Outdoors stores quietly continue to sell assault weapons

Several chains, including Cabela’s, continue to sell assault-style rifles online and in stores.

By Dee-Ann Durbin / Associated Press

DUNDEE, Mich. — Some big retailers have curbed sales of assault weapons after last month’s school shooting in Florida. But others are sticking to their guns.

Several outdoor chains, including Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, Gander Outdoors and Academy Sports, continue to sell assault-style rifles online and in stores as part of their mix of hunting equipment. The decision is in stark contrast to Dick’s Sporting Goods, which recently banned sales of assault rifles, and Walmart, which stopped carrying assault rifles in 2015 but says it will no longer sell guns or ammunition to anyone under 21.

Outdoor stores are trying to stay under the radar in this politically charged climate. Bass Pro Sports — which owns Cabela’s — and the firms that own Gander Outdoors and Academy Sports didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press. But the stores have clearly made the calculation that they could lose more than they might gain by taking a stand against assault-style weapons.

“They’re not interested in being cultural warriors and they’re probably trying to wait it out,” says Raphael Thomadsen, an associate professor of marketing at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “Not everyone wants to be at the center of this thing.”

Outdoor stores are in a tough position. Hunters account for a large part of their bottom lines and any steps to curb gun sales could alienate loyal customers like Sherry Lindamood, who was shopping with her toddler granddaughter last week at a Cabela’s in Dundee, Michigan, a rural community about an hour southwest of Detroit.

“I don’t think our rights should be impeached because of the wrongdoings of others,” said Lindamood, who owns a handgun. Lindamood said she doesn’t like assault rifles, but thinks Cabela’s has a right to sell them.

A casual look around Cabela’s revealed the strength of the store’s gun business. There weren’t many people browsing the clothing racks or the camping equipment in the 225,000-square-foot store, which has its own indoor fish pond and dozens of taxidermic animals in a multi-story display. But in the first-floor gun department, a sign behind the counter showed 13 people waiting to be helped. The department even has its own check-out area.

Terry Hiske, a former environmental official for the state, was shopping for a new fish finder at the store. He said it doesn’t bother him that Cabela’s sells assault weapons, because he sees a limited use for them. Hiske himself owns a gun and occasionally hunts deer, but he doesn’t own an assault weapon.

“Unfortunately it’s usually the idiots who are buying them, who like the biggest toy possible,” he said.

Most gun buyers make their purchases at independent shops, not big retailers, according to the National Shooting Sports Federation, an advocacy group. In 2016, big box stores like Bass Pro Shops or Dick’s sold around 23 percent of traditional hunting rifles and 12 percent of assault-style rifles, which are dubbed “modern sporting rifles” in the industry.

But for outdoor retailers, that 23 percent is still very big business. Bass Pro Shops, which operates around 185 Bass Pro and Cabela’s stores, is a private company and doesn’t publicly release its financial results. But in 2016, before the companies merged, Cabela’s said hunting equipment made up 48 percent of its merchandise revenue, or $1.7 billion.

Before it was taken private in 2010, Gander Mountain — now Gander Outdoors — said hunting equipment made up 43 percent of its sales.

By contrast, the vast majority of Dick’s business is selling things like golf clubs and apparel. Joseph Feldman, a senior managing director at the Telsey Advisory Group, estimated that guns and ammunition account for just 8 percent of the company’s sales, or around $633 million in its most recent fiscal year. Walmart doesn’t break out sales from guns, but more than half of its revenue comes from groceries.

“It’s a lot easier to take a moral stand when it’s likely to cost you 1 percent of your sales than when it could cost you 10 percent of your sales,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Gordon says outdoor stores don’t just risk gun sales, but also sales of accessories like camouflage jackets, hunting blinds and gun safes.

Thomadsen says outdoor stores have likely calculated that their customers are more likely pro-gun than anti-gun, and they can’t afford to alienate that base. Even if they were to ban assault weapons, they may not get much bump in sales from anti-gun customers, who may not have frequented outdoor stores anyway.

“The downside,” he said, “is bigger than the upside in my view.”

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