The American firearms industry is as healthy as ever, seeing an unprecedented surge that has sent production of guns soaring to more than 10.8 million manufactured in 2013 alone — double the total of just three years earlier.
The 2013 surge — the latest for which the government has figures — came in the first full year after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, signaling that the push for stricter gun controls, strongly backed by President Obama, did little to chill the industry despite the passage of stricter laws in states such as New York, Maryland, Connecticut and California.
Indeed, interest in guns appears to be at an all-time high in California, which shattered its previous record for gun-purchase background checks last month, with nearly 200,000 processed, suggesting a vibrant firearms market in the country’s most populous state.
Industry backers say they aren’t surprised firearms buyers and manufacturers alike have responded to the national gun control debate by making and purchasing more.
“The surge in firearms sales in 2013 reflects both a long-term upward trend in shooting sports participation and [a] particular concern that year that law-abiding gun owners and those interested in purchasing a firearm for the first time could face tougher restrictions affecting access to and selection of firearms,” said Mike Bazinet, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group.
Little more than two years after the Sandy Hook shooting, which claimed the lives of 20 schoolchildren and six faculty at the school, the staying power of the industry is striking.
Despite Mr. Obama’s personal appeal for stricter laws, efforts to impose new background checks and to ban military-style rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines failed at the federal level in 2013. The Democratic-led Senate blocked those changes in a filibuster, and the GOP-controlled House never even took up any legislation.
Mr. Obama was left to move ahead on his own, signing more than two dozen executive orders and memos tweaking federal enforcement priorities, urging safe gun ownership and boosting the focus on mental health. He also nominated B. Todd Jones to be director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) — but two years later, Mr. Jones has quit the agency after a bungled effort to ban a popular type of rifle ammunition.
Some states did move forward in the wake of Newtown, including Connecticut, where Sandy Hook was located. Colorado, Maryland, New York and California also enacted restrictions.
Still to be seen is what effect those tougher state laws will have on manufacturers. Several companies signaled they would flee states where they no longer felt welcome and shift production to states that are seen as more gun-friendly, but those moves came too late to be reflected in the 2013 data, which is the most recent available. ATF releases data after a one-year gap.
Beretta, which produced nearly 350,000 firearms at its Accokeek, Maryland, plant in 2013, said last year it is moving to Tennessee.
A spokeswoman for the company didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Several gun control groups also didn’t respond to messages seeking comment on the manufacturing statistics and what they mean for the state of the debate.
Surging under Obama
The biggest change in production has come under President Obama. From 2001 to 2007, gun production held steady at between 3 million and 4 million units a year. It topped 4 million in 2008 but shot to 5.6 million in 2009, held steady in 2010 and then spiked to 8.6 million guns in 2012 and a record 10.8 million in 2013, according to ATF data.
John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, said Americans interested in owning firearms are reacting to the gun control debate by buying more of them. But he also said polling shows a fundamental shift in attitudes, with Americans increasingly believing that the right to bear arms must be protected and increasingly seeing guns as a way to make homes safer, rather than as a potential danger in and of themselves.
Indeed, in 2000, 51 percent of Americans said guns made homes more dangerous, according to Gallup, the polling firm. By last year, that had dropped to 30 percent, and a full 63 percent now said guns made a home “safer.”
“My own personal belief is that change in the beliefs about guns and safety has served as the basis for why you see increasing opposition to gun control during that same period of time,” Mr. Lott said.
Mr. Lott said firearm sales, even more than manufacturing statistics, are a measure of the health of the movement, and those are also on the rise, with adjusted background checks — a good proxy for sales — growing from 8.9 million a year in 2008 to nearly 15 million in 2013.
“That’s a pretty hefty change you saw over that period of time,” he said.
California’s background checks hit 199,833 in March — 20 percent more than the previous monthly high and about twice as much as the average for March over the last decade.
The spike stumped California gun rights advocates.
“There’s no big gun bills, there’s no big scare,” said Brandon Combs, who heads a number of California advocacy groups.
He said March and April are often big months for gun checks in his state, and he speculated it could be because residents are getting their tax returns, recovering from holiday spending and have cash to spend. But he said the spike could also be another reflection of California’s growing embrace of guns.
One other measure of that affinity comes in the number of “concealed carry” permits, which Mr. Combs said have tripled over the last few years. At the end of 2014 there were about 70,000 people licensed in California, and officials said another 15,000 to 20,000 applications were pending at that time.
“California is working its way toward its first 100,000-license year ever,” Mr. Combs said.
Nationally, concealed carry permits have grown from 4.6 million in 2007 to more than 12 million now, Mr. Lott said.