Ready, Aim...

The hottest place in Miami right now may well be the Tamiami Gun Shop, one of the city's largest firearms dealers. Days, nights, and weekends, customers crowd the store. "We're selling a lot of handguns, we're selling a lot of automatic weapmns, we're selling a lot of ammunition," says John Katon, Tamiami's owner. What's driving the stampede? Talk of gun control. "What they just did with the Brady Bill, that's bad enough, but now they're talking about more and more," says Katon.

It wasn't the intention, of course. But by signing the Brady Handgun Prevention Act into law on Nov. 30, President Clinton sparked a boom in gun sales across the nation. Supporters hoped that the bill's five-day waiting period would slow the arming of America. Instead, business for gun stores, distributors, importers, and manufacturers has taken off, as purchasers rush to beat a raft of federal and state weapons-curb proposals given new viability by the Brady legislation. Americans may say they support gun control--but just now, they're "wondering whether or not they'll be able to get a gun and whether it will cost more," says L.E. Shultz, president and chief executive of Smith & Wesson Corp., the nation's largest maker of handguns.

In all, commercial gun sales will rise 6% this year, estimates the National Alliance of Stocking Gun Dealers, a trade group. And it's not just a rush to beat gun-control laws that has sales on the rise. Heightened fear of crime--graphically illustrated by the Dec. 7 killing rampage on the Long Island Rail Road--is leading many to buy a gun for the first time or add to their arsenal. John McCrory, who owns a small metal-fabricating company near downtown Miami, is a typical buyer. "We had an armed robbery down the street," he says. "We had a knifing in the parking lot. Stuff like that." So McCrory, who already owns several rifles, is getting a permit to carry a concealed weapon. And he wants to buy two .40-caliber handguns made by a Brazilian manufacturer.

POLITICAL PRESSURE. In truth, though, the U.S. gun business is an industry in structural decline. Pummeled by a combination of outdated technology and foreign competition, the industry has slashed production of pistols, rifles, revolvers, and shotguns in the U.S. by nearly a third since 1989, to a little more than 3 million units in 1992 (chart). And despite a surge of cheap, military-style rifles from China and Eastern Europe in the past two years, experts say imports face pressure, too. "The long-term trend has been down," says George Rockwell, a former executive with Remington Arms Co. and U.S. Repeating Arms Co. and now a contributing editor at Firearms Business, an industry newsletter.

The secretive, disparate arms industry peaked in the late 1980s. As military sales tapered off, the small, privately owned companies that make most U.S. guns lacked the capital to withstand lower demand, much less modernize aging production lines. "We stopped investing in firearms technology in 1968," says Richard Feldman, executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, an industry lobbying group. Political pressures, meanwhile, forced many gunmakers to abandon lucrative handguns.

Washington doesn't want to give the industry any breathing room. On Dec. 9, President Clinton asked Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate national licensing of gun owners. Senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) wants to impose a 30% tax on handguns, assault weapons, and ammunition. And Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is proposing an outright ban on 19 assault weapons and clips containing more than 10 rounds of ammo. The U.S. must "end this epidemic of violent crime and restore the fabric of civilized life in every community," Clinton said in a Dec. 11 radio address.

It's a highly emotional attack, and an ominous one for the gun industry. Indeed, the Brady Bill was just the first shot in a broad-gauged assault on weapons. And several of the post-Brady measures may become law. That's partly because the National Rifle Assn., after defeats this year on Brady and in state legislatures in Virginia and Connecticut, is changing its strategy of all-out opposition to every antigun measure. The organization "is adjusting to accommodate public opinion now," says one lobbyist who tracks gun issues.

CHEAP IMPORTS. The NRA, for example, backs a provision in pending crime legislation that bans possession of handguns by juveniles. And the group is not likely to put up much of a fight over reforms of gun-dealer licensing and a ban on possession of guns by accused spouses or child abusers. The NRA will save its firepower instead for the next major showdown in gun politics: the assault-weapons ban. Privately, some gunmaker executives say they support such a ban. But the NRA fears that passage of Feinstein's prohibition would open the gate to outright bans on other firearms.

Indeed, such legislation eventually could strike directly at the one segment of the gun business that has grown phenomenally: cheap semiautomatic imports. Some 400,000 Chinese SKS weapons, which cost about $69 in stores, were imported in 1992, estimates Firearms Business' Rockwell. KBI Inc., a Harrisburg (Pa.) importer of Hungarian-made assault rifles, says it sold a six-month supply ef 5,000 rifles in a day and a half at a recent gun show after the manufacturer announced it was closing out production in the face of possible bans on such weapons.

Amid all the debate over high-powered handguns and so-called "assault rifles," though, manufacturers of specialty hunting guns and collectible pistols are prospering. Sales at Sturm, Ruger & Co. in Southport, Conn., a maker of guns favored by collectors, are up by more than 20% this year. Sales at 125-year-old rifle maker Marlin Firearms Co. and shotgun manufacturer O.F. Mossberg & Sons Inc., both in North Haven, Conn., are also growing. That has drawn the interest of investors such as New York-based investment boutique Clayton, Dubilier & Rice Inc., which paid an estimated $300 million to DuPont Co. for Remington Arms on Dec. 1.

The new players face growing pressure from Washington. Bradley and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) may include firearms and ammunition taxes in any health-care-reform package as part of the funding for a new system. In the end, though, it's far from clear how much impact such proposals will have on the violence epidemic. Skeptics abound, especially since there already are 200 million guns in circulation. Indeed, regular Gallup polls demonstrate no decline since the 1950s in Americans' desire to own guns. Democrats are "using the political facade of gun control to mask over liberal tendencies to pamper the criminals of the country," declares Senator Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho).

Still, the White House stands to benefit from its attacks on guns: Polls show such a position is popular. They also show that crime is an even higher voter priority, and the Democrats are addressing that issue as well: The pending crime bill could put as many as 100,000 new cops on beats across the nation. What's more, trends already in motion will help the Clintonites. The violent-crime rate fell by 3% in the first half of this year and rose only 1% in 1992--the slowest rate of increase in five years, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That statistic may do as much as anything to drive whatever growth is left out of the nation's gun industry.

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