Donald Trump’s election was widely hailed as a victory in the gun rights community, where he was embraced for his staunch support of the Second Amendment.
But when it comes to the gun industry’s bottom line, the Republican president has been bad news.
The National Rifle Association’s annual meeting arrives in Atlanta on Thursday amid evidence of declining gun sales and a drop in the number of people applying for carry permits. In Georgia, the number of background checks processed by law enforcement officials for gun carry permits has dropped by one-third since the election, compared to the same five-month period the year before,
Experts say it’s a longstanding trend: Americans tend to seek out guns when they believe those gun rights may be threatened.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed probate judges, gun dealers, advocates for gun rights and those who support more restrictions on firearms. All agree that 2016 was a record year for gun sales. But they say it was an anomaly, driven, at least in part, by fear that Democrat Hillary Clinton - who supported some restrictions on gun sales - would be elected president.
Trump’s election has eased that worry.
“I don’t think people are afraid that their guns are going to be taken away. Not that I think that is likely to happen or it’s ever happened,” said Athens-Clarke County Probate Court Judge Susan Tate, whose office issues Georgia gun carry permits.
A Return to Normal?
Lawrence Keane, senior vice president for government and public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation - the lobbying arm for gun manufacturers - acknowledged the firearms market is sensitive to the currents of politics.
“That lasts for a period of time and when the rhetoric by the politicians subsides… they (gun sales) normalize,” Keane said. “It’s normalizing.”
Keane said 2016 was an aberration and the current decline is only a return to normal.
“Reports of the demise of the (gun) industry are greatly exaggerated,” he added.
Advocates for gun restrictions say the gun industry fed the fears that the administration of former President Barack Obama and the possible election of Clinton to boost sales, and now they are paying as those fears subside with lower gun sales.
“It was about making America scared,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Americans for a Responsible Solutions.
What’s next for gun rights in America will most likely be discussed when the NRA kicks off its annual meeting. President Donald Trump is scheduled to speak Friday.
“A Steep Climb Up Through Election Day”
Federal and state officials do not keep statistics on firearms sales. But The National Shooting Sports Foundation said there has been a drop in sales since the election. And federal, state and local officials also note declines in the numbers of people applying for carry permits, a barometer but not an exact gauge of gun sales, since November.
According to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which the FBI maintains, applications for carry permits submitted since the election last November are down almost 14 percent from the same five-month period the previous year. NICS recorded 328,183 background checks for gun permits sought from November 2015 through March 2016. In contrast, there were 283,039 background checks made for gun permits between November 2016 and the end of last month.
The decline in applications permits submitted in Georgia was even more dramatic. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation processed 100,849 background checks for a firearms carry permit over five months that began in November 2015. Since last year’s election, the GBI has processed almost 34 percent fewer, or 67,006.
On a more local level, Cherokee County, for example has processed about 1,600 gun permit applications so far this year. For the same months last year, the office handled about 2,500 gun permit applications, according to Cherokee County Probate Court Judge Keith Wood.
“Once the election stuff started ramping up, the numbers climbed up,” Wood said. “There was really a steep climb up through election day. And after election day, you walk into the office it’s like you hear crickets.”
The drop in applications was abrupt, he said.
In Cobb County, however, the difference isn’t as stark, according to Probate Court Judge Kelly Wolk. Last year, the office averaged 1,000 carry permit applications a month and the numbers since the November election have been only slightly below that. “It’s all fluid,” she said.
Advocates and officials say the numbers now are more in line with the years before the 2016 presidential election.
“Where sales are leveling off now are at 2015 levels,” Keane said, adding that the numbers in 2016 were “not sustainable.
“There is still significant consumer demand and we look forward to a more normalized market without spikes by concerns that politicians are going to attempt to ban their the firearm products they want to purchase,” Keane said.
Profit and Politics
The amount of money given to the two general election candidates underscore the politics behind gun sales. According to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks political contributions, Trump received $24 for every dollar the Clinton presidential campaign got from gun rights interests. Clinton, meanwhile, received $619 to every dollar given to Trump by advocates for more restrictions on firearms.
“If you look at the people that have inspired the greatest increases in firearms purchases, it’s the the pro-gun safety politicians that the NRA says are going to take away their guns when we, in fact, know they are not,” Ambler said.
“I look at the NRA’s position to Hillary Clinton in 2016 as being driven more by a desire to profit from her victory than a desire for what her presidency would mean for its members,” he said.
Still, Tom Deets, president of SharpShooters USA, said he has seen numbers return to normal levels at his Roswell gun shop and shooting range but he’s not necessarily seeing less interest. There have been more coming to his business for training and to shoot.
“Clearly, uncertainty in the news and safety does tend to create a spike in firearm sales,” Deets said.
Yet, he said, “on a historical basis, firearms (sales) are very, very strong. The firearms industry has grown.”