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Broadening background checks may be bonanza for gun stores

As the U.S. Senate takes up gun legislation in Washington, DC , Mike Acevedo puts a weapon on display at the National Armory gun store on April 11, 2013 in Pompano Beach, Florida.
As the U.S. Senate takes up gun legislation in Washington, DC , Mike Acevedo puts a weapon on display at the National Armory gun store on April 11, 2013 in Pompano Beach, Florida.Joe Raedle / Getty Images, file

A Senate proposal to expand criminal background checks to people who buy firearms at gun shows and online would increase sales at traditional gun stores, many retailers agree — and perhaps even hand licensed dealers a “sweetheart” boon that amounts to “an Obama tax,” according to one industry leader.

The bipartisan plan to broaden background checks — fueled by anger from the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., as well as the gun-control push from the Obama Administration — would “bring a lot of money” to the bricks-and-mortar gun sellers, predicts Andrew Molchan, director of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers, which has about 1,000 members.

“It's kind of like a sweetheart union deal" that would be realized by gun store owners Molchan said. “Most FFL holders already charge for [private gun] transfers, and when it becomes a law they'll charge more." 

If instant criminal background investigations were to be federally mandated for all guns sold via the Internet or at gun shows, that task would fall to retailers. Some gun-store owners argue such a change would increase their workload and their legal risk, thus dampening the positive impact of having more firearms owners visit their establishments. But Molchan contends the tightened rules will ultimately deepen the revenue stream for licensed dealers.

“It's an ‘Obama Tax,’ with all of the money going to the FFL holders: gun stores, pawn shops, sporting goods stores, hardware stores,” he added. “The bottom line for the real world is that a year from now [if the law passes] there will be more gun stores.”

Other firearms sellers and industry analysts don’t envision gun-shop cash registers humming at quite the rapid pace that Molchan forecasts should Congress vote to pass the bill, but there seems to be consensus that profits at those locations will rise to some degree. 

'Treacherous direction'

An earlier plan pitched by the White House to require universal background checks — to cover all private firearms sales — would have generated an even larger payday for gun shops through far heavier foot traffic and even fatter bumps in side sales of ammunition and cleaning supplies, said Garen Wintemute, a firearms researcher and a professor at the University of California, Davis, where he also serves director of the Violence Prevention Research Program.

“The current [Senate] proposal falls well short of a comprehensive background-check policy [so] the benefit to retailers will be smaller than it otherwise will be,” Wintemute said.

Advocates for tougher gun laws have long contended that 30 to 40 percent of criminal firearm acquisitions are made from family and friends and, thus, done off the books, without background checks. However, many gun owners and sellers argue that number was plucked from 1990s research and that actual portion is probably closer to 10 to 13 percent. 

Gun shows typically include many tables occupied by licensed sellers (including retailers) who are required by law to conduct background checks even at those transitional venues. That means the proposed background-check extension would only affect “individuals who are selling their personal collections” at such events, and “that’s not a big factor,” said Larry Hyatt owner of Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte, N.C.

“One reason a lot of people want to buy a gun at a gun show from another individual is because they don’t want the government to know. They’re not buying because they are criminals or have criminal intent. They just want to be invisible,” Hyatt said. “That’s a huge issue in the country."

Broadening background checks to include gun shows and Internet transactions will have “a pretty small” impact on stores like Hyatt’s, he said. “There are still going to be people who wouldn’t buy from us anyway because they wouldn’t want a record [of the purchase]. It’s not anything evil. It’s brought about by some of this fear of government and fear of future gun laws. Because people see an inevitable descent [toward gun bans]. They see an overall treacherous direction.”