2:16 PM CST, December 13, 2011
This Christmas, stockings should be hung by the chimney with extra care, because there might be an assault weapon inside.
Holiday gun sales are setting records this year, according to national indicators and firearm dealers, with shoppers snapping up Colts and AR-15s with a fever usually reserved for Elmo and Transformers.
Industry watchers say the spike is due in part to better marketing by gun shop owners jumping on the Black Friday and Cyber Monday marketing bandwagon.
The goal, they say, is simple: Entice shoppers to drop the fruit basket and grab a Glock.
"Basically, the idea is to get the ladies out of the mall and into my shop," said Randy Glauber, owner of Glauber’s Sports in Carrollton, Ky.
In November, licensed gun dealers requested 1.53 million federal background checks for prospective gun buyers, breaking the record for the month set in 2008.
According to Federal Bureau of Investigation data, the number of such checks done on this year's Black Friday, the traditional kick-off of the holiday shopping frenzy, went from the previous high in 2008 of 97,848 to 129,166 — a whopping 32 percent increase.
Another hot stocking stuffer: Personal defense items like pepper sprays and stun guns, with one of the country's biggest manufacturers saying sales are up significantly over last year.
Such numbers have put a lot of extra bang in cash registers at firearm retailers like Kentucky Gun Company in Bardstown, Ky., where crowds of gun shoppers contributed to the state's 203,683 gun background checks last month, the highest in the nation.
"Our phones have been jammed. We've had so many cars in the parking lot, they’re overflowing into one of my neighbor’s lots," said owner Patrick Hayden. "I'm going to have to go over and give them a holiday ham."
Hayden said strong sales through the year have spiked in recent weeks, with a 50 to 60 percent jump in store and Internet holiday season sales over last year. For the first time, the business gambled on coast-to-coast marketing, buying two one-page ads in a national gun magazine timed for the Christmas season.
Like many local retailers, Hayden said he’s also spending more time this holiday season than ever to find items attractive to shoppers who wouldn't normally consider high-velocity cartridges an appropriate gift on Jesus' birthday.
A sale for a basic Russian-made rifle — priced to move at $79.99, bayonet included — was targeted at bargain shoppers buying gifts for a first-time shooter.
"I've had little old ladies come in... and buy them by the crate for gifts for all the men in the family," he said. "Across the board, we used to sell to men, adult men, ages 18 to 45. Now we're advertising to everybody."
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, handgun production and imports more than doubled between 2005 and 2009 to 4.6 million, as changes in many laws have relaxed restrictions on carrying such weapons. Gallup’s annual crime poll in October showed record low support for a handgun ban for civilians. It was also the first time the poll found greater opposition to a ban on semiautomatic guns or assault rifles than support for such a restriction.
Riding that national wave, firearms marketing experts say local shops have increasingly moved beyond bare-bones holiday ads.
"As a trend, I'd say that it’s significantly increased over the last couple of years, with the smaller mom-and-pops being more sophisticated in their use of database marketing and segmenting," said Ryan Muety, director of marketing at Beretta USA. "They're not just saying purchase this gun, they're saying 'Here's an entire package for that pheasant hunter in your family'." Company sales are up 10 percent in the fourth quarter compared to last year, he said.
At Cope Distributing in Greenville, Ohio, which caters to the "black gun" market for assault-type weapons, owner Roger Cope said this year’s holiday push included an additional $2,000 for Internet "Black Friday" ads, online and store markdowns, and a wider selection of basic handguns. He called November a "monster month."
His stand-out seller — the DPMS AR-15, a semiautomatic version of the famous M-16 military machine gun — sold well for the most basic reason: a good deal. "It really comes down to price," he said.
Cope said the glut of holiday bargain shoppers will prompt him next year to sell more budget handguns intended for women, which gun industry groups call one of the market's fastest-growing demographics.
"I can't keep a pink gun on the shelf. That kind of marketing, it’s kind of weird but it works," he said.
Midway USA, a major gun-and-outdoor accessory mail order company, for the first time this year designed a holiday marketing strategy to target shooter segments like "The Gunsmith" and "The Reloader." Items in the company’s newly launched Self Defense & Police category — it includes "Hot Pink" pepper spray on a key chain, body armor and a selection of stun guns — "have become some of our best sellers overall," company representative Beth Cowgill said.
Officials at Security Equipment Corporation, which makes the Sabre line of sprays and stun guns, said sales revenue has grown by as much as 25 percent over each of the last five years.
Still, marketing deadly weapons for Christmas can be a touchy business, particularly when trying to reach firearm novices. This month, an Arizona gun club caused a minor stir when pictures of club members posing with Santa and machine guns circulated online. Several gun shop owners said they avoided aggressive images at Christmas, in deference to seasonal sensitivity.
"For the majority of retailers, they aren't going to engage in that fear factor, the unrest in the world, the emotional aspect of it," Muety said. "The nightly news does that enough, and that alone is sending people into local retailers."
"To covey the fact that it's a holiday time of year, maybe we'd show snow on the ground [in an advertisement], but we wouldn't have Santa with a gun," he said. "We wouldn’t touch that."
At Kentucky Gun Company, sales of "Class III" weapons — heavily regulated weaponry requiring lengthy background checks and deep pockets — aren’t selling particularly well.
"Those guns just aren’t very Christmas-y," Hayden said.