Despite general decline in sales, N.H. gun shops see pockets of growth

Last modified: 4/13/2015 6:36:15 PM
It doesn’t take much for local gun dealers to recall the boom that started in the beginning of 2012.

President Obama’s re-election and the mass shooting a month later in Newtown, Conn., spurred efforts to toughen federal and state gun control laws. The prospect of new regulations sent people flocking to buy and stash guns and ammunition. Shop owners could barely keep either on their shelves.

“I told another dealer when the madness was going on that we were at the crest of the wave,” said Brad Marshall, owner of Marshall’s Firearms in Boscawen. “I’ve been selling guns since 1968, and you will never ever see it like this again unless there is a catastrophic disaster in the United States.”

Most shop owners recognized that the level of business was unsustainable. Turns out, they were right. As gun control efforts stalled, the market cooled, and while sales haven’t quite reached the point they were before 2012, they’ve been slowly increasing.

“It’s coming to what I would call normalcy,” Marshall said.

For more shop owners, it has been the same customer base that has allowed them to stay viable through the sluggish market. There are signs even in New Hampshire that the market has been slow to recover. In the last year or so, international manufacturer Sig Sauer announced layoffs at its Newington facility, as did Conway-based Green Mountain Barrel Co. Newport-based Latva Machine Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after design issues held up a contract to manufacture pistol barrels for Remington Arms Co.

Background checks for prospective gun owners have also dipped after reaching historic levels in 2013. In the first two months of 2013, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System recorded 35,501 background checks for prospective gun owners, compared with the 18,919 recorded in the first two months of this year. That number is down 1,500 from last year but in line with the 18,462 checks in the first two months of 2012.

While the number of checks doesn’t explain how many guns were actually bought, it gives a good idea of how many people are interested in buying.

There were 147,726 background checks in 2013, compared with 124,677 last year.

The numbers reflect the trend.

“Concerns about the changes in firearms regulations a few years ago prompted a spike in demand,” said Lorna Colquhon, director of communications and legislative affairs at the state Division of Resources and Economic Development. “As demand has fallen off, the industry has corrected itself.”

New Hampshire has eight establishments involved in small arms, ordinance and ordinance accessories manufacturing in the state, according to an economic development model the state uses. These businesses have about 1,900 workers, about 2,000 percent higher than the national average.

That number is expected to grow almost 10 percent, a notch below the 13 percent average nationwide, according to DRED.

This means different results for different shop owners.

Many owners report more people buying smaller caliber guns for carrying on-person, perhaps reflective of efforts on the state level to make New Hampshire a constitutional carry state, where no permit is required to carry a concealed weapon.

“We seem to sell several compact models that always seem to be a good concealed carry piece and then just your other normal models,” said Jim Morse at Morse Sporting Goods in Hillsboro. This might reflect the fact they don’t sell a large variety of AR-15-style rifles, he said.

“I think it all depends on the store and where it’s located,” he said.

Brian Blackden, owner of Pepper Defense Supply Co. in Penacook, said the boom and bust reminded him of the paintball craze at the turn of the millennium. A lot of shops raced to capitalize on its popularity, only to see the sport become more expensive as interest waned.

“The last rush was an abnormal and artificial boom,” he said. “You’ll see a knee-jerk spike with things like that, if someone was going to start taxing them.”

As business has returned to normal levels, he’s seen pockets of growth in the number of women buying guns, as well as people looking for survival gear and smaller arms.

“I think the customer base that we’ve always had we have retained, but I think some people are being a little more frugal,” Blackden said. “They’re looking for better value for their dollar than they were before.”

Barring something unexpected, retailers expect to see the modest growth continue.

“I think it’s still working its way back. I think it’s just going to take time,” said Gene Rochette, owner of Stateline Guns Ammo and Archery in Plaistow. Like Blackden, he’s sold more guns to women recently, and he has seen more people coming in to have their gun serviced, a cheaper option than buying a new one.

During the boom, Rochette said he often had to tell potential buyers that the gun they wanted wasn’t available for weeks. Now, he’ll either have it in stock or can get it to the customer more quickly.

“I hope we hit the bottom and we’re on the upswing,” he said.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter@iainwilsoncm.)

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