A week on from Newtown, business as usual for gun manufacturers and sellers

Many Walmart stores reported to have sold out a huge Christmas rush for weapons expected in US

A rush for firepower in the US has made guns among the most popular gifts Americans now buy each other for Christmas, the boss of Smith & Wesson has said.

James Debney, Smith & Wesson’s CEO, said “firearms have now taken their place in the basket of mainstream durable goods that consumers want to buy on Black Friday.”

The day after Thanksgiving is regarded as the official start of the Christmas shopping spree in the US. Debney said Black Friday sales of rifles and handguns last month “set an all time high for any single day”. Just a week before the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, Debney was reporting a “tremendous” doubling of gross profits to $48.5m (£29.8m).

FBI statistics show 154,873 point-of-sale background checks were carried out on people buying guns on Black Friday, 23 November – 25,707 more than Black Friday last year.

The second-biggest day for gun sales last year was 23 December, when 102,222 background checks were carried out. In the six days to Christmas more than 500,000 background checks were carried out.

Gun sales are expected to be even higher this Christmas, as consumers rush to buy more arms following the Newtown shootings.

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has sold out of guns at many of its supermarkets across the country. On its website, which advertises 358 different guns for sale, Walmart asks customers: “Need it by Christmas? Choose expedited shipping and get gifts in time!”

The supermarket put a Sig Sauer M400 on a special “doorbuster” promotion on Black Friday, offering $50 off the $867 rifle, which is designed for use by the army and police.

In a mark of respect to the Newtown killings, Walmart has removed from its website a picture and description of the Bushmaster AR15, a military-style semi-automatic similar to the one believed to have been used by Lanza in the shooting, but it is still, reportedly, available in stores.

Walmart refuses to disclose how many guns it sells, but the retailer told analysts in October that gun revenue was up 76% in the first half of the year.

Gun enthusiasts have also flocked to eBay to buy ammo. A current bid for four Glock handgun magazines – ammunition for one of the guns found at Newtown – is $118 compared with $45 on the day before the shooting. A bid for seven Glock magazines hit $201 on 17 December – up from $71.01 before the massacre.

A presenter on news channel KHOU recently introduced a report on the trend with the words: “It’s the holidays and, for some, nothing says Christmas quite like a little firepower.”

One gun store customer, Debbie Tingey, told the channel she was buying a handgun for her husband as a surprise Christmas present. “And, then I’m hoping, maybe mothers’ day he’ll surprise me,” she added.

Another shopper, Debbi Kremer, said a handgun licence would be a “good gift” and “maybe ammo in the stocking”.

Smith & Wesson, which makes James Bond’s Walther PPK and Dirty Harry’s Model 29 Magnum, said sales for the whole of November were 61.3% higher than the same month a year ago.

“It was another quarter of record revenue,” Debney told analysts and investors on a conference call on 6 December. “We achieved a tremendous increase in gross margin.”

In its results presentation, Smith & Wesson boasted that gun sales “for just the first half” of the year had almost matched total sales for the whole of the previous year.

“As you know, the firearms industry has experienced extraordinary growth in recent years we believe that one result of this growth is an expanded and diverse consumer base,” said Debney.

Annual US guns and ammunition sales total about $4bn, according to estimates from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

This has helped Smith & Wesson’s shares to increase in value by 94% so far this year, despite a dip in performance following the shootings.

Filings at the US regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission, show the pension fund of 1.2 million Texan teachers and British banks and hedge funds are among the investors to have benefited from Smith & Wesson’s performance.

Oxford Asset Management, a UK hedge fund, owns 0.79% of the company, and Barclays Capital holds 0.21%. Both British investors failed to return requests for comment. Smith & Wesson also declined to comment.

The power of investors to influence the gun trade was drawn into focus this week when a Californian teachers’ pension fund pressured US private equity firm Cerberus to sell off its stake in Freedom Group, the gun company that made the semi-automatic rifle Lanza used in the shootings.

Cerberus Capital Management said it was preparing for a sale of its investments in Freedom Group in the wake of the “unthinkable” massacre in the town – where the father of the Cerberus founder and chief executive, Stephen Feinberg, lives.

Cerberus, which manages more than $20bn (£12bn) of investments, said Adam Lanza’s killing of 20 children and seven adults was a “watershed moment” that raised the debate on gun control to an “unprecedented level”. Cerberus said it was not the company’s role to enter the debate but added: “There are, however, actions that we as a firm can take.”

Freedom said the market for military-type weapons, like the .223 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle believed to have been used by Lanza, grew by 27% between 2007 and 2011. “The continued adoption of the modern sporting rifle has led to increased growth in the long gun market, especially with a younger demographic of users and those who like to customise or upgrade their firearms,” it said.

The California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), the second-biggest pension fund in America, had threatened to withdraw the $751m it had invested in Cerebus unless the private equity fund sold out of the firearms company.

Californian’s treasurer Bill Lockyer said he will propose that CalSTRS and California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) – the two biggest pension funds in the US – sell off all investments in firearms manufacturers that make guns prohibited under state law. California prohibits semi-automatic assault weapons, specifically including the Bushmaster, and magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Will Pomroy, head of corporate governance at the UK’s National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF), said: “It is up to individual funds to determine their investment strategies. However, we would expect funds to actively consider their approach to ethical and social issues as part of determining their strategy. Pension schemes and their advisers have an important role to play in encouraging higher standards of corporate responsibility.”

Andre Spicer, a professor at Cass Business School, said investors may be able to achieve more in the gun debate than politicians.

“[Cerberus'] move demonstrates again the willingness of shareholders to use their financial muscle to address recent issues,” he said. “Some see financial pressure as the next option in the gun control debate, given the difficulty of forcing any meaningful change to gun laws in the US through legislation.”

He said investor pressure may be followed by consumer action, that could see Walmart called on to stop selling guns and ammo in its supermarkets.

“It is likely that we will see investor activism being followed by consumer pressure. For instance, mass market retailers like Walmart, which is the largest retail of firearms in the US, may come under consumer pressure to drop guns as part of their product mix.

“Investor activism coupled with consumer pressure has proved a potent force for changing industries in the past. For instance consumer and investor activism played a large role in changing attitudes to the tobacco industry long before governments created the kind of anti-smoking legislation which is so wide spread today.”

• This story was amended on Friday 21 December 2012. An earlier version said British company Prudential owned a stake in Smith & Wesson. That stake is owned by US-based Prudential Financial Inc.

Guardian

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