SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
After every mass shooting, a debate unfolds. There are some voices that by now we're used to hearing. There's the gun control camp, the NRA. But one sector that is typically quiet is the gun industry. According to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the American gun industry manufactured more than 11 million firearms for domestic consumption in 2016.
To better understand the business of guns, I spoke to Josh Sugarmann. He's executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group that has researched the firearms industry and its ties to the NRA. I asked him to start by giving me a snapshot of the American gun industry.
JOSH SUGARMANN: Well, the most striking aspect of the gun industry is its opaque nature. We know that there are, you know, your sort of legacy manufacturers - like Smith & Wesson, Sturm, Ruger, Remington. And we know the types of guns that they make, broken up by firearm category. But what's striking about the industry is how little we know.
MCCAMMON: Major retailers like Walmart and Dick's Sporting Goods have recently taken steps to limit their own sales of firearms. But even before the Parkland shooting, Remington, one of the oldest gun makers in America, announced plans to file for bankruptcy. So I'm wondering how is the industry, as a whole, doing?
SUGARMANN: The industry's history is one of peaks and valleys. And now they're running into a very deep valley. The industry is constantly trying to find the next big thing to sell to this traditional cohort of gun owners who are aging white males who are dying off. And to borrow a phrase from the tobacco industry, they're not finding the replacement shooters to take their place. At the same time, they work to exploit any opportunity to sell guns whether it's passage of a gun control law, whether it's the election of Barack Obama - his re-election, whether it's 9/11.
One of the most drastic miscalculations the industry made was they assumed that Hillary Clinton was going to win the presidency. So when she didn't, the sales demand dropped precipitously. And that's why you're seeing the situation today with these leading gun manufacturers.
MCCAMMON: So what does that mean for the total market?
SUGARMANN: It means that the industry has to go find new markets. And once again, following a trail blazed by the tobacco industry, they're continuing to focus on women and also now very aggressively targeting children.
MCCAMMON: I mean, they can't sell guns to children. So you're talking about promoting them for future. I mean, how does that look when it comes to kids?
SUGARMANN: Children can't buy guns, but their parents can buy guns for them. You have efforts from groups like National Sports Foundation where they work to actually get what they call youth ambassadors at the grade-school level to come in and bring children into the gun culture by introducing the firearms and discussing, you know, what they view as the merits of gun activity.
MCCAMMON: I want to ask you about how industry interests are represented in Washington. Is there a significant lobbying presence on behalf of the gun industry? Or is it mostly relying on the NRA?
SUGARMANN: Today's National Rifle Association is essentially a de facto trade association masquerading as a shooting sports foundation. So the NRA does the bulk of lobbying for the industry. You know, you hear the NRA talking about their opposition to an assault weapons ban, their opposition to raising the age for the purchase of a long gun from 18 to 21 years of age. And they try to frame it in terms of freedom and history and, you know, sort of the sacred nature of firearms.
Well, the reality is that's bad for the industry to pass those laws. If you ban assault weapons, that wipes out what they rely on as a recent profit center. If you raise the age for purchase of a long gun, which includes assault rifles, then you add three more years to the timeframe before a young person can buy a gun. So it's very important to understand the political battle in terms of the interests of the industry and in terms of marketing.
MCCAMMON: That's Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. Thank you.
SUGARMANN: Thank you.
MCCAMMON: We reached out to the NRA. And they responded to say, quote, "we are a single-issue membership organization dedicated to protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. We represent over 5 million members from all 50 states. We do not represent the industry, nor do we lobby on behalf of their interests." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.