It was heavily armed Black Panthers demonstrating in California in 1967 that propelled the state to enact some of the toughest gun restrictions in the US © Tribune News Service via Getty Images

It is boom time for the US gun industry. That is not unusual in the run-up to an election when many Americans tool up, concerned that a political shift could restrict their right to bear arms. Trying to capitalise on this anxiety — which has little basis in reality — Donald Trump tweeted from hospital last weekend: “SAVE OUR SECOND AMENDMENT. VOTE!”

But this year is different. Gun sales were already smashing records well in advance of the election — and before Joe Biden became the firm favourite. There were more background checks in the first nine months of the year than any full year on record, according to FBI data. A separate survey found that 5m Americans had chosen to become gun owners for the first time in the first seven months of the year.

“I do think that this bodes very well for us into the future,” said Mark Smith, chief executive of Smith & Wesson, about the August survey. That might be true for the 168-year-old gunmaker, which is working through a backlog of orders; it is hardly positive for the country as a whole.

Investors describe the Vix volatility index as the “fear gauge”. Gun sales have a better claim to that term. The reason for the boom this year is fear over the consequences of Covid-19 and the waves of protest that began with the police killing of George Floyd. Meanwhile, an alarming Nationscape opinion poll in September showed that one in three Americans now believe violence can be justified to advance their preferred party’s political goals.

“Some of the success in the first quarter can be attributed to the pandemic or civil unrest,” acknowledged Christopher Metz, chief executive of gunmaker Vista Outdoor during earnings in August, but he added: “There are many more layers to the story.” For example, with indoor entertainment limited by lockdowns — people wanted to go hunting.

Gunmakers including Vista, Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger have all enjoyed higher sales and stronger share prices on the back of the soaring market.

There is another factor that has an uncertain impact: more black Americans are buying firearms. A July survey of retailers by the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that although white customers were still responsible for over 70 per cent of purchases, black gun buyers were the fastest increasing demographic. 

Ifeoma Ozoma, a gun owner who works in the tech sector and lives in New Mexico, points out that black Americans have armed themselves since the turbulent period after the Civil War. “That was a very particular time in the US where white violence against black communities was increasing exponentially,” she says. “You couldn’t call the police when the police were the Klan. We’re at another [such] period.”

In the short-term that helps sales. But white politicians have a history of embracing gun control when black Americans take up arms. It was heavily armed Black Panthers demonstrating in California that propelled the state to enact some of the country’s toughest gun restrictions in 1967, under then-governor and now conservative hero Ronald Reagan.

Even in the current boom, not every gunmaker is thriving. Remington filed for bankruptcy protection in July. The company told a judge that it could not benefit from the surge in demand as it had to shut down temporarily to respond to the pandemic and then could not summon enough cash to scale up production.

The surviving players still have to cope with the wild cyclicality of the business and other inherent risks. Remington’s predicament was not helped by litigation from families of children murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre by a gunman using one of the company’s rifles.

Their biggest threat — and the biggest hope for the country — is that a competent compassionate government can break the cycle of fear.

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