Obama and guns

June 8, 2009
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Olympic trap shooting gold medalist Kim Rhode. Photo provided by Kim Rhode.

Around 11 years ago, a Democratic presidency triggered a rift in the firearms industry. Many company CEOs struggled with the financial ramifications of Bill Clinton’s presence at the White House. Some industry executives committed major blunders. Smith & Wesson, for example, caught the ire of gun owners across the country after it signed an agreement with the administration. The company agreed to numerous safety and design standards to avoid federal lawsuits. But gun-rights advocates described the agreement essentially as equivalent to gun rationing. Gun clubs launched large-scale boycotts and dealers stopped selling Smith & Wesson products. In 2001, the company built in 1855 by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson — one of America’s largest firearms manufacturers — was sold to Saf-T-Hammer Corporation, a relatively new kid in the industry. The company’s leaders, like fast-draw shooters, quickly denounced the agreement. That move was received positively by gun owners. Today, such political kibitzing is not necessary. Even under a recession, gun sales are brisk. The rush to buy firearms is more intense than in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Managers at gun stores report selling out of long guns the day after Obama was elected. Many dealers have a long waiting list of rifle buyers.

Let’s look back at the firearms industry under Bill Clinton. Here’s a full-page Opinion feature published on No. 9, 1997 in Southern California by The Press-Enterprise, a 160,000-daily owned by The Dallas Morning News:

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By Roni Toldanes

When 17-year-old Kim Rhode aimed her shotgun, fired astonishing shots and seized an Olympic gold medal in 1996, the entire firearms indus­try cheered, heralding her victory as a “shot in the arm” pro-gun advocates desperately needed.

Rhode’s shots continue to reverberate one year after her triumph.

The petite girl’s record-breaking Olym­pic performance injected excitement in the shooting sports and provided positive media image for American gun owners. Most important of all, it triggered a debate in the board rooms of firearms companies on how guns should be marketed to the public. Today, the double-barreled ques­tion is: Is it time for the firearm industry to become politically correct?

Just like the tobacco industry, firearm companies are reeling under a series of negative media reports, mostly due to horrible gun-related (and sometimes gang-related) crimes that usually hit the front pages of newspapers, plus the persis­tent media blitzkrieg launched by gun control groups.

Indeed, firearms industry executives acknowledge that under no administration in modern American political history has there been as much concern about the future of gun ownership as under the leadership of President Clinton.

This concern was underlined by a rare meeting last month at the White House. Executives representing 18 major gun manufacturers shook hands and had their pic­tures taken with Clinton, the person they’ve always joked about, caricatured and portrayed in industry cocktail parties as an utter buffoon.

From all indications, however, that meeting was a “savvy political move.” It sidestepped a potential showdown in Con­gress and preempted the likelihood of facing tougher gun legislation.

Industry analysts say the firearms in­dustry apparently made the move as an initial step towards public acceptance. Wally Arida, publisher of a shooting sports mag­azine, said firearms executives now real­ize that firearms, with a proper marketing campaign could become as acceptable as cigars.

As in the past few years, the debate on guns in the U.S. immerses the public in a discussion with the fervency and absolut­ism of a debate over religion. Opponents speak of guns as if they were satanic instruments, innately evil; gun fanciers wave copies of the Second Amendment as if it were a chapter from the Bible.

Firearms industry executives admit that crimes involving guns have hurt the public’s perception of gun owners. Even hunting, once considered part of Ameri­can tradition, has become repulsive for many people.

With attacks against gun ownership from both the domestic and international fronts, the firearms industry has started adjusting its sights.

Citing Rhode’s exam­ple, gun executives noted that the industry can gain an upper hand in the publicity war by marketing guns as sports shooting equipment, not tools for self-defense or weapons for mass destruction.

Rhode, of El Monte, has been described as the modern-day version of the legendary Old West sharpshooter Annie Oakley. She has appeared – while holding her shotgun  –  on numerous TV talk shows, including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, has graced the cover of several magazines and has been interviewed by scores of major newspapers. “Since the Olympics, I have collected 3,000 square feet of printed articles about her,” said Kim’s father and coach, Richard Rhode.

After Rhode’s Olympic performance, the shooting sports experienced an up­surge in membership as firearm companies threw in their support and started promoting the shooting sports as a whole­some family activity. More shooting disci­plines also began sprouting all over the country.

There’s a new gun game called Cowboy Action Shooting, which has attracted thousands of shooters. It gives men, women and children a chance to relive the past, wearing Old West clothing while shooting replica shotguns, revolvers and rifles.

Since last year, thousands of gun owners have also dusted off their pistols to join International Practical Shooting Confed­eration, a handgun tournament, after the International Olympic committee finally recognized it as a legitimate sport.

Several shooting organizations have also begun actively campaigning to intro­duce new gun owners to the shooting sports. The National Shooting Sports Foun­dation (NSSF) has embarked on several promos to attract writers in mainstream media, offering a $21,000 cash prize in a writing competition. It has also announced $60,000 in cash prizes for individuals who develop new shooting games this year.

Marketing toward women is a major focus. For example, when the first issue of Sports for Women Magazine hits the newsstands this month, Colt, one of the world’s biggest firearms companies, will sport in it a full-color ad featuring women who compete in shooting sports. It’s a signal that more and more women are joining the once male-dominated target sports and a new market is burgeoning.

“We predict that more shooters will visit target shooting facilities this year than ever before, fueled by an increase in first-­time shooters and women,” said Bob Delfay, president of the NSSF.

While range shooting opens up an incredible market, one firearm company CEO sees increased sales another way: “That’s an indication that guns are taking a positive turn towards political correctness.

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Roni Toldanes wrote columns for The Press-Enterprise, a major daily owned by The Dallas Morning News

(Roni Toldanes is the editor of GunGames, a nationally circulated shooting sports magazine)