While the gun industry — through its main lobbying group, the National Rifle Association — rails against "social justice warriors," Democrats and teenage survivors of mass shootings, it is starting to appear that the industry may have a more serious enemy, one that cannot be defeated through political demagoguery: The free market. There are intriguing signs suggesting that it's getting harder than ever to successfully market gun sales. That, in turn, could threaten the finances of the NRA, which relies heavily on contributions from firearms manufacturers.
"NRA gets a lot of funding from the gun industry, and following Trump's election, there's actual data that shows what they've called the 'Trump slump,'" said Timothy Johnson, a research fellow from Media Matters who focuses on covering the gun industry. "A lot of these gun makers are financially struggling."
This "Trump slump" — which includes gun stores reporting difficulty moving merchandise and one major manufacturer, Remington, filing for bankruptcy — is a direct result of the way guns are increasingly marketed as a way to show off one's right-wing credentials. There was a spike in gun sales in November 2012, after Barack Obama was elected to a second term, apparently because conservatives felt angry and disempowered, and loaded up on guns to make themselves feel better. By the same token, gun sales seem to decline when conservatives are feeling less insecure, and therefore less likely to spend money on guns to soothe that insecurity.
Gun sales were down 8.4 percent in 2017, and signs suggest it may be worse this year. Black Friday sales are usually big for gun sellers, as there are lots of Thanksgiving-themed promotions and guns are a popular gift item in red-state America. This year, however, there was a 10 percent decline in gun sales over last year's Black Friday, despite heavy discounts being offered by the most popular retailers.
While there's no way to know how much money the gun industry spends on the NRA, all signs suggest that the industry is a major source of the group's income for the NRA. As Johnson reported for the Progressive in June, the gun industry funnels money to the NRA both through corporation donations and, increasingly, through advertising in NRA magazines, websites and on the group's online TV network.
There are clear signs that the NRA has been compelled to tighten its belt. The group's income declined by $55 million in 2017, according to a report released last week. Prior to that, the Trace reported that the organization has been cutting back -- not just on campaign giving, but on perks like free coffee at its Virginia offices. (Not surprisingly, the executive behind the austerity measures, has spent lavish sums of NRA money on his personal expenses, on top of his $800,000 a year salary.) There are also indications that the group has laid off the staff at what was once the flagship show of their video network.
NRA spokespeople had not responded to requests for comment when this article went live.
Last week, there was an intriguing sign suggesting that the industry's decline might not be just a "Trump slump," but that gun sellers are facing long-term economic problems. Dick's Sporting Goods, the nation's largest sporting goods retailer (with roughly 850 stores) and a major gun seller, is ratcheting down its marketing of hunting gear. The company has already terminated hunting gear sales in 10 stores, according to an investor call last week, and is planning to expand that decision more broadly.
Dick's Sporting Goods famously stopped selling assault rifles and high-capacity magazines after the Parkland massacre in February, calling that a moral decision. Many conservatives declared that this decision would be economically devastating for the company, and when Dick's saw a decline in business this past quarter, right-wing publications rejoiced, blaming the company's slightly less gun-happy policies as the reason.
The chief financial officer of Dick's, Lee Bolitsky, believes the decline is more complicated, telling shareholders last month that "the broader industry has decelerated and remains weak." Moving away from hunting gear suggests the company is eyeballing a long-term move away from guns, and towards focusing on sporting goods that have broader public appeal, from bicycles to snowboards to basketballs.
That's probably a smart move. Hunting, once a bedrock activity in much of rural America, is dying out rapidly. Fewer than 4 percent of Americans are hunters, and even that number is shrinking. The number of hunters declined by more than 2 million between 2011 and 2016 alone. Most hunters are older men, and as that generation ages out of a demanding outdoor activity, it's likely that the hunting population will decline even more rapidly. Millennials do engage in sport shooting, but that hobby is so closely tied into hunting that it's reasonable to believe it will decline, as well.
It shouldn't be especially surprising that gun sports are less popular all the time. Shooting and hunting are viewed as old-fashioned activities, and not especially conducive to physical fitness, at least by contemporary standards. People interested in outdoor sports are drifting towards more active pursuits, such as mountain biking and snowboarding. And more people are moving to urbanized areas than ever before, where hunting simply isn't popular.
This decline of the firearms sportsman, a central figure of American folklore, has been a slow process over many years. That decline also does a lot to explain why the NRA has become increasingly politically rabid, and not just about gun rights. Their video network, NRA TV, puts out an enormous amount of content that has little or nothing to do with guns, but is about stoking right-wing resentments over immigration, feminism and liberalism in general.
This shift suggests that the NRA, and the gun industry in general, is trying to double down on the idea that guns are markers of identity — totems of loyalty to the right-wing tribe — precisely because there's no way the industry can stay afloat through straightforward, benign marketing to sportsmen. Johnson pointed out that Cameron Gray, a producer who posted and then deleted a tweet saying he and other employees were laid off, was "one of the only guys who is more lighthearted" on the network. Johnson suggested that the network is "going further and further with the extreme rhetoric" in an effort to stir its right-wing audiences into rage and fear against liberals, in hopes that they will channel those emotions into buying more guns.
But as Johnson suggests, the NRA may have "put themselves in a corner" with this strategy. There's only so many guns one can sell by convincing angry conservatives that stockpiling expensive, high-powered weapons is a way to stick it to the libs. Indeed, a great deal of the revenue decline is because the NRA is simply losing members, and therefore membership dues.
So the customer base for guns is shrinking, and the effort to squeeze more gun sales out of the existing customer base with right-wing hysterics is starting to wear thin. The gun industry may soon find itself in the same boat as the tobacco industry was a couple of decades ago, hit by the twin forces of increasing public support for regulation and declining public interest in its products. What was once a behemoth that seemed impossible to defeat is starting to show signs of weakness, beaten down as much by the invisible hand of the free market as by political opposition.