As Gun-Control Debate Rages, the Nation's Gun Industry Thrives

David Francis

As Vice President Joe Biden prepares to submit suggestions for increased gun control to President Barack Obama, the White House is facing opposition from the country's multibillion-dollar gun industry, which has only grown since Obama was elected in conjunction with growing fears among many consumers that he would push for tighter gun-control laws.

According to Nima Samadi, a senior analyst at IBISWorld, Inc. in California, the swell in gun-industry members indicates the widespread usage of guns and illustrates the challenges facing the Obama administration on this issue.

"From 2007 through 2012, the industry has grown by 5.7 percent annually to $11.7 billion," Samadi says. "The biggest factor that has stimulated the growth of the industry has been concerns from owners and enthusiasts about a potential change in gun law."

The death of 20 children and six adults during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Conn., in December has brought the gun-control debate to the forefront of American public discourse. And while everyone agrees that future disasters similar to Sandy Hook's must be avoided, the public is split on whether stricter gun controls are the solution.

According to a USA Today/Gallup poll taken after the Sandy Hook massacre, 58 percent of Americans want harsher gun laws--up 14 points from the previous year. More than 90 percent of Americans want background checks for buyers at gun shows, and 62 percent want to forbid the sale of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Nonetheless, approximately 51 percent of Americans still oppose a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles.

William Vizzard, a professor of criminal justice at California State University--Sacramento, says these poll results reflect the popularity of guns and are an indicator of how much the gun economy has changed in the past three decades. The gun industry "is not driven by self-defense," says Vizzard. "It's driven by consumerism."

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An industry in transition. According to Vizzard, the gun industry in America changed only slightly from the early 1900s to the 1970s. He says a small number of American gun makers, including Remington and Colt, focused on selling to hunters, farmers, law enforcement, the military, and others who use guns for outside sports and labor.

"People used to think of guns as tools that would help them make a living or complete a task, like hunting," Vizzard says. "People bought them based on durability and their utilitarian nature."

However, the industry began a major shift four decades ago. "The sporting market was saturated and wasn't growing. The number of hunters wasn't increasing," Vizzard says. "What's happened over the last 35 or 40 years, when the baby boomers began entering the consumer market, [is] the gun industry shifted from selling to the sporting, law, and military markets."

Gun manufacturers began marketing outside their traditional customer base. "It's become a consumer-driven industry, like electronics or cameras or anything else," he says.

In the past four decades, fewer Americans have been buying guns at hardware or sporting goods stores. Instead, more and more people are purchasing weapons at gun shows.

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"The original idea of gun shows was they were supposed to be shows. But they [have] become flea markets for guns," providing selling grounds for unlicensed dealers, Vizzard says.

According to Vizzard, gun shows are a largely unregulated market because U.S. law does not clearly define licensing terms for gun dealers. Right now, federal law identifies a dealer as someone who makes their "profit and livelihood" by selling guns. However, it does not specify how many sales or how much money a licensed dealer must make--allowing many sellers to remain unregulated.

"The only workable way is to set a specific number of sales. That's what we do with alcohol and cars. It creates a bright line and lets everyone know this is what you can and can't do," Vizzard says. "Livelihood is an ambiguous line."

A number of foreign gun manufacturers have also started selling to the American market, offering an even wider variety of easy-to-use weapons such as the Glock, which is made by an Austrian company.

"You used to buy a hunting rifle and you kept it for 35 years. The gun technology really hasn't changed," Vizzard says. But unlike with electronics, he says the majority of people now purchase guns based on how they look instead of their technological upgrades.

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By the numbers. According to an analysis by Samidi, the gun industry turned a $992 million profit last year and exported $4.4 billion in guns. He expects the gun industry to grow 3.7 percent annually until 2017, but says that number could be lower if gun-control legislation moves forward.

While this legislation is on the table, though, the country will see a spike in gun-industry growth. "Clearly you're getting some consumers going to buy guns before there's change in gun laws," he says, resulting in gun manufacturers stocking the shelves.