Gun Shops Battle the Odds: Dealers Scramble for Niche as Sales Drop, Laws Multiply

Article excerpt

John Clark has owned a gun shop for 40 years, supplying firearms owners throughout rural Virginia with everything from weapons to ammunition to safety classes.

Business was good this year at Clark Brothers Guns in Warrenton, Va. Still, Mr. Clark cleared out one shelf in his shop a few weeks ago to make room for paint-ball guns and accessories.

"I've been reading up on paint ball. Apparently it's pretty widespread. I just put in this case last week," said Mr. Clark, pointing to a half dozen oddly high-tech-looking guns displayed behind glass. One sells for $1,365, considerably more expensive than most handguns, which tend to run from $300 to $1,200.

Like many other gun shops around Washington and throughout the country, Clark Brothers is searching for new markets and diversifying product lines as the future of the gun industry looks increasingly uncertain.

The industry has been on a downward spiral for five years, battered on all sides by media attention to recent mass shootings, increased restrictions on firearms, a rash of lawsuits, waning interest in shooting sports and competition from big retailers and the Internet.

As a result, gun buying has declined steadily since 1994, the number of gun sellers has plummeted and manufacturers are adjusting production to accommodate the shrinking market.

Manufacturers are reluctant to provide sales figures, but statistics from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on gun production show that demand for firearms has fallen dramatically in the past 20 years.

Handgun production in 1998 totaled 1.24 million, down 56 percent from a peak of 2.83 million in 1993, and down 41 percent from 2.12 million in 1979, according to ATF.

Demand for all types of guns - handguns, rifles and shotguns - was 3.7 million in 1998, down 30 percent from 1979 and 28 percent from 1993.

Following the national trend, handgun sales in both Maryland and Virginia have fallen in recent years, according to a review of registration and background-check data provided by state police agencies.

Virginia State Police, which conduct background checks on all applicants for all types of firearms in the state, reported doing 67,555 background checks this year for handgun purchases, down 33 percent from 100,567 checks in 1994.

Maryland sold 19,440 handguns in 1998, down 53 percent from 41,726 in 1994, according to Maryland State Police.

However, few believe America's interest in guns will disappear anytime soon.

An estimated 80 million people own guns in the United States, according to the National Rifle Association of America, which represents individual firearms owners. An estimated 250 million guns are in the United States.

The NRA boasts its largest membership to date at 3 million, and officials expect that number to grow to 3.5 million by this time next year.

"When there are broad-based legislative threats or a heightened threat to gun owners, our membership numbers tend to rise," said James J. Baker, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.

But right now, more than at any time in U.S. history, the culture of gun ownership is under siege.

BAD NEWS HURTS

Advocates of gun ownership - from makers to consumers - sense that they are being demonized, and some now keep their love of shooting sports to themselves.

"Firearms are being attacked as if it were the tobacco industry," said Sanford Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association Inc. "But there's not a direct correlation.

"There's no amount of safe smoking," but guns are safe if used properly, he added.

Media coverage of such shootings as the April killing spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., has not helped the gun industry.

"Every time there's a tragedy, we hope they used a knife," Mr. …