Firearm sales increased slightly in 2019 as retailers across the country continue to struggle with a general slump that has plagued the industry since 2016.
In the Flathead Valley, gun sales, like local firearms manufacturing, was a mixed bag in 2019. Most large retailers saw strong sales, while smaller firearms sellers reported a tough year.
Nationwide, gun sales generally lagged since reaching a high point in 2016. Small Arms Analytics, a nonpartisan consulting firm that analyzes gun sales based on National Instant Criminal Background Check System data, reported approximately 16.6 million firearm sales across the country in 2016.
In 2019, Small Arms Analytics reported 13.8 million gun sales, up about 100,000 from the year before.
But this modest increase wasn’t felt by many small firearms retailers in the Flathead Valley.
At Hahn’s Sporting Goods, a small retail business south of Columbia Falls, Ann Hahn was emphatic: gun sales were “very poor” in 2019, she said.
Hahn said gun sales were down significantly in the past year and gun purchases at their store have been on the decline for the past few years.
She attributed the decrease to what she described as the “Trump Slump.”
She said sales began to decline “immediately” following President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and they noticed the dip at Hahn’s “even before he was elected.”
“People feel more secure about not having to buy guns,” she observed. Traditionally, the election of Democratic presidents results in more “panic-buying” for the firearms industry than during Republican presidencies.
During the Obama presidencies, Hahn said they noticed, “a lot of people were binge-buying.
“I think people kind of over-bought,” she noted.
She also speculated the popularity of local hunting might actually be hurting gun sales, since she believes hunters tend to purchase just a few firearms for specific purposes.
“Hunters are not necessarily shooters,” she pointed out. “Hunters are not necessarily the biggest consumers of buying guns. If you have a favorite hunting rifle, how many do you need?”
She noticed the demographics of her customers also tend to skew toward older clients, so she said gun retailers might be missing out on the younger market because the next generation of gun owners are simply “not as into it.”
The price of firearms and economic conditions might also be contributing to declining sales, Hahn said, since guns are generally “very expensive compared to what they used to be.”
Hahn’s carries a few locally manufactured products, but high-end guns from Kalispell manufacturers such as Falkor cost thousands of dollars.
“We used to sell a lot of guns to contractors prior to 2008,” she said. But the recession took away many of those jobs and, as a result, potential customers. While construction has picked up in the valley, Hahn said that recovery hasn’t reached their store.
Instead, competition has increased for gun retailers, particularly with much larger stores.
“Now we have so many places selling guns in the valley,” she said, which cuts into Hahn’s already limited market.
Larger retailers in the valley reported a more positive experience for gun sales in 2019.
At Murdoch’s Home and Ranch Supply west of Columbia Falls, Store Manager Jason Preuitt said 2019 was “pretty similar” to 2018 in terms of gun sales.
He said he believed sales stayed consistent as new products emerged and the industry recovered from a shortage of ammunition that went on throughout Obama’s presidency.
“More prices have probably come down because there’s more availability,” he added.
Since 2016, he said gun sales at Murdoch’s have been “pretty much business as usual.”
Other Flathead retailers have even gone so far as to buck the national trend in slumping sales.
“It was a good year,” said Snappy Sport Senter Co-owner Jon Lupton. He said firearms sales increased 15% from 2018 to 2019.
“Gun sales have been steady,” he said. “They were better than the previous year, but not as good as 2014.”
Unlike at Hahn’s, Lupton said purchases of sporting rifles were up significantly in the past year. He noted, “the AR craze has slowed down significantly.”
Snappy’s has lately had a lot of “more traditional sales,” he said. “It’s nice to see interest in the recreational side.”
The biggest concern for Lupton is increased regulations, especially for out-of-state customers from states like Washington and Oregon. He explained Snappy’s has traditionally served a lot of visiting customers from these states, but new state restrictions in those areas have cut into these sales.
Nonetheless, he expressed, “We’re on track for a good year in the gun department and across the store actually. We’re looking forward to that.”
At the Kalispell Sportsman & Ski Haus, Manager Kyle Joos reported a similar experience. “We’re up in sales again,” he said. “There’s a strong market right now in firearms.”
Like Lupton, Joos said hunting products have been increasingly popular lately.
“This fall we had quite a bit more hunting rifle business,” Joos related. “Long guns are up quite a bit. That was a little shocking for me.”
Higher-end guns have also gained popularity in Joos’ experience. In the past 12 months, he said firearms in the $1,500 to $2,000 range have been selling better than before. “It’s a very strong market,” he said. “There’s more choices in higher-end guns.”
Going forward, however, Joos noted the presidential election will have significant bearing on the local gun market. But he said he expected the impact on gun sales to be less noticeable than during previous elections.
“It’s very, very real how presidential elections affect gun sales,” he noted. This year, though, he estimated the impact might not be as intense. “We’re less affected by that than eight to 12 years ago,” he said.
Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4459.