Gun sales up amid presidential election race fervor

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This year already has been one of the best that George Romanoff has seen in his 36 years as owner of the Ace Sporting Goods store in Washington, Pa.

"And if President Obama wins, it'll be an extremely strong year," said Mr. Romanoff.

Every four years, pollsters and gun shop owners in America seem to get a little busier.

The phenomenon was sharply felt in 2008, when President Barack Obama's election had gun enthusiasts worried that a Democratic administration would curtail gun rights. The week of his election, background checks required for gun sales leapt 47 percent from the same week in 2007.

But even in this election, where the economy remains the dominant issue, the two major parties' stances on gun control haven't completely left the stage. At a campaign stop in Rosslyn Farms last month, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan drew cheers when he told the crowd, "Hey, I'm a Catholic deer hunter; I am happy to cling to my guns and my religion."

The Democratic campaign has repeatedly said the administration has no plans to alter gun laws, and that Mr. Obama supports a reading of the Second Amendment that maintains current rights.

Yet gun sales have risen steadily over the past several years for reasons that industry representatives say is as psychological as it is political, and presidential elections seem to secure a consistent boost for the booming industry.

At this point, election sales increases are now generally expected -- executives at Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. in Findlay even mentioned it on an August conference call with investors reading the tea leaves of third-quarter guidance. And retailers large and small are bulking up on their inventories even as industry suppliers struggle to keep up with demand.

Pennsylvania is on the front lines of the overall trend toward buying more guns.

Background checks associated with gun purchases in Pennsylvania are up on a year-over-year basis for every month so far this year, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation database. Examinations through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, don't necessarily lead to a gun purchase each time one is completed, but they are a leading indicator of economic interest in firearms.

In the first eight months of this year, Pennsylvania has seen more than 583,000 NICS requests, already more than all the requests processed in 2007. Only three other states -- California, Kentucky, and Texas -- have seen more.

In Pennsylvania at least, similar election-year increases in background checks were not seen in the 2000 and 2004 cycles.

Mr. Romanoff and his peers have seen steady sales growth since 2008, though the general unease that comes with an uncertain economy may help explain the increases.

"When free-floating anxiety goes up, firearm sales go up," said Andrew Molchan, a director at American Firearms, a retail industry group headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Almost half of Americans reported having a gun in their home in 2011, according to a Gallup poll. The steadily rising interest in gun purchases has led to more customers buying collectable firearms as an investment holding to keep and turn around for resale in five to 10 years, Mr. Romanoff said.

"When you have a stock market that is a house of cards, people want something more solid as a commodity," he said. "Be it gold, silver, real estate -- or, in our case, a collectable firearm."

The surge in sales has led to a drop in supply among gun manufacturers, Mr. Molchan said.

"People think you can press on the gas pedal at the factory, and that's not the case," he said. Manufacturers are reluctant to make a multimillion dollar investment in new equipment or workers, and then see a change in policy six months down the road, he said.

Second Amendment rights haven't emerged as a premiere issue in the 2012 presidential contest, in part because the candidates have both said they support a similar reading of the amendment.

A 2010 Supreme Court case affirming those rights tempered some fears about the future of gun rights, local gun shop owners say. In that case, called District of Columbia v. Heller, the court ruled 5-4 that an individual has the constitutional right to possess a firearm for purposes like self-defense in the home.

Still, Mr. Romanoff has invested in the largest inventory his store has ever held.

He said he wouldn't be watching the returns in November with an eye on the bottom line.

"I would gladly sacrifice business to have a different president, and you can quote me on that," he said.

The waiting game until November isn't reserved for political pundits -- it's also triggered a shift among some retailers over how they market their firearm products. Executives at Nebraska-based Cabela's Inc. recently told the Wall Street Journal they had two advertising plans at the ready for any outcome in the election.

If Mitt Romney wins, Cabela's will stock up on the accoutrements that come with gun sports, like boots and camouflage. If Mr. Obama wins a second term, the company will capitalize on a perceived threat on gun ownership and add more firearms to its inventory.

Meanwhile, handgun sales are up about 25 percent this year at the R.M. Crevar Gun Shop in West Mifflin, owner Michael Crevar said. "If the election goes the way it could, people think they're never going to have a gun again," he said.

For his part, Mr. Crevar, who is approaching 70 years old, said he's retiring within the year from an industry where successful sales are a little too closely tied to the national mood.

If he could start over, he wouldn't have entered such a fluctuating market, he said, and would instead have probably gone into the medical field.

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Erich Schwartzel: or 412-263-1455.


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