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The Gun-Manufacturing Boom

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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On Jobs Day every month, I write a brief column looking at some long-run trend in the data that gets ignored in the excitement over whether nonfarm payroll employment gains beat the consensus or not (and wow, did they in June). With the terrible events of the past week, I wondered whether it made sense to do so today. But, well, there is a somewhat relevant employment category:

Employment in the gun-making industry in the U.S. isn't exactly booming. But as the overall manufacturing sector hemorrhaged jobs from 2001 to 2010, gun makers did at least hold employment reasonably steady.

That's partly because their output was booming. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the number of firearms produced in the U.S. more than tripled from 2001 through 2013:

source: u.s. bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives

Also, firearm imports quadrupled over that period, from 1.4 million in 2001 to 5.5 million in 2013. The U.S., while a net exporter of armaments overall, according to the International Trade Administration, is mainly an importer of small arms. The biggest foreign suppliers of guns to the U.S. are Austria (revolvers and pistols) and Italy (sports shotguns and rifles). The military-style AR-15 semi-automatic rifles that have been used in several recent shooting sprees appear to be mostly homegrown.

Despite the spectacular rise in the number of guns out there, gun violence has actually not increased in the U.S. in recent years. It fell sharply in the 1990s, before the gun boom. Since then, according to the Pew Research Center, the gun homicide rate is down, the gun suicide rate is up and the overall gun death rate is flat. What is up is the frequency of mass shootings. Why is that? I have come bearing charts, but they don't seem to contain the answers.

  1. Data for narrow industry categories is released with a one-month delay, which is why this chart goes up to May even though the June jobs data came out today.

  2. They actually fell substantially in 2014, to 3.6 million -- the trade data is apparently available on a more timely basis than the manufacturing data. The next annual ATF firearms commerce report should be out in a few weeks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net