MILWAUKEE — Americans are arming themselves like never before.
Firearms-related businesses in Wisconsin say they are hard-pressed to meet demand, which they say is being generated by factors ranging from the state's concealed carry law to presidential politics.
"It's incredible," said Steve Lauer, owner of Lauer Custom Weaponry, a manufacturer of firearms, firearm coatings and accessories in Chippewa Falls, Wis. "We can hardly keep up."
Precise figures on firearms sales don't exist. But based on the number of calls made to the FBI and Wisconsin Department of Justice for background checks related to firearms purchases, more guns are being sold this year than ever.
The number of calls to Wisconsin's handgun hotline set a record in February, with nearly 16,000 calls. So far this year, the hotline has handled more than 53,000 calls. That's on pace to far eclipse 2011, when the hotline handled just shy of 90,000 calls for the full year.
Nationally, calls for firearms purchases using the FBI's instant criminal background check system totaled nearly 1.2 million in March, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group. The number is up 20 percent over a year ago and marks the 22nd straight month-over-month increase, NSSF said.
"The wholesalers are having a hard time getting guns from any of the manufacturers on a nice even flow," said Brian Rafn, portfolio manager at Morgan Dempsey Capital Management, which has offices in Milwaukee and Delafield. "The backlogs go for months on end."
Rafn says the rise in gun sales in recent years has been "stratospheric." He estimates that 11 million guns were sold in the United States in 2011.
The increase in gun sales isn't universally considered a good thing.
"Higher household gun ownership correlates with higher rates of homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings," says the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the nation's most prominent gun-control organizations.
The Brady Campaign also says "the percentage of American households with a gun has been steadily declining over time" and that gun sales are concentrated among people who already own guns.
Regardless, the renewed interest in guns has been good for arms-related businesses nationally.
"We've seen our business increase 20 percent to 30 percent over last year," said Kevin Nugent, owner of The Shooters Shop in West Allis, Wis. "It's just been phenomenal."
"The biggest problem is finding the inventory," he said. "You can't find the inventory. When it's offered, you buy it. That's all you can do. It's a very good problem to have."
The situation is much the same across the country, he and others said.
John Krieger, owner of gun barrel manufacturer Krieger Barrels in Richfield, Wis., doesn't sell directly into the retail market but keeps a close watch on the industry.
"Manufacturers are bringing out more and more products all the time," Krieger said. "They wouldn't be doing it if there wasn't a market for it."
At Fletcher Arms in Waukesha, Wis., demand for shooting practice range time has been so strong, the business had to add additional shooting lanes, owner Sean Eaton said. "We're busy every day," he said.
Other evidence of the trend is showing up in manufacturing companies and retailers nationally:
New Jersey-based Henry Repeating Arms operates Henry Wisconsin, a metal fabricating subsidiary in Rice Lake. Since 2010, business has doubled at the Wisconsin plant, which makes precision parts for Henry brand rifles, said Anthony Imperato, Henry Repeating Arms president. The company has been adding workers at the Rice Lake facility.
Connecticut-based gun maker Sturm, Ruger & Co. on March 21 temporarily stopped taking new orders for guns because it couldn't keep up with demand. In the first quarter, the company received orders for 1.2 million firearms, more than it made in the entire year in 2011. The company said it expects to resume accepting new orders at the end of May.
National outdoor retailer Gander Mountain in November chose Germantown, Wis., for its first firearms-only concept store, Gun World by Gander Mountain. Last weekend, Gander opened Gun World locations in Eden Prairie, Minn.; Wichita, Kan.; and West Palm Beach, Fla., said Jess Myers, a spokesman for the Minnesota-based outdoor chain. "There's been a real spike in not only firearms ownership, but learning how to properly use firearms as well," he said.
Massachusetts-based Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. said in its most recent earnings report that its firearm backlog at the end of January had grown to $198.5 million, up $124.7 million from the same time last year — an increase of 169 percent.
Suburban St. Louis-based Olin Corp. said that during the first quarter of 2012, the backlog for its Winchester Ammunition subsidiary increased by more than $100 million. Sales increased despite a drop in military and law enforcement sales, the company said in filings with securities regulators.
There are a number of factors driving the trend, those in the industry say, but one thing — politics — is mentioned by nearly everyone.
"There's been a pickup which may be related to the election and also is related to just an undercurrent of interest in personal defense that just continues to be there," Olin Chief Executive Officer Joseph Rupp said during the company's first-quarter earnings conference call with financial analysts.
Rafn says gun sales typically have surged in recent presidential election years.
This year, though, it's off the charts. That's because gun owners and prospective gun owners are uncertain whether whoever ends up controlling Congress and whoever wins the White House will support gun rights, Rafn, Lauer and others said.
It's a situation where consumers say, "'We're going to get our guns now,'" before the election, Rafn said.
Among other factors driving the gun trend:
The Wisconsin's concealed carry law. The Wisconsin Department of Justice has issued more than 100,000 concealed weapons permits since the law took effect in November. In announcing the 100,000th permit, the department said it continues to receive hundreds of applications each day.
"We're seeing a lot of new shooters and a lot of women shooters," Nugent said.
An overall feeling of insecurity. Every time a story hits the news about budget cuts affecting a local police department, more people consider buying a gun, Rafn and others said. Also, news of foiled terror plots or terrorist acts also sends people to the gun store. "The more trouble there seems to be in the world, the more people seem to be buying guns and being interested in guns who haven't been before," Krieger said.
The slow U.S. economic recovery is also adding to the feeling of uncertainty.
But anything related to guns seems to be defying economic trends.
"Firearms are really selling now, but it's not just firearms. It's everything — all the accessories, ammo," Lauer said. "This place is just hectic with guys running around here trying to get these orders filled."
"We've seen our business increase 20 percent to 30 percent over last year. It's just been phenomenal."
(c)2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel