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You wouldn’t guess that the nation’s economy is in the doldrums by looking at the activity on the floor of the Sands Expo & Convention Center in Las Vegas this week. This is the week of the annual SHOT Show, when tens of thousands of members of the firearms and outdoor sports industry make a pilgrimage to Las Vegas to attend the industry’s biggest trade event. Sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, or NSSF, SHOT stands for “shooting, hunting and outdoor trade.” It is where manufacturers, importers, dealers, wholesalers and distributors get together to examine wares, make connections and do business – lots of business.

As I’ve been making my way around the acres and acres of the exhibit hall, talking to old friends and meeting new folks, there are two things that are very clear: Business is good, but people are concerned about the future.

It has been suggested that Barack Obama should receive the title of Firearms Salesman of the Year for the past three years, but you find little interest in extending his tenure. Sentiment runs high (and high is an understatement) in favor of Mr. Obama being held to a single term.

Nonetheless, there is much concern about the Republicans’ ability to deliver a candidate who can defeat him. The consensus seems to be almost as opposed to Mitt Romney as they are to Obama. Romney’s enthusiastic support for an “assault weapons” ban when he was Governor of Massachusetts leaves gun owners mistrustful of him. Nor is the idea of a Republican-controlled Congress with Romney in the White House an especially reassuring prospect, since politicians tend to stand with their president.

Several people pointed toward the tragic murders in Tucson when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded and suggested that had Romney been president at that time, a ban on magazines over 10 rounds would almost certainly have been enacted. Republicans seem to excel at shooting themselves in the foot – particularly when they control both Congress and the White House – and the gun industry has noticed.

Support for Newt Gingrich seems higher, but still far from enthusiastic. Folks I spoke with felt that Gingrich had reneged on promises to work to repeal the Clinton “assault weapons” ban after gun voters had been so instrumental in sweeping Republicans into power in 1994. There is no question that Gingrich is saying all the right things to gun voters during the campaign, but we’ve heard him say the right things before. Even so, it is encouraging that he is making the effort to win over gun voters themselves and not simply kissing the rings of the high priests at the National Rifle Association. He has answered the Gun Owners of America surveys, and responded to queries from grassroots groups.

The most frequent comments I’ve heard about presidential candidates have been laments that Ron Paul couldn’t win the election. Paul is the most principled of the Republican candidates and holds the strongest views in support of the Second Amendment and citizens’ right to arms, but that favorable impression was almost universally dampened by a belief that he is unelectable. There were also concerns expressed about Paul’s positions on other issues, particularly the perception that he is an isolationist.

My perception is that this crowd has three main concerns about Dr. Paul: his electability, the speed with which he suggests he wishes to implement his aggressive agenda and the utter lack of support he would receive from both the Democrats and the Republicans in Washington. So far the Republican establishment continues to treat Paul and his increasingly popular libertarian views (which are much in line with the positions of the tea party) with disdain and dismissal rather than embracing and trying to co-opt those positions.

Listening to the talk here at SHOT, I am becoming more convinced that Paul could actually win the nomination if everyone who prefers him actually came out in support and voted for him rather than hedging their bets by playing the electability game.

With the elections up in the air, it is surprising that this industry continues to be one of the few that is really doing well, and no one seems to be able to explain the sector’s strength. Since late in 2008 when it began looking likely that Obama was going to be the next president, sales of firearms and ammunition have gone through the roof. Some have attributed the boom to fears that Obama was going to institute new firearms regulations and that consumers felt they’d better buy what they could before new laws and regulations made it impossible. That was certainly a part of it, particularly in 2009 when no one knew what to expect from the new, liberal president. But this is 2012, Obama has shown little interest in stirring up the wrath of gun owners, and his time in office could soon be coming to a close. Still, firearms sales for this past December topped all previous records with nearly 130,000 transactions on Black Friday alone.

At a time when the U.S. economy teeters on the brink of collapse, unemployment remains in double digits and crime is at record lows, it would seem strange that an industry considered to be driven by wants rather than needs is doing so well.

Prices on basic handguns generally start at around $400 and go up from there, with many production guns priced well over $1,000 and specialized or custom guns running up in the $4,000-5,000 range or more. Prices on rifles are similar, with basic bolt actions starting around $400 and prices on the popular AR platform rifles running from around $1,000 to well over $4,000. Shotguns run an even broader spectrum, with some models priced around $200 and top-of-the-line Perazzis listed at close to $100,000.

The point is, this is not an inexpensive hobby, nor is there any single, stand-out factor driving the market. More significant is that the boom is not restricted to just firearms and ammunition, but includes hunting and camping gear, archery equipment, truck accessories, boots, ropes and pocket knives – not to mention the whole law enforcement sector, which is also well represented here at the show.

Personally I see the boom being driven by a combination of factors with fear of restrictions being significant, but not overriding. I think the additional exposure and cultural acceptance of firearms and hunting in recent years – from political threats and posturing, to the Fast & Furious debacle, to TV shows like “Top Shot,” “Sons of Guns” and the ever-growing cable hunting shows.

Another major factor is the number of young people who have been introduced to shooting in exotic locales like Iraq and Afghanistan. We saw a similar surge in interest in the shooting sports at the end of World War II and even after the Civil War, when Northern generals founded a shooting group called the National Rifle Association.

Whatever the reasons, Americans are rediscovering the fun and utility of guns and the shooting sports, and they are putting their hard-earned money into it. If you haven’t tried this fun and useful pastime, I would encourage you to give it a shot. The National Shooting Sports Foundation provides tremendous resources for anyone interested at www.NSSF.org, including places to shoot and a free introductory program called First Shots.

Thomas Jefferson recommended shooting as a worthwhile pastime for developing discipline and building character. It also serves to help keep people safe and our country free – not to mention bolstering the economy. If you already enjoy shooting, share it with a friend. Either way I hope to see you at the range.

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