With a Bang

Hillary Clinton Could Topple Obama's Record for Revving Gun Sales

If the Democratic front-runner wins the White House in 2016, the gun industry predicts sales records will fall.
Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has struggled with her party's liberal base during the primary season, as Senator Bernie Sanders and his supporters insist she's too cozy with Wall Street, resent her 2002 vote to invade Iraq, and criticize the overlap between her family foundation's donors and some of the corporations doing business in Washington.

But for conservatives, there are plenty of issues—including their own uncompromising stand to protect access to firearms—on which Clinton is viewed not just as an extension of incumbent President Barack Obama, but as even more liberal. 

"President Obama has made clear his contempt for the Second Amendment," Chris Cox, head of the National Rifle Association's lobbying arm, told Bloomberg Politics. "Hillary Clinton would take that to the next level."

While Obama has sought to restrict access to firearms, his presidency has helped swell the NRA’s membership rolls and spark record revenues for gun companies. Now, some in the industry think Clinton would be an even better gun "salesman" than Obama.

"Barack Obama is single handily responsible for the sales of more guns and ammo than any human being in the history of the United States," said Richard Feldman, a former NRA political organizer. "Clinton could do better."

The White House issued a series of executive actions in January aimed at reducing gun violence, after Obama was unable to convince Congress to pass new legislation in the wake of the shooting deaths of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012, and, five months later, 26 children and adults at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

The attempts at new firearms restrictions, and the industry’s long-held belief that Obama opposes gun rights, helped the NRA boost its membership to more than 5 million from about 4 million eight years ago. There have been an average of 1.48 million background checks for gun purchases every month for the past eight years, double the average during the previous eight, FBI data show.

So far in 2016, there have been an average of 2.46 million background checks per month.

"We'll see a step-up of demand if a Democrat wins the election," Michael Fifer, chief executive officer of the firearms maker Sturm, Ruger & Co., said during an earnings call in February. Asked if a Clinton presidency would boost sales, he told investors, "Yes."

Business Is Booming

U.S. gun makers, led by Ruger and Smith & Wesson, churned out a record 5.17 million firearms in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

This year, Ruger reported its second-highest quarterly revenue after the first quarter. Smith & Wesson reported firearms revenue of $195 million last quarter, up 56 percent from the previous year.

Fifer, at his company’s annual meeting this month, noted “anecdotal hints” of declining demand, but that in an election year “the rhetoric from both sides is likely to continue keeping consumers aware and thinking about their firearms rights."

Clinton largely has replaced Obama as the poster child for firearms sales after making gun control a central plank of her campaign. It’s one of the few issues in which she is to the left of Sanders, her last remaining Democratic primary competitor.

It's also a markedly different tone from her 2008 presidential primary race.

Eight years ago, Clinton criticized Obama for being insensitive to the Second Amendment when he was secretly recorded saying that frustrated Americans in small towns "cling to guns or religion." Trying to appeal to white working-class Democrats, Clinton called Obama’s comments "elitist and out of touch."

Obama referred to Clinton at the time as "Annie Oakley."

Fast forward eight years, and the former secretary of state has replaced Obama on NRA fliers predicting the demise of Second Amendment rights.

"Hillary Clinton is the most anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment candidate ever to run for office," Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said at the NRA's annual conference on Friday. "She wants to take your guns away from you. Just remember that." 

Trump derided Clinton at the NRA meeting as "Heartless Hillary" for backing gun restrictions. She responded on Saturday that Trump's firearms policies were "dangerous."

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's chief executive officer, told the conference that Clinton "attacks our fundamental right to survive and protect ourselves." 

"We'll all be kissing our Second Amendment freedom goodbye if Clinton is elected," LaPierre said. 

Back to the Future

A flier from the National Rifle Association attacking Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's views on gun policy.

A flier from the National Rifle Association attacking Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's views on gun policy.

Much of the fear about a Clinton presidency can be traced back to her husband, who signed a 10-year ban on assault weapons in 1994. The federal ban expired in 2004.

"It's already happened with the Clintons," said William Ray, a 55-year-old radiologist in Illinois who counts more than 60 guns in his collection.

"That's what concerns me the most,” Ray said in an interview at the NRA’s conference in Louisville, Kentucky. “The historical precedent."

Still, Clinton's giving gun enthusiasts plenty of fresh fodder.

On the campaign trail in New Hampshire, Clinton said that Australia's national buy-back program for banned semi-automatic rifles was "worth looking at" in the U.S. And she's promised executive action to expand background checks for gun purchases. 

Clinton has also said that the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the District of Columbia v. Heller—the linchpin of an individual's right to own a gun—was wrongly decided.

At a campaign stop in northern Virginia this month, Clinton talked about the need to go after "the gun culture."

"It's not just the laws we need to pass, which will save lives. It's going after the gun culture," said Clinton, lamenting easy access to guns for dangerous people as well as an "attitude" that guns are a way to solve problems.

For Chuck Raymond, who works in Kentucky's oil fields, Clinton's rhetoric is enough to keep adding to his gun collection. The 69-year-old doubled the size of his arsenal to about six during Obama’s presidency, with the new purchases fueled by fear that the Democratic president may successfully restrict access to firearms.

Now, with Clinton on the verge of becoming the party's nominee, he’s buying again. "I've wanted an M16, one from the Vietnam era, for a long time," Raymond said. "She encouraged me."

With assistance from Sahil Kapur

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