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Ruger investors press CEO on potential for profit surge in wake of Lewiston mass shooting

A Ruger AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, center, the same model, though in gray rather than black, used by the shooter in a Texas church massacre two days earlier, sits on display with other rifles on a wall in a gun shop Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Lynnwood, Wash.
Elaine Thompson
AP file
A Ruger AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, center, the same model, though in gray rather than black, used by the shooter in a Texas church massacre two days earlier, sits on display with other rifles on a wall in a gun shop Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Lynnwood, Wash.

One week after the shootings in Lewiston that killed 18 people and wounded 13, executives at Connecticut-based gunmaker Sturm Ruger held their quarterly earnings call for investors. Ruger manufactured and sold the assault-style rifle that was found in the gunman's car. And investors wanted to know if the company witnessed the typical surge in sales that often follows mass shootings.

Gun control advocates say that pattern is creating a doom loop of gun violence.

The third quarter of 2023 was a bit of a lull for publicly-traded Ruger. Sales were down compared to the same period last year, from $446 million to $413 million.

But Ruger CEO Christopher J. Killoy reassured investors during the Nov. 2 earnings call that marketing promotions for two pistols were working as intended; regulatory changes meant more handgun models could be sold in California; and new guns, including the same rifle believed to have been used by the Lewiston gunman, accounted for nearly a quarter of Ruger's third-quarter sales.

"We are well positioned heading into the fourth quarter," Killoy said.

The Ruger CEO never mentioned the mass shooting in Lewiston specifically, nor the Israel-Hamas war that's sparking unrest here in the U.S. — and reportedly prompting some Jewish Americans to arm themselves.

But those events were top of mind for Ruger investors. They wanted Killoy to assess whether October, which included the Lewiston shooting and the Hamas attacks, would bring a surge in demand for Ruger guns in the fourth quarter.

Killoy said it was too soon to tell, but there were positive signs.

"You know, there may be some good demand signals coming, for all the wrong reasons, perhaps, but we're watching that very closely," he said.

Gun control advocate Margaret Groban, a retired federal prosecutor and member of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said those reasons are what the gun industry uses to supercharge sales.

"There's personal fear, like self-defense justifications for buying guns and then also concern about potential laws that could restrict gun access," she said. "So I think it's dual concerns."

It has only been three weeks since the Lewiston shootings, but there was a 38% increase in Maine gun sales from September to October, according to estimates based on National Instant Criminal Background Check data.

The same data also show a modest bump in sales nationally.

But investors on the Ruger earnings call wanted Killoy's take on whether the trend would be more enduring, like it was between 2020 and 2022, when the pandemic and domestic political upheaval yielded 60 million gun sales, according to The Trace, a news outlet covering gun violence.

Many were new customers. And for gun makers like Ruger, new customers are potentially returning customers.

"It (the pandemic) did bring a lot of new customers into the fold and that's always helpful in terms of the ability to get the new customers to go from being a one-gun purchase to potentially a multi-gun purchase and try to get into segments of the shooting sports that they can enjoy long-term," Killoy said during the earnings call.

Killoy couched the sales potential as new interest in shooting sports. But Billy Clark, a litigation attorney for the Giffords Law Center, notes that the question Killoy was responding to was about customers interested in self-defense.

"As we've seen a decline in hunting and shooting sports being popular, you've seen this increase in marketing driven towards self-defense and the duty to protect yourself and the duty to protect your family from a dangerous world," he said.

Clark said the self-defense pitch is a myth and cites a range of statistics to prove his point — increased risk of suicide and homicide, deadly outcomes in domestic violence disputes and accidental shootings.

Still, the prevalence of mass shootings at schools, places of worship and now a bowling alley and bar in Lewiston, Maine, has created a public sense of insecurity that has benefited the gun industry by way of increased sales and new customers.

During the Ruger earnings call, one investor wondered if recent events might prompt more people to reconsider their support for gun control.

Killoy, who could not be reached for this story, was unsure, but hopeful.

"I'd like to think it wakes people up to the idea that while they may not have considered a firearm purchase in the past, now they have and they realize that Second Amendment rights are worth supporting, and maybe they do reconsider some of their previous political beliefs," he said.

Gun control advocates are hoping for a different political shift, including support for overhauling a law that has largely shielded gunmakers from civil liability in mass shootings.

One such bill stalled in the Maine Legislature last spring, but lawmakers will reconsider it next year.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.
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