Firearms are far from an afterthought this holiday season.
While issues of gun control continue to circulate within the White House, on The New York Times’ front page and beyond, and opinions are plentiful, a strong undertone in the much larger conversation remains focused on the retail sales of firearms.
On Black Friday (Nov. 27), while sales were down overall from previous years, the firearms industry experienced a boom — with the FBI reporting to have processed a record number of background checks for gun sales. Those 185,345 background checks — equating to a rate of roughly two per second — represented a 5 percent increase in the number that took place on Black Friday 2014.
And 185,345 is quite likely an underestimate.
Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told The New York Times that the 185,345 figure only accounts for sales by licensed sellers, which statistically only accounts for 60 percent of sales. Accounting for the estimated 40 percent of gun sales believed to be made by unlicensed sellers, the figure clocks in at ~308,908 firearms sold on Nov. 27.
Despite where one’s opinions on the topic fall, the figures are hard to ignore — and investors took notice on Dec. 3, with shares in two of the leading gun manufacturers in the United States — Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger — making noticeable jumps.
This most recent spike is reminiscent of a familiar pattern in 2012.
Ed Stack, chief executive of Dick’s Sporting Goods said at the Goldman Sachs Global Retailing Conference in September 2014 that “[his company’s] gun business was very much accelerated based on what happened after the  election” — which saw Barack Obama win his second term — “and then the tragedy that happened at Sandy Hook.”
What Stack described as “panic buying” in response to fears that the Obama administration was going to affect more restrictive gun laws was not, observed the Dick’s CEO, participated in by “hunters.”
Meanwhile, Tommy Millner, chief executive of Cabela’s — a retailer that literally gave away guns this past Black Friday — said an investor conference in Nebraska last year that his company had made a “conscious decision” to stock additional weapons merchandise in advance of the 2012 election.
But there have been at least a few changes since that time, as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Cabela’s and Walmart no longer sell assault weapons.
And gun retailers remain in an extraordinarily dicey position.
They have the right to sell firearms to consumers who wish to purchase them – and a lot of consumers obviously do. Simply saying they shouldn’t sell guns because they are obviously dangerous is a bit dubious – because lots of things are dangerous and entirely legal. Cigarettes kill and estimated 480,000 people a year depending on whose numbers you like – and many of those people are non-smokers poisoned over time by someone else’s bad habit. Alcohol kills 88,000 people per year — and that isn’t counting the car crashes. Car crashes, in general, independently kill 38,000 people per year. The institution of marriage — as quantified through marital homicide statistics by the FBI — kills 16,121 individuals, whom are mostly women and mostly mothers of children under the age of 10. The list goes on.
If every bad thing that could lead to a horrific consequence were banned or every retailer who tried to sell them shunned into bankruptcy — the world might arguably be a somewhat safer place, but perhaps not a better one.
It is unsurprising there are no easy answers to the firearms in retail questions, because there are no easy answers about firearms — or easy discussion to be had in an environment where there is genuine fear present.
It is easy to say take gun sales out of mainstream retail, but that does drive 100 percent of the business to unlicensed dealers that have a long and unfortunate track record of selling firearms to dangerous people. Who can now also buy them on the dark Web and pay for them using, what else, bitcoin. Bitcoin has had the unintended consequence of making a liquid market for the online sales of dangerous firearms.
Coupled with recent calls for stricter regulation in the process of purchasing of firearms, firms are dealing with an increasingly large section of customers — particularly those who shop at their stores for things other than firearms — more interested in gun safety than gun freedom. As a long history of retail boycotts and falls from grace indicate, stores that get out of step with the customers values lose those customers to other stores.
Probably most of you reading this will be pleased to know that Walmart, Cabela’s and Dick’s aren’t selling AK-47s anymore. They almost certainly have buyers for them, but they have even more customers who at this point just don’t like the visual.