What affects gun sales in Missouri?

Aug 22, 2012

It’s a commonplace that high profile shootings like the ones in Colorado and Wisconsin can drive gun sales up.  Campaign politics have an effect too.  This week we’ll take a look at the gun industry and find out just what influences gun sales in Missouri.

At a recent gun show in St. Louis, there are about 30 or so tables crammed into the hotel conference room.  That’s 30 different vendors all competing with each other to sell guns, knives and accessories.  If you’re a buyer looking for a deal, there’s no better place to be.

You can find a show like this somewhere in Missouri at least once per month.  This October there will be four.  I’m here to figure out what’s changed, if anything, since the spate of mass shootings we’ve seen this summer.  

After massacres in Colorado and Wisconsin, background checks for gun purchases shot way up.  Some other states were affected too, like Florida, which saw background checks for gun sales increase in late July.  

So, what happened here in Missouri?

At the gun show, I met Tony Caito of Shooter’s Firearms and Range.  He sells everything from pistols to assault rifles.

"I just sell in the middle," said Caito, "I sell working man’s guns.”

In late July, while people were trying to get their hands on guns in Colorado and Florida, Caito’s business stayed about the same.

"People are worried," said Caito, "they want protection.  But for the most part, sales didn’t really go up.”

Most dealers agreed that the shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin had no effect here. The numbers bear it out.  In July, firearm dealers in Missouri submitted 30,826 background checks. That's down slightly from the month before.

Regulation in Missouri

It may just be that gun owners in Missouri are particularly unworried about new regulation in their state.  The legislative mood in Missouri is decidedly pro-gun.

"Missouri just has a handful of laws that we feel are...positive laws," said Sam Hoover, staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.  The advocacy group has produced a study that ranks states based on how much they regulate firearms.

“Missouri, as of our 2010 rankings is the 39th," said Hoover.  "So, fairly low in terms of favorable gun regulations.”

Advocates like Hoover have little power here.  No major gun control organization has regional offices in Missouri.  The NRA has two locations here.

Missouri has no license system for gun owners and no registration system for the guns themselves.  An instant background check with the FBI is all it takes to get a gun, and there’s no waiting period like some other states.  If we want to track the guns that are sold in Missouri, that background check is the best data we have, even though a background check does not guarantee a sale.

But gun dealers have noticed some anecdotal trends.

Politics and Assault Rifles

Tony Caito, the gun dealer, said that while his overall sales didn’t change much in July, he did see an uptick in sales of assault rifles:

“ARs.  You know. Assault rifles.  Whenever it went down with the Colorado movie theater, sales went up.  Because everybody was afraid that it was their chance to step in and take away assault rifles.  Everybody was trying to jump on board, grab em as fast as they could.  Horde them.  Hide them.  Do whatever they got to do and see what happens.”

The AR he’s talking about is the AR-15, a semi-automatic assault rifle.  It’s the civilian version of the weapon American soldiers carry in Iraq and Afghanistan.  On the 20th of July, James Holmes allegedly carried an AR-15 into a movie theater in Colorado and shot 70 people.

For a while, civilians couldn’t even get an assault rifle because of a federal ban.  That ban expired in 2004 and now, the AR-15 is the hottest thing in the guns world.

“It's a big thing to have assault rifles, customization," said Chris Hoelscher. "And I guess video games.  People are thinking it’s cool to have em.  I don’t know.  But they’re selling good."

Hoelscher is a short guy with a barrel chest and a shaved head.  He’s got a small table at the St. Louis Gun Show and every inch of it’s covered with AR-15s.

Business has been great this Summer, but Hoelscher doesn’t think you can link it to the violence in Colorado or Wisconsin.  It’s just good old fashioned politics.

"I think the elections is kind of scaring people to buy more guns to stockpile them before Obama comes in," said Hoelscher.  "They think he’ll take away our gun rights and everything.  Definitely with assault rifles, our sales been picking up."

More than anything else, presidential politics will move guns. When Caito got into the business it was 2004 and then President Bush was up for re-election.  Caito said the business was "crazy."

"Crazy good.  We started out--seems that every election year you have a good turn out with guns."

According to the FBI data, gun sales were up that year 3% and continued to climb throughout Bush’s second term.  But nothing compares to what happened during the next election year.

"Oh yes. Things have radically changed since 2008." said Terry Brookman, a recruiter for the NRA. "A guy who makes threats against your second amendment rights took office. And the best way to describe it is, he’s the number one gun salesman since 2008.  Ever since he took office, sales have gone literally through the roof.  The NRA would be glad to verify that on their website."

It’s not actually necessary to check with the NRA. The FBI numbers speak for themselves.  In 2008, Missouri background checks spiked 15% and jumped another 9% the year after that.  Now, as we approach another election, there were more than 460,000 checks for guns since this time last year.  In fact, 2011 was the biggest year on record.  

But as much as the NRA dislikes President Obama, the gun control advocates aren’t happy either.

“He’s been a pretty big disappointment," said Hoover, with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.  Hoover says that before his presidency, Obama supported some regulations, like the Assault Weapon Ban.

"The gun  lobby took that and ran with it," said Hoover.  "[The gun lobby] said this person is going to take your guns away, or adopt a huge package of gun regulation. And that just hasn’t been the case."

Hoover says Obama has actually rolled back regulation since he took office.

"He’s legalized the carrying of guns in national parks--something that Republicans didn’t even do.  Allowed guns to be transported in checked baggage on Amtrak.  I mean, these are things that’s been on the NRA’s wish list.  And he’s done them."

But if the sale of firearms is any indication, then happy they are not.  If the rest of this year goes something like the first half, then 2012 will be Missouri’s biggest year for gun sales on record.

Credit Scott Pham / KBIA