U.S. gun and ammo purchases heading up

A report by analysts with Raymond James says the number of applications for gun-purchase background checks is up. These guns were inside the Firearms Inspection Unit in Philadelphia in August 2012. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff

FBI data show that the number of Americans applying for background checks to purchase firearms rose 6.5 percent last month compared with the previous year, a sign that a “solid increase” in U.S. gun and ammunition sales is on the way, analysts Dan Wewer and Mitch Ingles told clients of investment brokerage Raymond James & Associates in a report Tuesday.

Firearms analysts say background checks have proved a good predictor of future gun and ammunition sales since the FBI began tracking them in 1998. Wewer and Ingles used FBI numbers as adjusted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gunmakers’ trade group based in Connecticut. The foundation discounts concealed-carry permit checks and other checks that tend to be used by current gun owners, counting mostly checks that correspond to the number of people planning to buy more guns, said Michael Bazinet, head spokesman for the organization.

In the past, background checks have tended to slump when gun-friendly Republicans are elected, but they rise when gun collectors and other weapon owners rush to buy more firearms on fears that Democrats — who tend to support restrictions that are popular in gun-crime-plagued urban communities such as Philadelphia — will make it harder to buy weapons and ammunition.

The last three months have defied that political trend, however. As in past presidential-election years, background checks rose sharply in most months from December 2015 through November 2016, when news media reported polls that showed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton leading Republican Donald Trump. And checks initially fell in the months after Trump’s victory, compared with a year earlier. Trump had campaigned against gun restrictions.

But starting in March, background checks began rising even from last year’s campaign levels, though voters in November put anti-gun-control Republicans in charge of the government in Washington.

In Pennsylvania, which voted for Trump, the number of background checks rose faster than the national average — more than 10 percent, to 54,700 in May, compared with a year earlier. In New York, which voted for Clinton, the number of checks rose even more, 15 percent, though the total was still less than half of Pennsylvania’s. In New Jersey and Delaware, which also voted for Clinton, the number of checks declined.

Has President Trump in the early part of his term failed to reassure voters, or are other forces at work?

Bazinet said gun fans have lately taken more aggressively to social media to promote gun ownership and recreational shooting, while gun ranges and other gun-dependent businesses have increased marketing, adding billboards, hiring female instructors for women new to guns, promoting expanded concealed-carry laws, and improving gun ranges to make them more attractive to women and young people.

“The fact the president is supportive” probably helps attract some buyers, but it’s “hard to measure,” Bazinet concluded.

May is typically the slowest month of the year for background checks. This May’s increase was almost six times the 1.1 percent gain recorded between May 2015 and May 2016. Applications spiked last fall to an annualized 16.1 million — the highest since just after former President Barack Obama’s first election — before the winter decline. As of last month, the annual rate was back to 15.3 million, the highest since Trump’s inauguration. The total was just 10.8 million in 2010.

The Trump jump in gun and ammo sales looks like good news for Cabela’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods, two U.S. retail chains that have struggled to boost sales in recent years. Firearms and ammunition make up about 20 percent of Cabela’s sales and 10 percent of Dick’s, the Raymond James report said. For both chains, gun and ammo sales tend to spike soon after background checks increase, and to slump when fewer Americans apply.