By Damian Paletta / The Washington Post
U.S. companies have manufactured more than 70 million firearms since 2008, rapidly escalating the production of pistols and the types of rifles used in recent mass shootings, government and industry data show.
In 2016, the latest year for which data is available, production spiked as firearms companies built roughly 11 million guns, in part due to a belief that Democrats would win elections that year and curb access to semiautomatic weapons such as the AR-15 rifle.
More than 4 million rifles were produced in 2016, up from 1.8 million in 2010. The National Rifle Association has estimated that 25 percent of all rifles produced in the United States are AR-15s or other semiautomatic styles, while other gun groups have said the ratio is closer to 50 percent.
All told, U.S. companies have manufactured more than 150 million firearms since 1986, according to the “Annual Firearms Manufacturing and Export Report,” published each year by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The vast majority of all U.S.-produced firearms were sold domestically, the ATF data said.
The sheer number of privately held weapons in the U.S. underscores the scope of the issue policymakers face as they debate stiffening restrictions on new gun purchases after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, last week that left 17 people dead. Nearly all policies under consideration by Congress or the White House focus on the sale of new weapons, as any suggestion of taking away guns that are already privately held is a political nonstarter.
The data also shows episodic spikes of production and firearm sales when there’s the possibility of new federal gun-control policies. The two biggest years for gun production in recent history — 2013 and 2016 — came during intense debates about whether Democrats would be able to curb access to firearms such as the AR-15.
“Gun lovers have been convinced that their right to buy guns in general, or particular types of guns, would be taken away by the politicians and they better hurry up and get whatever guns they have considered obtaining,” said Philip Cook, professor emeritus of public policy studies at Duke University.
Sales fell off sharply in early 2017, after President Donald Trump and Republicans took full control of government, according to sales figures from several large gun manufacturers.
The data is one of very few windows into the prevalence and popularity of specific types of firearms, rather than a broader look at the number of people who are seeking to buy guns.
New sales of the AR-15 were essentially illegal from 1994 until 2004, but Congress let an assault-weapons ban expire and the rifle came back into mainstream production several years later.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates that annual production of AR-15s and other firearms considered modern sporting rifles grew from 444,000 in 2010 to 1.3 million in 2015. It did not have estimates for 2016, though many believe that is when AR-15 production peaked.
This firearm, produced by more than a dozen companies, is a rifle that allows its user to fire multiple rounds in succession without reloading bullets. It’s very popular with gun enthusiasts but has come under scrutiny because of its use in multiple mass shootings, including the one in Parkland.
The AR-15 was also used in 2012 at the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 children and six staff members dead, a shooting at a Las Vegas concert in which 58 people died, a shooting at a Texas church last year in which 26 people died, and a 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California, in which 14 people died.
Firearms manufacturers reported a steep decline in demand for guns last year because of Trump’s election in large part because gun buyers felt Republicans would not do anything to curb access to firearms. But the Parkland shooting has prompted an intense debate in Washington about renewing calls for limits on access to guns, a fight that could jump-start buying again.
“I would expect a bump” in sales after the Florida shooting, said Timothy Lytton, associate dean at Georgia State University’s College of Law and an expert on the gun industry. “How big the bump is depends on how much concern is whipped up among people who are gun collectors — the people who want to stay heavily armed in terms of that movement.”
The big drop in demand for firearms in 2017 hit a number of companies hard, particularly those that had ramped up production the year before to capitalize on gun buyers who wanted to purchase an AR-15 before the November 2016 elections.
To deal with falling demand, many companies and retailers offered steep discounts and rebates on firearms to entice more buyers.
The falloff was so severe that it helped push Remington Outdoor Co. to announce on Feb. 12 that it was filing for bankruptcy.
Remington, one of the United States’ largest gun manufacturers by volume, reported sales of firearms in 2016 reached $437.8 million, up 16.7 percent from the year before. It said sales of “modern sporting rifles,” which includes firearms like the AR-15, increased $34.2 million that year, though it didn’t provide aggregate sales figures for this style.
Government data shows that Remington produced at least 772,580 rifles in 2016. That’s up from 302,271 rifles produced in 2005.
In 2017, Remington had to curb production of new firearms and even put in place a furlough plan late last year in Ilion, New York, forcing workers to temporarily go home without pay.
“We began to see a post-election reduction in demand for modern sporting rifles and handguns beginning in late January 2017,” Remington said in a securities filing late last year.
It attributed the drop-off, among other things, to Trump’s election. Many gun enthusiasts had been convinced that Democrat Hillary Clinton was going to win the 2016 election and would take steps to curb access to AR-15s.
“We believe the change in the presidential administration has partially contributed to the industry slowdown in early 2017,” Remington wrote in the filing.
Ilion mayor Terry Leonard said Remington officials notified him of the furlough last fall, and locals have been watching the company’s actions closely because of concerns about what the bankruptcy might mean for the area.
Leonard worked for Remington from 1970 until 1991 and said the company made a tactical decision in the past 10 years to ramp up production of semiautomatic rifles because of consumer demand, shifting focus away from the traditional rifles that it had produced for more than 150 years.
The whole town of Ilion became nervous in 2012, Leonard said, when it became clear that the AR-15 used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a made by Bushmaster, a Remington company. But he said reactions by Congress this year could lead to impulse buying from gun buyers this year just like in late 2012 and 2013.
“If there was any serious threat of major changes to the gun control laws, then in advance of those laws taking effect, people would be stockpiling again,” he said.
Sturm, Ruger & Co., another large firearms manufacturer, reported a similar slump last year and slowed production at its three plants. Its net firearms sales in 2017 was $517.7 million, down from $658.4 million in 2016 and down even from 2015.
When it reported its annual earnings Wednesday, it said “decreased overall consumer demand in 2017 due to stronger-than-normal demand during most of 2016, likely bolstered by the political campaigns for the November elections.”
During an analyst call on Thursday, Sturm, Ruger chief executive Christopher Killoy remarked on the Florida shooting but did not say how it might impact his company.
“Like all Americans, we also struggle with the shock and sadness of these horrible events,” he said. “We will continue to stand by our motto as arms makers for responsible citizens, but we are people too, and are impacted when tragedies like this occur in our communities.”
Guns can break, get lost or stolen, or become confiscated, making it difficult to pin down precisely how many firearms are privately held.
A 2015 survey conducted by Northeastern University and Harvard University projected that there were roughly 265 million privately held guns in the U.S., and half of that gun stock was owned by 3 percent of the U.S. population. Those figures did not take into account the boom in gun sales in 2016.
All told, U.S. companies produced 11.5 million firearms in 2016, a 20 percent increase from 2015. The previous modern-era record was the 10.8 million firearms manufactured in 2013, the year following the Sandy Hook shooting. The Justice Department won’t release 2017 data until next year.