EL PASO – This border city appears to be growing more gun-friendly as the number of gun dealers has increased by 29 percent in the past three years, according to a Borderzine analysis.
The city now has 80 gun dealers compared to 62 in 2013, the analysis of ATF data showed.These figures include large retailers such as Walmart as well as private dealers, but exclude pawnbrokers who sell firearms.
“We have had peaks and valleys,” said Louis Southard, general manager at Sportsman’s Elite, a gun store and shooting range in El Paso, which has been open since January 2013. “In 2008, a little over five years ago, there was a rather large uptake in gun sales.”
Tragic events can often drive an increase in gun sales, such as when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred in December 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty children as well as six members of the school’s staff were fatally shot by a troubled gunman who killed himself after the attack.
“Unfortunately, after that terrible shooting in Sandy Hook, there was a big uptake in sales because there was a big fear that the government would pass new legislation that would limit the purchase of certain types of firearms,” Southard said.
New marketing strategies
Gun ownership isn’t for everyone. Most of the guns in the U.S. are owned by a minority of residents, said Lisa Wade, an Occidental College sociology professor.
“In fact, 20 percent of gun owners are in possession of 55 percent of all guns (excluding law enforcement and military),” she wrote in an article for Socialogical Images, “The Marketing Tactics of Firearm Manufacturers.”
That means gun sellers have adapted their marketing strategies to persuade many of the same people to buy more guns.
“Most people that don’t own a gun are never going to buy one, so the best strategy for gun manufacturers is to convince people that they need lots of guns,” she wrote.
The decrease in the popularity of hunting lead the decline of gun ownership in U.S. households over the last 30 years, according to the General Social Survey (GSS), a project of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. In 2014, only 15.4 percent of adults lived in households in which they, their spouse, or both were hunters. This is down from 36 percent of households in 1977.
Wade pointed to a review of magazine ads for guns that found few references to self-protection and hunting while most of the focus was on technical attributes, such as the quality of the gun (61 percent), its accuracy, innovative features (27 percent) and uniqueness (21 percent).
Current events can also be used to drive sales.
“Spikes in the volume in sales of guns during recent elections is due to the Republican candidates accusing the Democratic candidates of wanting to repeal the Second Amendment to the Constitution,” said Thomas Fullerton, a professor of economics and finance at UTEP.
“But of course, professional politicians in the United States, for the most part, are not going to do that as they would lose too many votes. To the extent that these allegations appeal to people. It tends to trigger both sales of firearms and ammunition,” he added.
For some gun collectors, like Larry Grenz, a production manager originally from New York, it is a hobby, like collecting cars are for other people. He already owns 25 rifles and 20 handguns and was at the store to purchase an AR-10 rifle.
“Basically, as a man, men like weapons just like women like shoes. They are fun to shoot, it’s camaraderie amongst friends and we will go out shooting on a Saturday. It’s just something I really enjoy,” he said.
But Grenz also said he was concerned that a Clinton presidency would put the Second Amendment in jeopardy.
“It’s my Second Amendment right, that’s why I’m buying this rifle with the election coming up, which if Hillary Clinton gets elected, she is going to try and ban assault weapons and make it harder for us to have stuff. That’s why I’m looking right now, it’s my right to have it and I won’t let them take it away from me,” he said.
Clinton supported a ban on assault weapons and also sought to strengthen requirements for concluding background checks before a gun sale can proceed.
Grenz also sees guns as important for protecting himself and his family.
“I’m worried about invasions from other countries, possibly. My wife jokes around at times about zombie attacks. We kid around with that. ”
Gun sales trends
A CNBC article in January reported an unprecedented growth in gun sales in the U.S. where “in the past eight years, the number of people who own firearms has nearly doubled — with 2015 setting records, as 23.1 million people applied for background checks.”
Gun and ammunition stores in the U.S. generated $3.1 billion in revenue in 2015 and a profit of $478.4 million according to an IBIS World study. It also reported that there were 5,753 related businesses in the U.S. in 2015.
Between 2010 and 2015, the gun retailing industry saw growth of 8.9 percent. The report cited several reasons for this growth, the election of President Obama in 2012, which raised alarms among pro-gun groups that his administration would impose stricter gun regulations. Also, a series of high-profile shootings ignited fresh debate in Congress over banning high power assault rifles and imposing tougher background checks.
The report states that a 4.1 percent increase is expected, with industry revenue reaching $3.8 billion by 2020.
According to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms data, 3,262 gun license applications were processed in El Paso in 2015. Just five years earlier, in 2000, this number was 646. In Texas, the number of gun license applications increased to from 48,676 in 2000 to 215,588 in 2015.
Southard urged anyone who can legally carry a firearm, to do so to protect their friends and family.
“El Paso is a very safe place, as we know. It consistently ranks if not number one, in the top five of the safest cities in the country, which is fantastic,” he said.
“El Paso I wouldn’t say necessarily needs guns more than anybody else, but I do advocate for everyone who can possess a license to carry permit, to get one and to carry just to protect yourself and those immediately around you,” he added.
Women and firearms
“Over the past five years, we have definitely had an uptake in women purchasing firearms,” Southard said.
Personal ownership of firearms has not changed much for women in the U.S. over the last three decades, according to the GSS report. Between 9 percent and and 14 percent of women have owned a firearm since 1980. However, the gender gap has narrowed due to a decline in personal firearm ownership among men.
In Texas, 27 percent of gun license holders are women. Angela Santoscoy, a nurse who lives in El Paso, is one of them.
“I grew up going target shooting with my dad and going to ranges, and he taught us all the safety measures of guns,” she said, explaining that where she grew up in West Virginia it was common for people to own guns.
“I know many families who have never eaten meat that wasn’t caught or shot by them. That they actually hunt for all the food they ever had and I know people who could not afford meat for their families without catching or killing the meat,” she said.
Promoting responsible gun use
Gun safety is an area many firearms owners and retailers in El Paso say they take seriously.
Southard urged people to do their research before purchasing a firearm.
“Make sure that you do your research on it. Even if that involves going online, even YouTube, to just Googling and finding out about guns, or just coming into the store and talking to one of us,” he said. “We can help you understand guns better and find the right gun for you and do what we can to make sure you are going to be safe with it as well.”.
Grenz encourages other gun owners to take courses in gun safety.
“Learn the gun, have respect for the weapon. Weapons can hurt people. You can hurt yourself. I’ve heard of people shooting themselves in the foot and stuff like that. Know what you are getting, and be careful. Its a weapon.”
Emerging market opportunities
A map created by MetricMaps using Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms data shows the U.S-Mexico border has 732 gun stores and pawnbrokers who deal in firearms in the counties along the border.
A Pew Research Center study reported that 38 percent of households in southern U.S. states keep a firearm in their home. It also revealed that 20 percent of Hispanics keep a gun in their home, less than half the number of Anglos who keep a gun in their home (41 percent).
But, a 2015 report by the National Shooting Sports Foundation lists the Hispanic market as an opportunity for growth for the firearm industry. An article on Shooting Industry website said the NSSF research in “A Hispanic Market Study: Firearms and the Shooting Sports, reveals several key opportunities for forward-thinking dealers, manufacturers and other industry professionals to attract a potentially new, passionate demographic to the shooting sports.”
For Jeremy Drake, providing a different kind of service in El Paso was one of the reasons behind opening his new store, Drakes Fine Sporting Arms.
The former military helicopter pilot opened a shop on Mesa Street along with a partner just over a month ago after they identified a gap in the El Paso market.
“Myself and Brandon are gunsmiths and custom gun builders, which is needed in this area,” he said. “They don’t really have anyone that provides that service aside from us.”
A Google search of gunsmiths showed only six listed in the El Paso area.
“We have a pretty broad spectrum of customers, from the target shooters to the hunters, long range sports shooters, everybody who shoots just for entertainment value. Our customer base spans the entire spectrum of gun purchasers,” Drake said.
Crime and safety
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 70 percent (73,684) of guns recovered from crime scenes in Mexico between 2009 and 2014 were of U.S. origin. Mexican government officials said that high-caliber rifles are the weapon of choice for Mexican drug cartels.
According to ATF data, most of these weapons were purchased legally in gun stores or shows, and then trafficked, illegally into Mexico. Another complication outlined by Mexican and U.S. law enforcement is that weapons parts are being transported into Mexico where they are then assembled. This kind of activity is much harder for law enforcement to track.
Drake said that his store ensures that gun parts sold in the store do not make their way onto the black market.
“All of our gun parts get installed in our shop and to buy a regulated part you have to be a citizen,” Drake said.
He also said that gun safety is paramount at his store.
“We do everything we can to promote gun safety, from ensuring that customers who are purchasing firearms from us understand the safety mechanisms and the rules behind safe gun using.”
“We are soon to be hosting safety classes geared towards youth. So we will be bringing in children between nine and 14 and giving them safety classes and going over the do’s and dont’s of firearms.”