WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. >> While new data suggests a drop in Florida gun sales since President Donald Trump’s election, the numbers may not tell the whole story.
Florida continues to lead the nation in concealed weapons permits. And one local gun dealer says demand for training is on the rise, as an industry expert says he and others have seen a shift in purchasing patterns.
“What has increased is the number of gun owners who buy for self-protection,” said Tom Gabor, a criminologist, researcher and expert witness who has written about gun violence.
Those in the firearms industry confirm the trend: Florida is falling in line with the rest of the United States in seeing a drop in purchases since Trump took office in January, though by how much is uncertain.
Though individual gun sales are not tracked by Florida, the number of background checks typically can be used to show whether more or fewer firearms are being purchased. That number dropped by about 4.5 percent from the first seven months of 2016 to the same period this year, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data.
However, that does not mean every background check led to a purchase. Also, each background check could include multiple firearms.
Firearms experts and gun owners say the drop in sales is a trend they have seen before: A Republican administration takes office, and people who might have rushed to purchase firearms — fearing tighter restrictions on gun buying under a Democratic administration — press pause on their pursuits.
Trump has touted himself as a “true friend and champion” of gun rights. Speaking at the National Rifle Association’s conference in Atlanta in April, Trump said the group “came through for me” in the election.
As such, some in Florida’s gun industry say firearms enthusiasts may no longer fear a raft of new restrictions on purchasing weapons — which eases the impulse demand for guns.
Now Florida’s firearms industry is adapting to meet a stronger demand: training and safety.
POLITICS AND PISTOLS
At Wex Gunworks in Delray Beach, store owner Brandon Wexler said while he isn’t seeing the same demand for certain firearms as last year, business has been steady since Trump’s election.
“I would say the business has slowed down, but it’s not slow,” Wexler said.
After seeing a rise in gun sales under President Barack Obama — Wexler described sales at that time as “totally, off-the-wall crazy” — he said there was more of a spike in gun-buying right before the election, as people rushed to buy assault rifles, and ammunition and magazines to power them. There was “an urgency in buying,” he noted.
“The fear was that if Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, got into office, the fear was, ‘OK, we’re gonna take away your assault rifles, we’re gonna take away your guns,’” Wexler said.
“There’s an expression that President Obama was the best salesperson for the gun industry because there was a fear … that he would introduce some tough gun laws,” said Gabor, the Palm Beach County-based author of “Confronting Gun Violence in America.”
Gabor described the drop in gun sales across the country as “substantial,” and several large chain stores that sell firearms have reported losses since Trump’s election.
Nebraska-based outdoors store Cabela’s said in early August it was seeing “a slowdown in firearms and shooting related categories,” the Dayton Daily News reported. And Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis told investors in May that Gander Mountain — which his company had acquired — had made a series of “stupid” management decisions, including an investment in firearms, which Lemonis said is not a stable market.
In the months following Trump’s election, Gunworks’ Wexler said there has been “a glut of inventory” of assault rifles. Now, the demand is for concealed weapons. And with those concealed weapons comes a need for more training.
That’s where Shawn Ryan, a retired Navy SEAL and former CIA contractor, comes in. About six months ago, he and his company, Vigilance Elite, partnered with Wexler to offer firearms training programs.
Ryan said the spike in gun sales under the Obama administration led some people to spend “more money than they needed to” on guns.
People ran out and bought “thousands and thousands of dollars in firearms that they had no idea how to use,” he said.
So Ryan provides that training in daylong, seven-hour sessions or even longer, more intensive classes, where his clients cover the spectrum of gun owners, from law enforcement officers to 65-year-old women. Even families.
One mom who trained with Ryan as part of an all-women class decided to bring back her husband, her young-teen triplets, and her older child for a class of their own.
“The mom actually just crushed all of them,” Ryan said, laughing.
Ryan and Wexler also said they see more people concerned about self-defense, citing terror attacks in Paris, Orlando, San Bernardino and Fort Lauderdale.
It was those attacks, in part, that inspired Ryan to launch Vigilance Elite.
“Every time you see those little video clips off somebody’s cellphone and you can see how everyone’s reacting, nobody knows what do when something like that happens,” Ryan said. “So I started talking about it and I realized, holy cow, there’s a need here.”
Despite a drop in background checks, Florida remains the No. 1 state in the country when it comes to concealed carry permits, with about 1.8 million people authorized in the state.
Marc Adler speaks nationally on guns, and serves as vice president of government relations for Ammunition Depot in Boca Raton. He also is president of Machine Gun America in Orlando, a firearms-themed attraction that he described as a place where people can experience guns.
“It’s really all about the thrill of shooting. It’s not a gun range, it’s not a gun store,” he said of the facility.
Business there has been consistent, he noted, adding that there’s an ebb and flow to everything — including the firearms market.
“I think that people will continue to want concealed weapons permits, and the market for people who want them will continue to grow,” Adler said, adding that firearms are a “growing interest” in the U.S.
But Gabor, a former criminologist, said gun ownership as a percentage of the population has gone down over the past three decades.
While he believes interest in guns now is more focused on personal safety, even then, Gabor added, there are few “successful defensive uses” of guns.
“So that proportion of people who own guns who actually use them for self-defense is minuscule when we compare them with these guns being turned on family members, being used in suicide or being involved in an accident,” he said.
Wexler, the Delray Beach gun store owner, said that although he’s seen the market change since Wex Gunworks opened 10 years ago, he’s optimistic gun sales in Florida will remain strong.
“Our gun laws here are good,” he said. “That’s why we’re called the Gunshine State.”