- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Obama-era gun surge finally is receding, according to the latest government statistics that show the total number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. dropped in 2014 for the first time during this administration.

The numbers also showed the beginnings of a post-Newtown shift in production, as companies began to pick up and move in the wake of the 2012 school shooting in Connecticut and the spate of state gun control laws that followed.

Connecticut and Maryland, which enacted two of the nation’s stiffest laws, both saw their share of U.S. firearms manufacturing drop.

But in New York — another state that passed far-reaching restrictions in 2013 — production actually has increased, as companies like Remington ramped up to keep pace with demand, industry leaders said.

The health of the gun industry will be front and center this week at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Louisville, Kentucky, where likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is slated to address the gathering.

Mr. Trump has vowed to push back against gun control efforts championed by President Obama and likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, suggesting that whoever moves into the White House next will play a major role in determining the direction of the U.S. firearms industry.

Analysts expect the market shifts that already have appeared after the 2012 Newtown attack to continue, and say the next round of numbers — due in early 2017, which will cover up through the year 2015 — will show bigger effects from the spate of anti-gun legislation enacted in Northeast states.

Beretta, a Maryland-based gun manufacturer, got a new facility up and running in Tennessee last month after making a high-profile announcement in July 2014 that it would shift a factory to outside Maryland in the wake of that state’s new gun laws.

Michael Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), said Beretta production in Tennessee is just gearing up because of the recency of the opening.

“But that, you’d think, at some point would have an effect — since they’re a large manufacturer — on the numbers that were coming out of Maryland,” said Mr. Bazinet of the NSSF, the trade group for gun manufacturers.

Nationwide, firearms production increased from 5.6 million units manufactured in 2009 to 10.8 million in 2013 before declining to about 9 million in 2014, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives (ATF).

Analysts said the surge was in large part due to Mr. Obama, who repeatedly has taken steps to reel in gun owners and pushed Congress to pass laws going even further.

It appears that gun sales tracked accordingly somewhat with the increase and subsequent drop in production. The number of federal firearms background checks dropped in 2014 from a high of nearly 15 million in 2013 before increasing again in 2015, according to NSSF-adjusted data.

After the December 2012 Newtown shooting, in which 20 children and six adults were slain, the president demanded that Congress impose a cap on the size of ammunition magazines and renew the ban on so-called “assault rifles,” which are those with a military-style appearance.

Congress balked, but several states took their own action.

Connecticut, New York and Maryland all passed bans or new controls on certain kinds of military-style, semiautomatic weapons and restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

In Colorado the legislature passed laws that included tightening gun-purchase background checks and banning high-capacity magazines — prompting the recalls of two Democratic state senators and leading to the resignation of a third.

California also passed sweeping new restrictions in 2013, which included strengthening an existing ban on high-capacity magazines, though Gov. Jerry Brown also vetoed a handful of gun-related bills, including one that would have banned semiautomatic rifles capable of being used with a detachable magazine.

In a quirk of history, the Northeast states, along with Massachusetts, were home to some of the biggest manufacturers. In the wake of the changes, a number of those companies vowed to flee to more welcoming places.

Frank Harris, vice president of sales and marketing at Kahr Firearms Group, said a “climate of uncertainty” led his company to announce in 2013 it was expanding in Pennsylvania rather than in New York.

“The laws in New York are so restrictive that, unknowingly, people are [becoming] criminals,” Mr. Harris said. “Because they own something that no longer is allowed in the state. Nothing has been grandfathered, and they’ve become criminals. And people don’t like that hanging over their heads.”

But even as the new laws helped force companies like Kahr out of the state, New York actually saw its gun production increase from 662,813 units in 2009 to 1,201,233 in 2014, with a slight uptick in the market share from about 12 percent to 13 percent.

Mr. Harris said a ramp-up by gunmaker Remington in New York during that time could account for some of the increase. Remington still maintains a facility in Ilion, New York, but announced in 2014 it was moving a manufacturing plant to Alabama because of the new gun laws.

“In the state of New York, there’s Remington, there’s Kimber, there’s us, and there’s a number of other smaller companies that make firearms,” Mr. Harris said. “The reason why the New York numbers are higher than ‘09 is because those 2014 numbers are still reflecting a lot of the numbers from those companies. … Since that time, Remington has left.”

John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, said even if the companies had started planning some of their moves in 2013 or 2014, the big effect probably wouldn’t be seen until later.

“People don’t simply move their companies,” Mr. Lott said. “You had these laws go into effect in 2013; there was a lot of discussion about it. Probably took the companies six, eight, 12 months to make a decision about whether they wanted to move, and then it would take a while for them to actually do it.”

Manufacturing numbers are only a rough estimate of demand, but other data suggest the market peaked in 2013 and slipped in 2014.

Gun background check numbers from the NSSF likewise increased from about 9.5 million in 2009 to a high of 14.8 million in 2013. The checks fell back down to 13.1 million in 2014 before picking back up to 14.2 million in 2015.

The NSSF subtracts certain permit checks from federally produced background check numbers to more accurately reflect actual market conditions.

Checks through the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System are also up during the first four months of 2016 compared to the same time period a year ago. There were a record-setting 23.1 million NICS checks in all of 2015.

“It definitely seems like anytime the president or someone in a high position talks about more gun control laws, people buy more guns,” Mr. Harris said. “It’s really bizarre. And there’s no support in the Congress right now to push anything through.”

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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