These are high times for gun makers and firearms retailers.
While many sectors have been slogging through the recession and an anemic recovery, the firearms business has seen growth both nationally and locally.
Industry officials and local retailers say most of the past three years has been good to them. They’ve hired new workers and seen annual sales increases of 40 percent or more. Their gains have also translated into expansion for some.
And 2012 should prove to be another growth year, although local economic conditions could temper that growth.
A report released earlier this month by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group for gun and ammunition manufacturers and retailers, said nationally that the firearms industry increased jobs by more than 30 percent and improved its economic impact by more than 66 percent between 2008 and 2011.
In that same period, the report said the industry added 1,202 jobs in Kansas and had an economic impact of more than $177 million.
The local firearms retail business has seen the addition of a new retailer to the market, Cabela’s, and the expansion of more established retailers.
Gander Mountain, the St. Paul, Minn.-based outdoor specialty retailer, added a Gander Mountain Academy indoor shooting and simulation range and expanded its floor space for broader selection of firearms, ammunition and accessories – which it calls Gun World – at its WaterWalk store in downtown Wichita.
“The Wichita Gander Mountain happens to be the only Gun World with a Gander Mountain Academy,” said Chris Juelich, director of Gander Mountain Academies.
The company operates 114 stores in 23 states.
Juelich said the Wichita Gander Mountain store has between 3,000 and 4,000 firearms and a room full of used firearms as part of its Gun World.
“That store has always been a fantastic store for us, a top-ranking store in the company,” he said. “We were doing a remodel and it was the right time for us to try something we felt would be very strong in the market.”
Mike Relihan, who bought Bullseye Shooting Range in 2009, said he’s planning to begin work on a $200,000 expansion project that will add 1,300 square feet to the 8,500 square feet the business occupies at 1455 N. Terrace.
Sales growth of more than 40 percent has prompted the expansion. Relihan said he’s also added four part-time positions since buying the business.
“We’ve probably followed national trends and are probably exceeding them in a lot of ways,” Relihan said, “just because our business has been up dramatically since we bought it.”
Don Holman, owner of the Bullet Stop at 2625 W. Pawnee, said he’s added one full-time and two part-time positions in the past three years. He said sales in 2008 were “crazy” and “the best year we ever had.” Sales in 2009 and 2010 were off by 8 to 10 percent from 2008, but sales grew again in 2011, he said.
Apocalypse to accessories
Retailers and industry officials say there are a number of external factors that have been driving sales, not the least of which is who is occupying the White House.
“I think it’s this last Democrat said some things, had a background that had some people worried … whether it’s real or not,” Relihan said, referring to President Obama.
Retailers said it’s not always just the party of the candidate that affects sales of firearms, but more the perception that a presidential candidate could propose legislation restricting sales of firearms or ammunition.
“That underlying fear is always there,” Holman said.
He said he thinks that’s part of the reason why firearms sales were so strong for the Bullet Stop in 2008, a presidential election year.
“It was definitely a big year,” Holman said.
Juelich, of Gander Mountain, said he thinks strong sales can also be attributed to a segment of the population that ascribes to the survivalist movement and the notion that an apocalypse is near.
Another factor is the passage of legislation across the country legalizing the concealed carry of handguns. According to USACarry.com, concealed carry is allowed in every state but Illinois. It was passed in Kansas in 2006.
Equally and perhaps more important to higher gun sales are efforts by the firearms industry itself. For one, it has been doing more to market specifically to women.
Bill Dunn, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said a lot more women are buying handguns for personal protection or getting into shooting sports.
“First Shots, our program that introduces new people to the shooting sports, 51 percent of these people who go are women,” Dunn said.
Holman, Relihan and Juelich agree.
“You’re really seeing tremendous growth in female shooting experiences put on by the NSSF,” Holman said. “That’s bringing a lot of ladies out and (spurring) their interest in firearms.”
Shop owners such as Holman and Relihan also are doing more in the way of firearms training, including offering concealed-carry permit classes, defensive handgun courses and introductory firearms classes. Holman said those classes are a pipeline to new gun owners, and training now represents one of the four key segments of his business, in addition to firearms, accessories and ammunition; gunsmith services, and indoor range fees.
Relihan said Bullseye has offered an introductory firearms class through the NRA that has been attended by more than 900 people. All of those attendees represent a potential firearms sale for Bullseye, he said.
In recent years, firearms customization has become a big business. Gun owners can buy a host of accessories such as grips, laser sights and stocks in a variety of colors that allow do-it-yourself customization of pistols and rifles.
In some cases gun owners can buy whole kits that alter the appearance of a traditional-looking hunting rifle into something that looks like it would be carried by a SWAT team member.
“There’s a lot of customization going on out there,” said Gander Mountain’s Juelich. “People want to accessorize their firearms.”
Retailers and industry officials think sales will remain strong through the rest of the year.
That will be partly driven by the presidential elections, they said.
But retailers like Holman said he’s not certain how sales will fare locally.
While the Bullet Stop had a strong first quarter, the second quarter is off to a slow start, he said.
“I’m not so sure we’re seeing some ripple effect from the Boeing thing and the Hawker thing,” Holman said. He was referring to Boeing’s plans to wind down its Wichita operations beginning this year, as well as Hawker Beechcraft’s financial troubles and layoffs.
“I don’t know what effect Boeing and Hawker Beechcraft is going to have,” Holman said. “I’ve got to sit back and watch it.”