President Donald Trump really, really likes guns. To the extent that his April speech to the National Rifle Association (NRA) made him the first sitting president to directly address the gun lobby group since Ronald Reagan in 1983. But that pro-firearms attitude may actually be a double-edged sword, as sharply declining 2017 gun sales suggest—a phenomenon that the industry is informally dubbing its “Trump slump.”
Gun giant Smith & Wesson, which has renamed itself American Outdoor Brands, said that its quarterly net sales had declined nearly 40% in the fiscal quarter ending July 31. That’s $78 million in fewer overall sales, and the drop may be closer to $100 million year-over-year if you’re only taking firearms revenues into account.
The NRA put out multiple ads warning that 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would push strong gun control legislation if elected (including this horror movie-esque advertisement arguing a Clinton presidency would “leave you defenseless”). Clinton and former President Barack Obama both made gun violence prevention legislation, including bans on assault rifles and national background check bills, major priorities in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead at a Connecticut elementary school.
Clinton’s candidacy was one of the main catalysts for a record-breaking spike in 2016 gun sales as the industry played on consumer paranoia that the government would be “coming for their guns.” So, to an extent, 2017 was bound to be a bear year for gun purchases given last year’s firearms-palooza. Other gun makers like Sturm Ruger & Company have also reported precipitous sales drops this year.
But federal data underscores just how much of a downturn 2017 could prove for the industry. The most recent FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) data, which tracks the number of federal firearm-related background checks made every month, shows that there were about 16.3 million checks performed this year through August 2017. There were more than 27.5 million checks (an all-time record) in 2016; at the current pace, 2017 NICS checks will clock in under 24.5 million, or a nearly 11% yearly decline. While background checks aren’t a perfect 1:1 indicator for gun sales (you can buy more than one firearm under a check, depending on state and local laws), they are a fairly good bellwether.
To be clear, 24.5 million NICS entries (and the pursuant gun purchases) would still be a strong overall year for the industry, which has experienced growth nearly every single year since 2003. But it could also represent the first drop-off in 14 years thanks to a gun-friendly president.