Are College Students A New Market For The NRA? I Haven’t Seen It Yet.

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Michael Rosenwald is a reporter for the Washington Post who goes wandering across the 14th Street bridge into Virginia and finds something he believes to be new and different with guns.  Back in January he discovered a new attraction called Elite Shooting Sports located near Dulles Airport, which combines a gun range with a snazzy café, wi-fi lounge and various other Milennial-type amenities.  Rosenwald promptly found four or five other such establishments popping up around the country and – voila! – a new trend in shooting sports was born.

Last week Rosenwald went across the bridge to Virginia again, then to Reagan Airport and ended up at MIT in Cambridge, MA where he discovered yet another new trend, in this case, a significant surge in shooting clubs and shooting activities on college campuses.  Not just a significant increase in campus shooting sports, but according to Rosenwald, a “phenomenal” increase.  MIT’s shooting program, like many campus programs, is partially funded by the gun industry through grants from the NSSF, along with additional support from the Midway Foundation, which is owned and operated by a very successful shooting accessories company from whom I have purchased my share of gear over the years.

free school                In addition to evidently spending some time on the MIT campus, Rosenwald tapped into a cute blog on the MIT admissions website posted by a member of the team, Lydia, who describes herself as feeling “really, really badass” when she shot her 22-caliber rifle and won a certificate at the end of the semester for competing in the “Top Gun” competition.  According to Lydia, shooting has taught her how to deal with pressure and, in the words of the team coach, never to “give up on the mission.” I’m sure that Lydia’s parents are relieved to know that the $60,000 yearly tuition fee is helping their daughter tighten her groups on the rifle range, but if Rosenwald believes that this kind of undergraduate pitter-patter is creating new customers for the gun industry, once again he’s showing his lack of knowledge about anything that has to do with guns.

If you do a story on the growth of shooting sports on college campuses, you should try and figure out whether this new trend will have any long-term impact on the gun industry as a whole.  I should add, by the way, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the gun industry promoting shooting sports in whatever venue they can find.  And notice that I say shooting ‘sports,’ as opposed to unending and nauseating attempts by the gun industry to justify its existence by pretending that armed citizens will protect us from crime.  If anything, college kids tend to be more liberal than the blue-collar demographic that usually owns guns; if Sarah Palin thinks she’ll get the same reception at the collegiate clay target championships that she receives at the annual meeting of the NRA, she’s may be in for a big surprise.

Back in 2012 I teamed up with GroupOn to offer a promotion on my range.  For a discounted price, folks could shoot 22-caliber and 9mm pistols at some zombie targets, and then get their picture on my Facebook page.  More than 400 GroupOn customers came to my shop, roughly half were women, they were mostly between 20 and 35, most had never shot a gun before, and the majority worked in medicine, engineering and IT.  Know how many guns I sold to this group over the following three years?  Exactly one.

College is the quintessential life experience which allows you to do lots of things that may or may not be important later on.  Which is why these students are having so much fun on the MIT rifle range.  But it’s a kind of fun that doesn’t necessarily turn them into shooters for life or even purchasers of a single gun.  And noisy campaigns to the contrary,  I don’t notice college administrations rushing to lift prohibitions against guns in classrooms or in dorms.

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Does Shooting A Gun Turn Someone Into A Gun Owner? I Don’t Think So.

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The Washington Post can usually be counted on to carry an article now and again that challenges the gun lobby on issues related to gun ownership, gun violence, or other contentious topics related to guns.  Recall that it was The Post which carried a multi-part, detailed series on gun dealers who sold most of the crime guns in northern Virginia, reportage which no doubt helped guide the Brady Organization to start up its “rotten apples” campaign against rogue dealers in Chicago and other locations.

rangeNow the Post has turned around and given a large, online editorial space to Michael Rosenwald, who went across the Potomac River to Manassas and evidently spent some time at the Elite Shooting Sports range, and then wrote an article describing the emergence of a new trend in the gun industry, something which he calls “guntry” ranges that allow patrons to rent guns and bang away either on a membership or per-try basis.  Most shooting ranges have a collection of guns that can be rented or used by visitors (the real revenue at a range is from ammunition sales) but what makes ranges like Elite different, according to Rosenwald, is these enterprises cater to a “younger, more affluent, style-focused, increasingly female and even environmentally conscious” customer base, quite unlike the gritty, hard-core, blue-collar gunnies and trigger-heads that usually hang around the local gun range.

Rosenwald mentions other guntry locations in South Beach, Florida, and a few spots around the country, all of which are catering, according to him, to a “new breed” of shooter.  And he paints a pretty accurate description of what he refers to as these “shooting retreats,” which, by the way, are usually part of a complex that includes a cigar lounge, a high-end restaurant, catering venues and other amenities that draw younger folks with a buck to spend.

That’s fine as far as it goes.  But the moment that Rosenwald stops writing about what he knows – business – and begins writing about what he doesn’t know – the gun business – mistakes and misstatements abound.  The truth is that there has yet to be any connection between the development of this business model, successful or not, and a penetration of gun sales into the younger, more affluent and more diverse population groups.  Try as they might, the gun lobby has been unable to persuade racial minorities, women or more affluent/educated folks of the value of owning guns, and Rosenwald’s comment that gun sales are now “leveling out” is remarkably disingenuous.  Does he really believe that a 40% decline in revenues of gun makers like Smith & Wesson and Ruger, along with major job layoffs, constitutes simply a leveling out?  What it means is that once Obama-fear disappeared, the gun industry has not been able to attract buyers beyond the traditional White, older, blue-collar demographic, even if the kids on occasion want to stop playing video shooting games and try the real thing.

Rosenwald quotes the NSSF that Americans spend $10 billion yearly on target shooting, but he also says that the industry as a whole tracked up $15 billion last year in sales.  Is he claiming that 2/3 of the revenue of the gun industry comes from people who just go out somewhere, set up a target and shoot their guns? That’s all fine and well except that hunters spend more than $38 billion annually on their hobby, and if you’re going to include in target shooting such expenditures as the cost of driving back and forth to the range, don’t you have to compare this number to the cost of driving back and forth to where someone went to hunt?

An article about the gun industry based on the unqualified statements of the NSSF may fill an op-ed piece for The Post, but it doesn’t help us understand the current debate about guns.  If it were the case that gun makers were finding new markets, then perhaps the whole discussion about gun safety would need to change.  Rosenwald may have found a new way in which Millennials spend their money, but shooting a gun and becoming a shooter are two very different things.

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