When It Comes to Data on Firearm Sales, Gun Lobby Still Shooting Blanks

Virtually every other industry in America offers the media actual data on sales. So why do the National Rifle Association and National Shooting Sports Foundation continue to block access to this information?
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Last month, I posted a blog ("The Truth About Gun Sales") here at Huffington Post that analyzed the gun lobby's favorite pitch to the media. Year after year, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) continue to push stories about "record-setting" sales and reporters -- always looking for a sensational lead -- print/air these claims as gospel without actually fact-checking them.

What makes this so remarkable is that the gun lobby blocks both the public and media from gaining access to actual data on gun sales. Instead of sales data, the NRA and NSSF offer reporters data on background checks conducted through the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). For a multitude of reasons that I chronicled in my earlier blog, this data does not represent gun sales. As the FBI made clear to Reuters on Saturday, "An increase in the number of NICS transactions, for a given time period, should not be used to indicate an increase in the number of firearms sold."

Angered over being exposed as peddlers of bogus data, the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) responded to my blog in a January 13th alert on their website ("Gun Control Activists Fire Squib Loads"). With their NICS ruse foiled, they are now offering yet another separate and distinct body of information as "hard data" on gun sales.

For starters, the NRA-ILA seems to now fully acknowledge that NICS checks are not gun sales. "As Horwitz points out, not all firearm-related NICS checks are for firearm acquisitions, and the number of checks does not reflect the number of firearms acquired in conjunction with the checks," they write. "Among other things, he also points out that some NICS checks are for acquisitions of second-hand firearms." And yet they can't quite let go of their bogus data, saying that increases in the number of NICS checks from 2007 to 2011 "almost guarantee[s] that sales of new firearms have been increasing during that time frame."

Almost guarantees? Or perhaps it's merely an "exact estimate"? Whatever the case, the NRA was ready to introduce its latest iteration of "hard data" on gun sales:

There's a much better indicator of new gun sales that Horwitz ignored: U.S. firearms manufacturers' production data and firearm importation statistics, both reported by the BAFTE [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives]. Horwitz accuses NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation of not providing reporters hard data, but reporters can get the BAFTE's data the same way the NRA and the NSSF do -- by visiting the BAFTE's website.

Allow me to interject here for just a moment. The NRA and the NSSF are claiming they wait two years for (embargoed ATF) data on firearms manufacturing and imports? The NSSF is the trade association for the gun industry! Their job is to tell American consumers and investors what's going on in their industry, what's hot and what's not, what's selling and what's sitting in inventory. They're either lying or grossly incompetent. This type of information is routinely reported by other industries up to the current month, as seen in this example. But I digress; let me get back to the NRA-ILA's latest "hard data" on gun sales:

The BATFE's data show that the number of firearms made in the U.S.A. and not exported, plus the number of firearms imported, increased from 5.1 million in 2005, to 5.7 million in 2006, 6.5 million in 2007, 6.9 million in 2008, and almost 9 million in 2009. Figures for 2010 and 2011 have not been released, but based on the trend in NICS checks, it's likely that they will follow a similar pattern.

But are firearms manufactured in the U.S. and not exported, plus imported firearms, really "a much better indicator" of gun sales? First of all, we don't have any data at all for 2010 and 2011, so (once again) we can't have an adult conversation about these figures. More importantly, firearms are some of the most durable products you will find, with extremely long life spans. How do we know these products aren't simply sitting on the shelves?

That theory is certainly plausible because the ATF data shows a multi-year trend of rising firearm imports. Are these foreign imports a threat to domestic firearm manufacturers? If so, U.S. manufacturers could be increasing production to try to compete. Let's remember that the domestic automobile industry overproduced itself right into bankruptcy.

If that's not enough, the NSSF added even more "evidence" of increased gun sales in a recent press release: "Another indicator pointing to robust gun sales is the federal excise taxes collected on the sale of new firearms and ammunition, which have risen 48.3 percent over the last five years." Yes, the excise tax receipts have gone up, but since this includes ammunition and a long list of bow-hunting products it offers little insight into how many firearms are being moved off retailers' shelves. Additionally, the federal excise tax is based on the value of the product and is not a set tax per unit. Increased tax collections could reflect many things, including the rise in the price of raw commodities that make firearms more expensive. Purchasers might also be passing on less expensive items in favor of more expensive ones. Finally, it certainly reflects the high cost of ammunition due to wartime shortages as well as general inflation. In conclusion, aggregate excise tax data does not tell us anything about firearm sales.

The NSSF has even stooped so far as to offer reporters social media searches as evidence of what brands of firearms sold the best during the 2011 holiday season. Facebook and Twitter hits? This is literally laughable.

Let's be perfectly clear here. Virtually every other industry in America offers the media actual data on sales. Click here to see industry data on pharmaceuticals, motorcycles, and ever-popular Mac products, for example. So why do the NRA and NSSF continue to block access to this information?

Because the industry has something ugly to hide.... If the NSSF did make sales figures public, it would then be possible to compare gun sales data to aggregate data on crime gun traces and identify with specificity the volume of firearms being diverted to criminals and traffickers in the illegal market. Researchers could also divine which firearm manufacturers are failing to use effective safeguards to stop the illegal diversion of their products.

It's no secret that the gun industry knows that their distributors and retailers supply thousands of guns each year to criminals. Bob Ricker, the former executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council (then the leading gun industry trade association), made that patently clear when he became a whistleblower in 2003. Ricker participated in a series of high-level meetings with NRA and gun industry executives from 1992 to 1997 in which it was acknowledged that "the diversion of firearms from legal channels of commerce to the black market" takes place "principally at the distributor/dealer level." Ricker proposed strict standards and guidelines to help stem the flow of guns to criminals. But his proposal was rejected by industry attorneys, who concluded that, "You can't change operating procedures, because if you do, then you're going to be admitting sort of liability."

And is it simply a coincidence that the same year Ricker came forward with these details, the NRA pushed for amendments to the ATF appropriation bill in Congress that prohibited lawmakers, the media, the public, and researchers from gaining access to crime gun trace data? The pattern couldn't be clearer.

The smoke and mirrors game the gun lobby plays with bogus "sales data" allows them to promote the infamous "More Guns, Less Crime" mantra of now-discredited "researcher" (and current Fox News commentator) John Lott while cloaking a far darker truth. Namely, that -- faced with a stagnant customer base that has declined precipitously over the past 35 years -- the gun industry has purposely and continuously manufactured firearms for one of its most important market segments: traffickers and prohibited purchasers (i.e., children, criminals, the dangerously mentally ill, domestic abusers, etc.). And all in the name of profit.

What's remarkable is that anyone in the media is still willing to play their game with them.

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