Gun Sales Are Surging — and Not Just Because of the Pandemic - OZY | A Modern Media Company
A worker restocks AR-15 guns at Davidson Defense in Orem, Utah on March 20, 2020. - Gun stores in the US are reporting a surge in sales of firearms as coronavirus fears trigger personal safety concerns.
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Americans are buying guns like never before.

By Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

Demand for guns and ammunition is accelerating in the United States ahead of November’s presidential election, driven by consumer concerns about protests and civil unrest, and by Americans seeing hunting as a socially distanced leisure pursuit during the pandemic. 

Mark Hanish, president of global sales and marketing at Arizona-based ammunition manufacturer Ammo Inc., says the company has seen intense demand for bullets for semiautomatic handguns and the AR-15 “modern sporting rifle.”

The growth has strained some manufacturers’ capacity. Olin Corp., owner of the Winchester brand, cautions that the surge has reduced its inventory, limiting its ability to meet demand. Ammo Inc. is investing at least $2 million in expanding its production capacity in anticipation of consumer demand staying high until at least the end of its fiscal year next March.

“In past [election] run-ups, your traditional folks who were already gun owners would purchase more. This is brand-new people,” Hanish says, attributing the influx of new buyers to the confluence of the pandemic, the election and concern about “civil unrest and uncertainty.”

Ammo Inc. reported revenues surged 125 percent to $9.7 million in the three months to June.

Ammo isn’t the only company seeing a spike. Clarus Corp. said recently that its Sierra ammunition brand had seen 36 percent growth in U.S. sales in the quarter and it expected heightened demand to continue into 2021. Firearms manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co. has reported a 47 percent increase in sales of its products in the first half of 2020. Its website now carries a warning that the demand for many of its products “has far outpaced the supply, especially over the past few months.”

Gun sales have spiked in previous election years but slumped after Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory as consumers stopped worrying that a Democratic president could restrict gun sales. Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic nominee, has said he would require background checks for all gun sales and ban the sale of assault weapons if elected.

But monthly figures from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System show background checks required for new gun buyers have been running at a level well above 2016’s level since March.

They hit a record that month as the coronavirus swept the U.S., forcing lockdowns that cost millions of people their jobs. That record was quickly broken in June, the month the racial justice protests that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer reached their peak.

Concerns about self-protection are looming larger this year than the fear of losing gun rights, according to Hanish. As a result, he says, “I don’t expect people to go back to being complacent” should Trump win November’s election.

But fears of unrest or restricted sales are not the only factors driving the market, according to executives. Vista Outdoor, owner of brands including Bushnell rifle scopes and Federal ammunition, attributes its recent growth largely to the strength of the shooting sports market. 

“We’re seeing stockpiling happening to a certain degree, but the free time has given people more opportunities to re-create in real time,” CEO Christopher Metz said on an Aug. 6 earnings call, noting that fewer people have been traveling for vacations. Hunting licenses and firing range membership figures also point to the shooting sports market’s growth potential, he said.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) polled retailers in July and found that firearm sales were up 95 percent and ammunition sales up 139 percent in the first half of 2020, compared with the same period of 2019. Some 40 percent of this year’s firearm purchases were by first-time buyers, with the strongest growth coming from Black men and women.

According to Jim Curcuruto, the NSSF’s research director, “there has never been a sustained surge in firearm sales quite like what we are in the midst of.”

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By Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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