Investors have cleaned up. While the S&P 500 Index
has jumped about 70% from the March 2020 low, Sportsman’s Warehouse’s stock has quadrupled, Smith & Wesson has tripled, while another gun manufacturer, Sturm, Ruger & Company Inc.
has risen about 75%.
In the wake of the Georgia and Colorado massacres — there have now been 107 mass shootings this year — President Biden has called for a ban on assault weapons and to close loopholes on background checks. Although gun stocks have taken a breather since his election, lagging the benchmark since November, history suggests that having a president who talks about tougher gun laws can spur still greater gun sales over the long run.
The presidency of Barack Obama is instructive. During his eight years in office (2009-2017), gun industry profits rolled in faster than you can empty an AR-15 magazine at your nearby firing range. Industry jobs, sales and stock prices soared.
Here’s some NSSF data covering the years he was president:
Gun industry, direct and indirect jobs:
• 2008: 166,200
• 2016: 301,123
Gun industry, direct and indirect wages:
• 2008: $6.4 billion
• 2016: $15.2 billion
Gun industry’s economic Impact:
- 2008: $19.1 billion
- 2016: $51.3 billion
Some industry wags said Obama was the best salesman the gun industry had ever had.
The election of Donald Trump, a fierce defender of the Second Amendment and recipient of millions of dollars from the National Rifle Association during his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, deprived the industry of its boogeyman. Gun sales sagged. But now, the industry has what it needs: Another boogeyman in the White House to rally around.
The past also tells us something else. Biden may be president and Democrats may control both the House and, barely, the Senate, but don’t hold your breath waiting for gun legislation to show up on the president’s desk.
Remember: Obama entered the presidency in 2009 with far larger Democratic margins in both chambers of Congress than Biden has now. Yet no major gun legislation was passed.
Plus, Biden has made it clear that the pandemic, economy and infrastructure (all three are intertwined, of course) are his top priorities. He’s smart enough to know that presidents have only so much time and political capital. He indicated in Thursday’s news conference that to govern is to prioritize — and he has done so.
As the president might say, here’s the deal, folks: Nancy Pelosi’s House has passed two measures to tighten laws around gun sales. But the 60 Senate votes needed to advance these pieces of legislation simply don’t exist.
Unless the Senate’s filibuster rule were to change. Biden, a lifelong habitué of that body, has been reluctant to endorse this and still clings to the idea that he can work with Republicans.
Yet the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill he just signed into law offers a reality check: It got no Republican support. You can’t meet the other guy halfway if the other guy won’t budge.