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The Obama Gun Surge

Estimated size of annual U.S. consumer gun market: $2.8 billion

Photograph by Emily Keegin for Bloomberg Businessweek

Estimated size of annual U.S. consumer gun market: $2.8 billion

Recently, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association wrote to his organization’s 4 million members to warn them that they are at grave risk of losing everything they hold dear. Obama, the NRA’s leader wrote, “has spent his entire political career—over 16 years—proposing, promoting, or secretly supporting the most radical anti-firearm-freedom policies you can imagine.” LaPierre said that on Election Day, “Americans will vote either to defend or surrender freedom in the most consequential national decision in U.S. history.” From the letter, one might infer that it’s been a very bad four years for gun owners, gunmakers, and gun rights. Hardly.

In anticipation of a gun control crackdown that never happened, the firearm-buying public has treated the gun industry to an “Obama surge.” Although hard sales figures aren’t available (most gun manufacturers are privately held), one proxy for sales, revenue from the federal firearm-and-ammunition excise tax, rose nearly 30 percent during Obama’s first year in office. Exhausted gun buyers moderated their shopping during the last two years, but overall sales remain higher than in 2008.

At an industry conference in September, P. James Debney, the chief executive officer of Smith & Wesson (SWHC), the largest U.S. producer of handguns, said the number of computerized background checks conducted by the FBI in conjunction with proposed gun purchases had risen year over year for 27 straight months. S&W’s annual sales have increased 23 percent, to $412 million, since 2009.

The NRA’s case that things will get worse for its constituency ultimately rests on the premise that the president has been playing possum, doing nothing on guns to lull antagonists into complacency while plotting a second term devoted to “a Second Amendment rampage,” in LaPierre’s words. That would be a startling development, given that Obama has signed into law exactly zero significant gun control provisions. None after the Jan. 11, 2011, massacre in Tucson in which former Representative Gabrielle Giffords was nearly killed, none after this year’s July 20 Aurora multiplex slaughter which took 12 lives and left 58 wounded, and none after the shooting at the Sikh temple near Milwaukee in August.

Despite these horrific events, firearm crime continues to decline, as it has since the early 1990s. The rate of gun-related murder and manslaughter fell 11 percent from 2008 to 2010, the most recent year for which comparable statistics are available. This trend cannot, however, be neatly attributed to anything that happened during the Obama administration. The gun-killing rate has fallen a total of 51.5 percent since 1993. Criminologists can’t agree why.

Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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