Breaking Views

America's gun spree could run out of ammo

Fears of limits from a liberal president are firing sales, but gun-makers only have so many weapons in their arsenals.

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By Robert Cyran, breakingviews.com

(breakingviews.com) -- Private equity shop Cerberus plans to float gun-maker Freedom Group soon. It had better hurry. President Barack Obama's victory sent weapon sales -- and the valuations of firearms producers -- shooting upward. Falling backlogs hint sales could plunge. The U.S. gun bubble may backfire.

Two sparks set off this speculative burst in the gun business. First, fears of economic calamity inspired sales of weapons -- Sturm, Ruger's 30 shot autoload SR-556 rifle is useful according to the company for shooting varmints and for "personal defense", presumably pesky biped varmints.

Second, gun collectors feared a Democratic president would restrict gun ownership. After all, you can't buy the SR-556 in blue-state strongholds California and Massachusetts.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence of mania in the sector. Retailers reported ammunition shortages. Gun show attendance overflowed. Firearms factories are running flat out.

Meanwhile, insiders are preparing for a slowdown. Smith & Wesson diversified into security systems. Cerberus' decision to sell may be indicative of a top -- the durability of recent demand is indeed listed as a risk factor in Freedom Group's prospectus.

The figures are more damning. Total U.S. firearm sales should be around $3 billion this year. That's twice to three times as much as is typically spent according to estimates derived from Treasury excise taxes. Background checks over the past 12 months, which are a leading indicator of gun sales, were 50% higher than the levels reported during the middle years of the decade.

Naturally, rising sales lit a fire to stocks of gun makers and sellers. Armaments manufacturers Smith & Wesson (SWHC) and Sturm, Ruger (RGR) saw their stocks rise 115% and 85% respectively since the election last November. Hunting superstore Cabelas (CAB) has risen 70%.

This bubble may already be deflating. Smith & Wesson's backlog hit $268 million earlier this year and shrank to $177 million last quarter due to cancellations and fewer orders. Considering it only stood at $50 million in April 2008, the backlog could have much further to fall. Sturm, Ruger reported roughly similar figures.

This could prove painful for all involved. If sales fell to more typical levels of recent years, up to two-thirds of U.S. gun sales could disappear. And they could fall further. There are somewhere between 200 million and 300 million fireable guns (estimates vary widely) already in the U.S. Firearms have a very long lifespan if properly treated.

Gun buyers may well decide their now-stuffed racks don't need more company for a few years. To top of page

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