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The Gun Industry's Deadly Addiction

Firearms manufacturers are betting their future on the military-style weapons used in Newtown and Aurora

Robert King/Polaris
February 28, 2013 1:40 PM ET

For gunmakers, the political fight over assault rifles and high-capacity pistols is about more than just profits – it's about the militarization of the marketplace and represents a desperate bid by gunmakers to prop up a decaying business. The once-dependable market for traditional hunting guns has fallen off a cliff. To adapt, the firearms industry has embraced a business strategy that requires it to place the weapons of war favored by deranged killers like Adam Lanza and Jared Loughner into the homes and holsters of as many Americans as possible. "They're not selling your dad's hunting rifle or shotgun," says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a top industry watchdog. "They're selling military-bred weaponry."

As recently as 2008, shotguns, rifles and other traditional hunting weapons made up half of all new civilian gun sales in America, according to SEC documents – a brisk billion-dollar business. Today, hunting guns account for less than a quarter of the market, and the hunting industry is forecasting a 24 percent drop in revenue by 2025. Gunmakers are on the wrong side of the same demographic curves that haunt the modern Republican Party. Its customer base is too old, too white, too male and too Southern. According to Gallup, 61 percent of white males in the South own guns today. Nationwide, just 18 percent of Latinos do. "The white males are aging and dying off," says Sugarmann. Flooding the market with battle-ready guns, he says, "is an effort to find one new, shiny thing to sell them."

Photos: The Gun Industry's Nine Most Outrageous Marketing Ploys

For the moment, that strategy is paying handsome dividends. Handgun sales have jumped 70 percent since 2008, racking up an estimated $1.5 billion in sales last year. Powerful pistols – sold under brands like Beretta, Glock and Ruger – have replaced traditional hunting guns as the industry's cash cow. Revenue from assault rifles is growing at an even faster clip – having doubled in the past five years, to $489 million. Gaudy profit margins have become the norm: Top gunmakers enjoy gross profits of 30 percent or more. Ammunition manufacturers, too, boast of being fat and happy. And it's no wonder: AR-15 enthusiasts brag they can fire up to 400 rounds in 60 seconds. Paying roughly 50 cents a bullet, such shooters are blowing through $200 worth of ammo in a hot minute.

Much of the industry's recent success is linked to politics – in particular, to the gun-buying public's anxiety about the first black man in the White House. The phenomenon is reflected in Smith & Wesson's SEC filings, which trumpeted "strong consumer demand for our firearm products following a new administration taking office in Washington, D.C., in 2009." Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas has joked that Barack Obama is "his own stimulus plan for the gun industry."

Trade magazines used to fret that the "Barack Boom" would be a short-term spike in revenues. Instead, the Obama presidency appears to have catalyzed durable growth. "Everyone was concerned that consumers were hoarding, hoarding and hoarding," Steve Hornady, president of ammunition-maker Hornady Manufacturing, said recently. "Well, if they've been hoarding, they've been hoarding for the last four years, because . . . business has never been better for all of us." The FBI background checks that the industry looks to as a proxy for gun sales have been rising year over year for more than 30 months. And the president's re-election appears to be driving a new boom even bigger than the first. Background checks for November 2012 jumped by 400,000 – surpassing 2 million for the first time.

Perversely, the Newtown massacre has only added to the wave of panic buying – as consumers stockpile weapons that could be outlawed. The FBI performed an astonishing 2.78 million checks in December. January dipped to 2.5 million, but that may only be because industry can't keep up with demand. "Currently we are over 1 year back ordered on rifles," reads an online notice posted by AR-15 maker Stag Arms. "We are not taking orders at this time."

This sales boom papers over a perilous trajectory for the industry. A generation ago, more than half of American households owned a gun. Today it's barely one in three. Millennials, in particular, do not share their parents' love of firearms: Less than 20 percent of Americans born after 1980 report having a gun in the home. "For the industry, the problem is 'Who is going to buy the guns?'" says Sugarmann. "To borrow the language of the tobacco industry," he says, "they need to find 'replacement shooters.'"

To survive, much less thrive, gunmakers are feverishly seeking to break into unconventional demographics; to con existing gun owners into expanding their arsenals; and to capitalize on the demand of black markets. You can learn a lot about an industry by looking at whom they target for profit.

1. Hook the Kids

To goose future growth, the gun industry is aggressively marketing guns to children as young as the first-graders slaughtered in Newtown. "By the time kids are in fifth grade, or even before, they're already being pulled away by the allure of video games, organized sports or other activities," said Bud Pidgeon, president of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, which along with the National Rifle Association and three other prominent gun groups oversees Families Afield. In less than a decade, Families Afield has pushed more than 30 states to jettison regulations that protect kids from guns – removing age restrictions on hunting licenses or no longer requiring that children take a gun-safety course before going hunting with Dad.

The seduction of youth goes far beyond hunting. Online ammo superstore MidwayUSA is particularly aggressive in promoting youth shooting, sponsoring events like National Take Your Daughter to the Range Day, for "girls six and up." A photo posted on the event's website under the heading "Shoot Like a Girl" shows a dad helping his daughter, perhaps eight years old, aim an AR-15 with a collapsible stock and a monster clip.

Top industry players also support a magazine called Junior Shooters – gun porn for children as young as eight; a recent edition featured a photo of a Rock River LAR-15 assault rifle under the headline awesome! The magazine entices advertisers with the promise of reaching "the next generation of shooters and voters!" And many of its articles are written "for kids, by kids" like the piece by "Winchester" Reed Harrison titled "I Love Cowboy Action Shooting" – a sport in which shooters pretend to be Wyatt Earp by firing real-life rifles, pistols and shotguns. The nine-year-old columnist writes fondly of learning to shoot at age four, adding, "I love my guns because they are cool in every way."

2. Seduce the Ladies

Gunmakers are acutely concerned about the gender gap. Just 15 percent of women nationwide personally own a gun – a third of male gun ownership. For the industry, women are seen not only as lucrative customers in their own right, but also as gatekeepers to the coveted child market. The hunting industry lives by the motto "If you teach a man to hunt, he goes hunting. If you teach a woman to hunt, the entire family goes hunting."

To target urban and suburban women, gunmakers have adopted a two-pronged marketing strategy. One: Feminizing the weapons by dressing them up in hot pink. Two: Marketing powerful guns to women as the only surefire protection against sexual and violent predators. Shooting Industry Magazine publishes a column called "Arms and the Woman," which advises that "every gun store should have at least one pink gun on display." This is a crowded field: Sig Sauer offers a ladies' version of its conceal-carry "Mosquito" pistol with a "pink-coated polymer frame" that it calls "the ideal choice for hours of shooting fun." In a similar vein, GunGoddess.com sells a kit to trick out an assault weapon with a pink hand guard, pistol grip and butt stock – transforming an AR-15 into something that looks like it belongs at a Hello Kitty convention. (The same retailer also offers a wide array of conceal-carry couture, from purses with hidden gun compartments to the Flashbang "bra holster.")

When it's not making guns cuter for women, the industry is preying on their fears. Laura Browder, author of Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America, has described the archetypal gun ad: "The police are nowhere to be found; it is up to a woman alone to ward off the sexually threatening 'predators' of the city." Only with a gun, the industry tells women, can they defend themselves "against anonymous violence, a task that the government is clearly not up to." Gunmaker FN Herstal designed its Five-seveN pistol to fire rounds that can pierce body armor on the battlefield. Back in 2000, a leading gun magazine deemed it "obvious" that "neither the gun nor the ammunition will ever be sold to civilians." Today, it's marketed as a "Ladies' Home Companion."

To understand the face of the modern women's gun market, look no further than Adam Lanza's mother, Nancy, says Tom Diaz, author of a new book about the industry, The Last Gun. Nancy was an upscale suburban mom and lifelong gun enthusiast who reportedly lived in fear of economic and social collapse. To protect herself from the faceless evil that might break into her home, she didn't just buy a single gun – she compiled an arsenal worth thousands of dollars and trained with her son at local shooting ranges. "She was the perfect customer," says Diaz, "the perfect manifestation of how they want to sell guns."

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