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The NRA may be better at selling guns than you thought

Sales for Sturm, Ruger & Co. have fallen for two consecutive quarters, as Quartz reported on Wednesday. The gun manufacturer had seen huge growth in the early part of 2013, but that growth has begun to taper off. As Quartz notes, this is to some extent a return to normal (though the company's stock had a bad week).

2013, as most people certainly know by now, was a very good year for gun and ammunition manufacturers. That's largely understood to be because the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012 prompted fears that the government would crack down on gun sales. (Democrats tried; it didn't work.) But gun sales were already going up prior to that mass shooting. The graph shows the monthly number of FBI background checks conducted -- a decent proxy for gun sales since such checks are required in gun sales at stores. (The regular spikes in the data are because people like to give guns as Christmas presents.)


So what's caused that long-term increase?

Perhaps, we speculated, it's because Congress has put an increased focus on gun control legislation in recent years. We pulled data from GovTrack on bills that seemed to be on the topic -- either bills from Democrats mentioning "firearms" or bills from Republicans mentioning "Second Amendment." When you compare that legislation with the background check increase, though, there doesn't seem to be any link.


(The regular spikes in the number of introduced bills largely corresponds with the start of a new legislative session. Eager members of Congress showed up in January 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2013, gun legislation in-hand. Less so 2011.)

If the concern isn't over new gun control measures, perhaps the link is with news reports on the topic. So we looked at Nexis for mentions of "gun control" in major newspapers for every three months of the same time period.


Again, it doesn't look like a fit. Fairly regular for a long time until the big spike at Newtown.

We also checked Google Trends, which tracks search interest in terms over time. Since 2004, the pattern for both gun control and Second Amendment has looked like the chart of newspaper mentions -- flat and then a spike.

What would be interesting to see is how much the NRA's advertising budget has changed over time. We have something of a proxy: the amount the group spends on lobbying members of Congress. When you compare that to the increase in background checks (annualized to match the NRA data), there's a remarkable fit.


This doesn't mean that the NRA is responsible for the increase in gun sales (though we suspect they'd be happy to take credit). Perhaps the NRA, flush with money from new members, allocates more money for lobbying. But of the sets of data at hand, this is the only one that comes close to matching the trend.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.



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