Politics & Policy

At the SHOT Show, Business Booms

Sig Sauer booth at the SHOT Show, January 19, 2016. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

The annual SHOT Show — Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade, i.e., the world’s largest gun show — wrapped up on Friday in Las Vegas. You might think that, with the White House talking gun control again, the mood in the industry aisles would be dour. If so, you’d be wrong.

No one in any industry likes being abused by the president. But in the short run, Obama’s latest announcements will have little to no practical effect. And since everything this administration does now is short-run, the industry has less reason than ever to be concerned about the long haul.

There was no sense of anticipatory nostalgia for the Obama years here at the show. But on the show floor, with so many industry figures raising a full glass in an ironic toast to “America’s greatest gun salesman,” there was almost a feeling of gratitude.

It might be educational for the president — were he interested in learning about it, which seems doubtful — to hear the laughter his latest initiatives provoke among those who actually sell firearms for a living. No one I met believes that his supposed crack-down on gun shows will have any significant effect. I say “supposed” crack-down because little has actually changed, as this year’s annual meeting at the SHOT Show of the FAIR Trade Group — the Firearms Importers Roundtable, the industry group for the importers — made clear.

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The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (i.e., the ATF) usually sends a contingent to the group’s meeting, but this year’s delegation was particularly large. And I’ve never seen better relations between the industry and the ATF, or the ATF more ready to emphasize the importance it attaches to providing good customer service. The leader of the delegation, Deputy Assistant Director Marvin Richardson, received two lengthy and spontaneous compliments from group members for the ATF’s increasing friendliness and efficiency; I added another by commending Earl Griffith of the ATF, also in the delegation, for his sterling defense of the Second Amendment to the U.N. last summer.

The president’s gun-show measures revolve around seeking to define who is “engaged in the business of” selling firearms. Particularly interesting, therefore, was Richardson’s comment that, to the ATF, the definition of this term of art “is no different now than it was five years ago.” In other words, the talk about gun shows is just that — talk. Without a new definition of what being “engaged in the business” means, nothing very new is going to be happening by way of law enforcement at gun shows, or anywhere else.

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That’s not to say that nothing’s happening. Firearms sales have been strong for years. But the dynamics of the market have changed. In the past, sales were driven primarily by customers who already owned at least one firearm buying several more. Now, as indicated by the massive spike in background checks for licenses in December, it’s new buyers who are driving the market.

Mr. Obama’s much ballyhooed announcement on January 5 may have had an impact, but industry figures said it was the December 2 San Bernardino Islamist attack that changed the market. Fear of domestic terrorism is pushing sales now — and if current events are any guide, that fear will last longer than Mr. Obama’s remaining time in the White House.

#share#It’s a pity the Oval Office decided to take a combative approach with the firearms industry. From promoting gun safety to improving the efficiency of the NICS system responsible for background checks, there are sensible things an administration could do by collaborating with the industry — things that would pose no threat to the Second Amendment and might actually make a difference in reducing firearms deaths. But as it is, the administration hasn’t even been willing to reform the export-control system for firearms — a privilege it has extended to virtually every other military export, and which has nothing to do with domestic firearms sales.

Right now, with sales going through the roof again and the president’s initiatives falling flat, the firearms industry isn’t terribly concerned about the long run. But Mr. Obama’s measures could be cleverer than they appear. It’s become obvious that attacking firearms head-on is a recipe for two things: political defeats and higher firearms sales. But what the president is trying to do — so far with little success — is to take small steps that will make it harder for people to get into the firearms culture in the first place, thereby laying the groundwork for bigger moves later on.

#related#Particularly interesting in that regard is his emphasis on using federal money to promote research on so-called smart guns, an approach on which, perhaps not coincidentally, the U.N. is also increasingly keen. Johanna Reeves, the executive director of the FAIR Trade Group, believes that international and domestic pressure to adopt smart guns is likely to become a new front in the gun-control battle, and the evidence of the U.N. suggests she’s right. Fortunately, as Reeves points out, the purchasers over which the president has the most influence — the armed forces — are the least interested in buying a gun that doesn’t reliably go bang when the trigger is pulled.

But right now, smart guns and the U.N. are problems for another day. For years, it has seemed impossible that the good times the firearms industry has enjoyed since 2009 could continue, and yet for years, the good times under Obama have only gotten better. Now, a president who spent much of his first six years in office claiming to have won the war over radical Islam has seen it strike home, which gives Americans another reason to purchase the means for self-defense. It’s almost as though the president just doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to either firearms or radical Islam. Perish the thought.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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