State of the industry

ORLANDO, Fla. — A narrowed look at the hunting and outdoor industry shows it appears in pretty good condition.

There were record gun sales in November — up 42 percent from 2007 — and they didn't fall off much in December (up 24 percent).

But as Frank Briganti, director of industry research and analysis for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said at the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show last week, all the numbers digested in the last three to four months need to be taken with a bit of cautious optimism.

"We don't know where Obama is going to take us," Briganti said, as he pointed to a chart showing the negative effect the Clinton administration had on gun sales. "Clinton was very successful in doing some damage to the industry."

Jim Shepherd, editor of the Outdoor Pressroom, wrote a column for his press service saying he knew exactly where Obama is taking the industry.

"Mr. Obama has consistently voted against individual rights to firearms, appointed a re-tread Clinton administration full of gun banners, and made it plain to anti-gun groups that despite what he might say to the contrary, he's on their side," Shepherd said in his column. "That history, along with the unquestioned support of anti-gun organizations has spooked consumers into a buying frenzy for firearms that could be outlawed in another Assault Weapons Ban."

Briganti was less doomsday in his wording, but showed similar concern as he went through numbers that would usually have the NSSF standing up and cheering.

According to National Sporting Goods Association, hunting is the second largest sporting goods market (behind exercising) and accounted for an estimated $3.92 billion in sales in 2008. That number is up 78 percent from 2001 ($2.21 billion), which is a seven-year span that has seen hunter numbers steadily decline.

"Fewer hunters are spending more money in the pursuit of their sport," Briganti said. "That's encouraging, but scary at the same time."

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunting license sales have dropped consistently nearly every year from 1981 to 2006, going from roughly 16.25 million in '81, to 14.7 million in '06. The numbers are still being counted, but the 2008 number looks to be around 14.4 million.

The declining numbers of hunters — what Briganti called the "dropout rate" — was the first of six disturbing trends he saw when looking at the statistics spanning the past 25 years.

  1. Increasing dropout rate

  2. Only four out of every 10 hunters actually hunt in a given year

  3. Aging society (replacement ratio) — most hunters are old and only getting older. The age bracket with the most hunters is 45 to 54.

  4. Urbanization — "Everywhere you look there's a shopping mall on land you used to hunt," Briganti said.

  5. Outdoor sports participation (all outdoor sports are suffering)
    "The number of hours devoted by kids to media use is six and a half hours a day," Briganti said. "Most youth have a computer in their home, and in their room — why go outdoors?"

  6. Direction of the new administration

It's his sixth point that has most outdoorsmen in a bad place.

"When Clinton was elected in the '90s, we saw this same kind of upward spike in gun sales," Briganti said. "But it was followed by a huge downturn. I'm not saying the same thing is going to happen, but it's something to look at."

To hear Greg Schildwachter, the former Director of Agriculture, Lands and Wildlife at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, talk, the scare Obama is putting in most hunters is unfounded.

According to Schildwachter, the first questions Obama's transition team brought to the Council on Environmental Quality had to do with the 10-year plan for facilitating hunting heritage and wildlife conservation that emerged from last fall's White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy.

"For the last month or so, we've had a lot of detailed agenda-building going on between the outgoing administration and the incoming administration," Schildwachter said. "The serious people in government, behind the scenes, out of the lights and out of the spin zone, work very closely together on keeping (important) issues organized, and this is one of them."

Shepherd, who anointed Obama "Gun Salesman of the Year," doesn't share Schildwachter's view of a smooth transition to an outdoor-friendly Obama.

"Choosing President-elect Obama as the Gun Salesman of the Year is a lot like a good-news, bad-news joke," he said. "His election has driven gun sales into the stratosphere, but his opposition to guns and gun ownership may be the biggest threat the industry has ever faced."

Obama hasn't rocked the boat in his first three days in office, so for now, the industry is waiting, watching and enjoying record sales in a failing economy.