“I’ve been through booms and I’ve been through busts,” said Paul Paradis, the owner of Paradise Firearms on West Colorado Avenue, “and I don’t like either one. I prefer things to be steady and predictable.”
For established gun shop owners such as Paradis, who has sold firearms from his Westside storefront for more than 25 years, these are not normal times. Horrific massacres in Aurora and Newtown have changed public attitudes toward gun control, inspiring a spate of legislative proposals to tighten and extend existing laws. Such proposals have in turn sent panicked gun buyers to Paradis’ shop.
“A few weeks ago, I had over 100 ‘nines’ [9 millimeter semiautomatic handguns] in stock,” said Paradis. “Today I have 11. And Bushmasters, AR-15s — forget it. I’ve talked to five manufacturers’ reps in the last week, and they all say that their companies are going flat-out to meet the demand, but they can’t give me any guns.”
For years, Paradis’ sales have ranged between $500,000 and $750,000 annually. Sales were up sharply in November and December — and then came the explosion.
“We did $200,000 in January,” said Paradis, “and now we spend all of our time turning away people who want to buy. Pretty soon I’m going to have to lay off people.”
In Colorado, the state House has approved bills limiting the capacity of rifle magazines, making background checks mandatory in all gun sales, banning guns on college campuses and requiring gun buyers to pay the cost of background checks.
Nationally, President Obama has made similar legislation a national priority, although it seems unlikely that such measures would be acceptable to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The debate over firearms has centered on so-called assault weapons, semiautomatic rifles that strongly resemble military arms. These aren’t like your grandfather’s 30.06, or your father’s lovingly maintained 30.30 Winchester. Forget wooden stocks, recoil pads and slow, clunky bolt actions.
Take a look at a Bushmaster ACR (adaptive combat rifle) or any of a dozen clones of the Colt AR-15, itself descended from the Vietnam-era M-16. For about $1,200, you can get a light, reliable, virtually recoilless firearm, and equip it with a laser sight, a 30-shot magazine and a TAC light.
Those who want to further restrict — even ban — the sale of such weapons say they have no sporting use. Like its military counterparts, the Bushmaster was conceived and created for the sole purpose of killing human beings.
It’s no accident, opponents say, that those who plan and perpetrate mass killings turn to assault weapons, because that’s what they’re designed for. Just as you’d use an F-150 pickup rather than a Smart Car to haul a cord of firewood, you’d turn to a Bushmaster rather than a Remington 870 to shoot up a school, a theater or a mall.
Proponents say that the Bushmaster is merely a “modern sporting rifle” — the user-friendly product of generations of research. Just as we no longer use dial telephones to communicate, today’s hunters and recreational shooters prefer up-to-date technology.
“The AR-15 is the latest iteration of a modern sporting rifle,” according to the website of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, “[one that] employs advanced technology and ergonomic design to produce an exceptionally reliable, rugged and accurate sporting rifle. Produced in different configurations and chambered in a variety of calibers, AR-type rifles are exceptionally well suited to many types of hunting, precision target shooting as well as personal protection.”
In comparison with similar-sized communities across the country, Colorado Springs is an exceptionally gun-friendly city. El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa has called for arming teachers to protect schoolchildren, while County Commissioners Sallie Clark, Peggy Littleton and Amy Lathen were recently pictured with their personal firearms at the opening of a new firing range. City Councilor Bernie Herpin founded the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition 25 years ago and is still an active member (in fact, he even designed the organization’s website).
Mayor Steve Bach, citing lessons learned at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, is an even more fervent believer in the Second Amendment.
“The Nazis made people register their guns, and then the Gestapo went door-to-door and confiscated them,” Bach said. “That really made an impression on me.”
National polls suggest more than 60 percent of Republicans are gun owners, but fewer than 25 percent of Democrats similarly exercise their Second Amendment rights. That disparity suggests that the local firearms industry may have a more significant economic impact in Colorado Springs than in Boulder or Denver.
The industry certainly has a local impact, but it’s difficult to measure. Firearms sales are not directly measured, although Colorado’s background check system (Instacheck) provides some telling indicators.
During 2012, 335,940 potential Colorado gun purchasers were approved by Instacheck. The system does not break down purchasers by location, but based solely on population it’s reasonable to infer that El Paso County residents accounted for 12.5 percent of approvals, or about 42,000. If all such approvals translated into sales, and if the average sale was $500, then total sales may have amounted to $21 million.
If our area’s percentage of gun owners is higher, that total could be much more.
Tellingly, statewide Instacheck approvals soared in December (the last month for which figures are available) to 56,791.
That figure does not account for private sales by individuals, nor does it cover sales of ammunition, holsters, gun safes and a host of other gun-related merchandise.
According to NSSF data, sales of guns and ammunition at the manufacturer level are approximately $4.1 billion annually. Other estimates range as high as $5 billion, but the actual figures may be higher.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) reports that 5,459,240 firearms were manufactured in the United States in 2011 (excluding military arms). Of those, only 241,997 were exported, while an additional 3,252,404 were imported from abroad, leaving a total of 8,469,467 for the domestic market.
While the firearms industry accounts for a substantial number of direct jobs, its indirect impacts are much higher. Local firearms dealers include small independent dealers like Paradis as well as big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Sports Authority. In these settings, firearms are among many outdoors-related products available to customers, so it’s difficult to measure the specific employment impact of any given product line.
Will local firearms sales suffer from the proposed new laws? Paul Paradis thinks so.
“If people can’t get what they want here,” he warned darkly, “then they’ll go to another state, to New Mexico or Texas, and get it there. And little manufacturers will shut up their shops — machine shops that make components for guns. You saw where Magpul is leaving Colorado, costing hundreds of jobs.”
Magpul, a manufacturer of high-capacity magazines, employs more than 200 at its Boulder County facility. The company ran a full-page ad in the Sunday Denver Post threatening to leave Colorado if its products are made illegal in its home state.
Yet Paradis’ fears may be unfounded. The proposed legislation may make acquiring a firearm marginally more difficult, but it still would be cheaper than driving to Texas and back. Once the manufacturers have filled the pipeline, gun sales likely will resume their former steady pace.
For Paradis, it can’t happen too soon.
“Opportunists, scam artists trying to sell stuff for two or three times the price — that’s not what our industry is about,” he said. As he finished, an employee interrupted.
“Can we sell this?” he asked, holding up a magazine.
“No, that’s display,” Paradis replied. “Tell him I don’t know when we’ll get more.”