Background checks for gun purchases fell last year after a record-breaking 2016, in what analysts are calling the official end of the Obama-era gun boom.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System ran 25.2 million checks in 2017 — down from the all-time high of 27.5 million in 2016. The 2017 figure was still the second-highest on record but just the second drop in the past 14 years. The other drop came in 2014, as the post-Newtown buying spree receded.
Background checks don’t represent a correlation to gun sales but are used as a general approximation for the health of the market.
Gun dealers had been steeling for a potential dip after the election of Donald Trump, who proudly championed gun rights during his 2016 campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton and touted the earliest-ever presidential endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
But pro-gun advocates say that all things considered, last year could have been worse.
“The demand for buying firearms is still strong, given that gun sales in 2017 were the second highest of all time,” said Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. “The record-setting year was 2016, and that is most likely attributable to panic buyers fearing a gun-grabbing Hillary Clinton presidency.”
Last year also had the single highest day ever in terms of NICS checks — the 203,086 on Nov. 24, the post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” shopping day — which broke single-day records set the previous two Black Fridays.
But the industry still had to adjust to a new world.
“There was some fear-based buying that would take place from time to time. There is no fear-based buying right now,” James Debney, chief executive officer of American Outdoor Brands Corp., said on a conference call last month, according to Bloomberg.
Discounting and sales are now “the primary driver for a consumer who wants to acquire a firearm,” said Mr. Debney, whose company manufactures Smith & Wesson guns.
Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said she also has continued to see heavy online advertising from private dealers, which could reflect market activity that wouldn’t show up in federal records.
Federally licensed firearms dealers are required by law to conduct background checks, while private dealers are not in many cases.
Ms. Gardiner said some of the promotions are encouraging people to buy multiple guns for protection and carry them everywhere they go, even inside their homes.
“That is actually the real fear buying that we should be talking about,” she said. “Because that’s trying to create a culture of fear and convince people that they can protect themselves by buying another gun. And that is troubling.”
But Mr. Pratt said that logic is backward and that the skyrocketing popularity of concealed carry in the U.S. is helping boost the market.
“Consequently, sales for concealed carry pistols have continued to do well,” he said.
The Republican-controlled House recently passed a bill that would require states to recognize virtually all out-of-state concealed carry permits — a key priority for pro-gun groups.
A House panel also advanced another bill that would loosen restrictions on gun sound suppressors, but a floor vote was postponed in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting in October that left dozens dead and many more injured.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said industry profits are “tanking” so interest groups are pushing bills “that put the industry’s bottom line ahead of public safety.”
“Their top priorities — eviscerating state laws on who can carry concealed guns in public and rolling back silencer safety laws — are dangerous, and the American people don’t support them,” Mr. Feinblatt said.