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SCOTT BRETT

Brett Fankhauser at Deerfield Pistol and Archery Center.

President Donald Trump likes to take credit for a booming economy. But it’s not booming for one of his core constituencies: the gun industry.

After watching guns fly off the shelves during the Obama years, sales have gone flat since Trump's election in 2016.

“There’s no more urgency to buy guns anymore,” said Brett Fankhauser, manager at Deerfield Pistol and Archery. “They’re there if you want them. There’s no fear that they’re going to go away.”

It was that fear that led to a gun-buying frenzy 10 years ago, when the election of Barack Obama sparked worries about new restrictions on gun sales. Business got even more brisk in December 2012 when 20 kids and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, energizing gun control activists. 

Add to that, Fankhauser said, the 2011 law allowing concealed carry in Wisconsin.

“Then it was off to the races,” he said.

John Breunig, owner of John’s Gun Shop in Lodi for 52 years, said he’s never seen anything like it.

“It was crazy,” he said he said of the hot Obama-era gun market. 

Those days are over, thanks to the election of Trump, who vowed on the campaign trail to be a staunch upholder of the Second Amendment.

Dubbed the “Trump slump,” the fall-off of gun sales is a national phenomenon, with gun makers trying to come up with new products to attract the interest of gun buyers, including a pistol version of an AR-15 assault rifle, one of the biggest sellers during the Obama years but one that’s drawing little interest these days.

American Outdoor Brands, owner of Smith & Wesson, reported that revenue from long guns in the most recent fiscal year has fallen 50 percent from the previous year, largely due to diminishing demand for AR-15-style rifles.

The slump has eroded Smith & Wesson’s once substantial worth. Fourteen years ago, the company sold for $112 million. American Outdoor Brands bought Smith & Wesson in May for $45 million.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group, federal background checks were down 12 percent in 2017 from 2016, when it seemed all but certain that Democrat Hillary Clinton would follow Obama into the White House.

But the industry is quick to point out that while 2016 wasn’t a boom year like 2012 and 2015, background checks last December — typically the busiest month for gun sales — were higher than 13 of the last 18 Decembers.

“It’s slower than when Obama was president,” said Fankhauser. “But I wouldn’t say that it’s slow.”

Fankhauser’s store has the advantage of doing a fair amount of business with law enforcement, which keeps sales steady.

But some gun sellers say the "Trump slump" is real. 

“It’s a more a steady slump than it is up,” said Pete Kraemer of PT Firearms in Cross Plains.

Kraemer said he saw the change in the market almost immediately after Trump’s surprise win, which put fears of gun control on the back burner.

“Nobody’s worried about it right now,” he said.

The slump also appears to have broken a cycle that saw gun sales surge dramatically after mass shootings like Newtown, a 2015 San Bernardino attack that killed 14, and a 2016 attack at an Orlando nightclub that killed 49.

Gun sales stayed flat after the October 2017 mass shooting that killed 58 people in Las Vegas, nine months into Trump's presidency —  the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Some say gun sales were primed to fall after the market became saturated during the Obama years. Even while gun sales surged, the percentage of Americans who own guns has been falling for the past 20 years, reaching a 40-year low in 2016, according to a CBS News poll.

That means the frenzied market of the Obama years was fueled by people who own multiple guns. According to a study by Harvard and Northeastern universities, 3 percent of the nation’s gun owners own half the private arsenal, averaging 17 guns each.

According to John's Gun Shop's Breunig, those buyers are still buying. He said sales of assault-style weapons fell precipitously after Trump’s election, but some collectors are still looking for specialized firearms.

“They’re spending bigger bucks for more bells and whistles for AR-15s and AR-10s,” he said. “You might have a guy that owns 20 of them, but he’s got to have one more fixed up just the way he wants it. They don’t want the cookie-cutter variety gun, they want extra special and they’re spending a lot of money on triggers and good quality barrels.”

While rifle sales have fallen off, at least in Wisconsin handgun sales are steady. According to the state Department of Justice, the number of concealed carry licenses rose by 45,189 last year, a 16 percent increase over 2016. And requests to the state handgun hotline requesting federal background checks on prospective buyers numbered 147,917 in 2017, about 5 percent down from 2016 but more than any other year since 2012. 

Breunig said handgun sales are fueled by an emerging market: women buying handguns for personal protection, who account for some 25 to 30 percent of his sales.

“There’s many more sales to women,” he said. “Handguns in particular, for concealed carry.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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