Once-boom­ing gun in­dus­try re­cal­i­brat­ing un­der Trump.

Sales surged un­der fears of Obama re­stric­tions, but busi­ness is down

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY LISA MARIE PANE

WEB­STER, TEXAS | Pres­i­dent Trump promised to re­vive man­u­fac­tur­ing in the United States, but there’s one once-bur­geon­ing sec­tor poised to shrink un­der his watch: the gun in­dus­try.

Fears of gov­ern­ment lim­its on guns — some real, some per­ceived — led to a surge in de­mand dur­ing for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ten­ure, and man­u­fac­tur­ers leapt to keep up.

Over the decade end­ing in 2015, the num­ber of U.S. com­pa­nies li­censed to make firearms jumped a whop­ping 362 per­cent.

But sales are down, and the bub­ble ap­pears to be burst­ing with a staunch ad­vo­cate for gun rights in the White House and Repub­li­cans rul­ing Congress.

“The trends re­ally al­most since Elec­tion Day or elec­tion night have been that gun sales have slacked off,” said Robert Spitzer, po­lit­i­cal science de­part­ment chair­man at State Univer­sity of New York at Cort­land. “When you take away Barack Obama and you give the Repub­li­cans con­trol of both houses of Congress, which is ex­tremely friendly to the gun lobby, then the po­lit­i­cal pres­sure sub­sides. And that surely is at least a key part of the ex­pla­na­tion for the drop-off in sales.”

The pen­du­lum swing is not lost on em­ploy­ees of out­fits such as Bat­tle Ri­fle Co., a small en­ter­prise tucked into a non­de­script strip mall out­side Hous­ton, with a store­front sec­tion fea­tur­ing cases filled with hand­guns and walls lined with as­sault ri­fle-style long guns. The man­u­fac­tur­ing floor and its eight em­ploy­ees, all vet­er­ans of the mil­i­tary or law en­force­ment, oc­cupy the back.

“Pres­i­dent Obama was the best gun sales­man the world has ever seen,” said pro­duc­tion man­ager Karl Sorken, an Army vet­eran and self-de­scribed lib­eral who voted for Mr. Obama and notes the change for the in­dus­try un­der Mr. Trump is a topic of con­ver­sa­tion in the shop.

“You might have peo­ple who were more in­clined to buy be­cause they were wor­ried they might not be able to later. That’s go­ing away for sure,” he said. “But by the same to­ken, the shoot­ing sports in this coun­try are go­ing to ex­plode be­cause they’re not go­ing to be as wor­ried or re­stricted about how they can shoot, where they can shoot.”

There are nearly 10,500 gun­mak­ers in the coun­try, many of them founded since 2000, said Larry Keane, se­nior vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral coun­sel for the Na­tional Shoot­ing Sports Foun­da­tion.

Ex­perts say many are drawn to long guns, in part be­cause sales for them rose af­ter a Clin­ton­era ban on “as­sault weapons” ex­pired in 2004 and politi­cians’ threats to re­strict them drove de­mand. At the same time, shoot­ing sports grew in pop­u­lar­ity, and re­turn­ing vet­er­ans sought out weapons with which they be­came com­fort­able in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From 2004 to 2013, sales of all hand­guns — pis­tols and re­volvers — in­creased nearly five­fold, ac­cord­ing to in­dus­try fig­ures. Sales of ri­fles tripled in that time frame.

Bat­tle Ri­fle took shape in the mid­dle of that surge, formed in 2010 af­ter founder Chris Kurzad­kowski ven­tured into his garage to build his po­lice of­fi­cer son a ri­fle from scratch.

Now the re­tail store in the front of his shop has a cozy seat­ing area, a TV and cof­fee with such names as AK-47 Espresso Blend. The crafts­man­ship hap­pens out back, where the all-male crew brings a love of long guns, the Sec­ond Amend­ment, pre­ci­sion and a bit of artistry to cre­at­ing cus­tom-made ri­fles.

Bat­tle sells about seven each week. Prices range from around $700 to as much as $4,000, de­pend­ing on ac­ces­sories, spec­i­fi­ca­tions and cus­tom paint jobs. Some 60 per­cent of its weapons are sold to po­lice of­fi­cers.

Coun­try mu­sic and con­ser­va­tive talk ra­dio waft through the cav­ernous shop where guns are made and used ones re­paired. The rib­bing among the tight-knit group is con­stant, but when it turns se­ri­ous, the men de­scribe their work as some­thing that tran­scends simple la­bor.

“Our fore­fa­thers re­al­ized what tyranny does, and if you don’t have a way to pro­tect your­self from tyranny, then you be­come a sub­ject,” said am­mu­ni­tion ex­pert Jamey Spears, who spent five years in Texas law en­force­ment un­til he was shot dur­ing a raid on a Dal­las crack house.

The .45-cal­iber hol­low point bul­let that went through a gap in his body ar­mor re­mains lodged next to his spine, a no­tice­able lump re­mind­ing him of how close he came to dy­ing that day.

“I have noth­ing but the most heart­felt ado­ra­tion for peo­ple who serve so oth­ers can be safe,” Mr. Spears said.

One rea­son for the surge in man­u­fac­tur­ers of AR-plat­form firearms — called “mod­ern sport­ing ri­fles” by the in­dus­try — is that they are not pro­tected by pa­tents or trade­marks. That makes it an open field for any­one with the proper fed­eral li­cense.

An­other has been de­mand helped by a monied clien­tele. The ma­jor­ity of AR own­ers are over­whelm­ingly male, with half be­tween the ages of 45 and 64, and more than half re­port­ing an­nual in­come of over $75,000, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 sur­vey con­ducted for the Na­tional Shoot­ing Sports Foun­da­tion, which rep­re­sents gun­mak­ers.

Daniel De­fense, a com­pany based in Black Creek, Ge­or­gia, about 25 miles west of Sa­van­nah, cap­i­tal­ized on that growth. It be­gan in 2000 by mak­ing parts for AR-style firearms. Last year Daniel sold 60,000 com­plete weapons.

Founder Marty Daniel, who em­ploys about 310 work­ers and is more than dou­bling his man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity’s square footage, said he was pre­pared for the dips in sales and an­tic­i­pates those will last through the year. But he con­sid­ers the down­turn part of a nat­u­ral busi­ness cy­cle, like those that hit the hous­ing mar­ket.

“There are some blips in there from time to time. And we’re in one of those be­cause Trump was elected,” Mr. Daniel said. But, he says, “it’s not gloom and doom.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Fears of gov­ern­ment lim­i­ta­tions on the own­er­ship of firearms led to a spike in pur­chases dur­ing for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ten­ure. Pres­i­dent Trump promised to re­vive gun man­u­fac­tur­ing in the U.S. dur­ing his cam­paign, how­ever, sales of firearms are in fact down since Mr. Trump took of­fice in Jan­uary.

Re­tail­ers like Jamey Spears of Bat­tle Ri­fle Co. in Web­ster, Texas, be­lieve that sport shoot­ing will drive up busi­ness for firearms man­u­fac­tur­ers.

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