I've been wanting to write up my observations on panics in the gun industry since Parabellum's "It's Quiet" thread a while back. It was good advice back then and it still is. Much of this will be "Econ 101" for many, but I hope that there may be some industry-specific tidbits that some of you may find useful.
I arrived on the gun-scene when the the 1994-2004 AWB was still in effect. Despite the fact that the ban has since sunsetted, is provisions are now a permanent part of my gun-owning history. And if there is anything true of gun-owners, it is that we remember. I also observed the California Panic of '99 ("SB23"), the Obama-just-got-elected panic of '08, and finally the post Sandy Hook panic of '13 (of which some of the effects are still with us). In the last panic, I was both a customer (always will be) and a shop-keep, so I hope some of my observations, coming from the other side of the counter, will be of use to you. Maybe some of what I'm going to share will help you answer not so much the "what" but the "how?" "why?" and "when?" of a gun panic.
Gun Control Milleu—A Brief Survey
Our small shop, Curt's Discount Shooters' Supply, is known locally for its level of service industry knowledge. Everyone who works there is a shooter and has some industry connections whether that be relevant military experience, reloading expertise, armoring services, or direct lines to manufacturers. Our customers know this and often ask us for our opinions on a variety of topics, including gun control. My answer to them is usually the same: "Gun control is an inherently illogical enterprise, so using logic to predict what the next piece of gun control legislation will look like in detail is a losing proposition." That having been said, we as gun owners have other tools at our disposal, other than logic. The crystal ball may be cloudy, but it is not entirely opaque.
An example of this is Bill Ruger's attempts to game the Feds into banning magazines capacities over 15 rounds. According to some, this would have helped him sell his pistols which were being roundly curb-stomped by Glock's "high capacity" G17 and G19. Ruger would have been better served trying to catch a fart in a fishing net. The problem with Ruger's suggestion was that the politicians didn't just stick with the plan, they became positively inspired—their volatile aspirations for gun control easily escaped Ruger’s market-based logic. Ruger's suggestion of 15 rounds quickly became 10 rounds. And that's what we were stuck with for the next ten years. Why not 12 rounds? Why not 8? Why not 5, which is the legal hunting limit in most states? (in fact, NY’s Andrew Cuomo did succeed in making a NY state’s current limit of 7 rounds) The number isn’t logical, nor should it be: don't try to figure it out. If you do, it will only mean that you've achieved the same depth of stupidity that the politician authors did.
I would argue instead, that the best predictor of the future of gun control is, ironically, historical record. Setting aside the NFA, which wasn't really a ban, and the Reagan's 1986 MG ban (which, arguably was and is the nation's only true "Assault Rifle" ban), most current gun control legislation is based on California’s "Roberti-Roos" 1989 Assault Weapons Control Act. No one really remembers this ban, even Californians, since California has since come up with even more draconian legislation in recent years. That precedent for measuring "evil features" (pistol grip, 'nade launcher, collapsible/telescoping stock, bayonet lug, flash hider) came from this piece of legislation. They were since adopted into the '89 import ban, the 1994 Federal AWB and multiple state-level AWBs. The 1994 Federal AWB even went so far as to copy the “named guns” list of the ’89 Roberti-Roos bill. So, if you were dialed in, you could have predicted some of the 1994 Federal AWB as early as 1989, when the '89 Federal import ban copied salient features from the ‘89 Roberti-Roos California AWB.
So, LDD, what do you think the next targets will be, based on historical reference? Until black rifles are banned out of existence, they will continue to be targets of legislation, as will magazines over ten rounds (regardless of whether they are used in rifles, pistols, or shotguns). Lots of reasons for this, but that discussion doesn’t fit into the scope of this article. Either large caliber rifles (including bolt-action) or small-size handguns are likely to be next.
Gun control advocates have the inherent need to make each piece of legislation more "significant" (i.e. onerous) than the last. Gun owners on a national level, however, tend to believe that the next ban will look exactly like the last one (ban state residents know better). This belief exists for one reason: the 1994 Federal AWB had a built-in sunset clause. The 1994 Federal AWB was passed under such unpopular circumstances that in order to get it through the legislature, it had to have a built-in expiration to get enough votes to pass. That is, "if we pass this in 1994, it will automatically die in 2004 unless it is renewed." Diane Feinstein (D, CA), one of the chief architects of the bill conceded at the time, in a 60 minutes interview: “If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them . . . Mr. and Mrs. America, turn 'em all in, I would have done it. I could not do that. The votes weren't here.” The rest is history.
This opt-in clause and the Federal legislature's failure to renew the 1994 AWB in 2004 is arguably the only case in which gun control has ever moved from restrictiveness to permissiveness (state-level CCW legislation, and LEO-specific allowances notwithstanding). But because the 1994 Federal AWB went away non-ban-state gun owners tend to think it will come back in the same form. This is, in my opinion, an unlikely possibility. There’s really no evidence to support the case that gun-control advocates want a do-over of the 1994 AWB. In a lot of ways gun control advocates don’t see the 1994 AWB as successful because it was neither far reaching nor permanent enough for them. If they get the chance at bat again, they’re going to want a home run, not a bunt.
Any new AWB, as supported by trends in NY, CA, CT and CO, is likely to be more onerous than the original Federal AWB and is even more unlikely to contain a sunset clause, again due to Gun Control advocates wanting to do "better" with each successive try. Additionally, Gun Control Advocates are capable of learning from past mistakes. The national "preban" market of 1994-2004 was an unintended consequence of the way the 1994 Federal AWB was written. Concepts like being able to transfer "preban" items were mistakes that they are unlikely to allow if current CA, CO, and NY legislation is any indicator.
The bottom line is, if you are a hobbyist, buy what you want now. Once you have it, it’s very difficult for civil authorities to take it away simply by declaring it illegal. Folks always fear door-to-door confiscation, but that would be difficult on a state-level, even more so on a national scale. Gun Control is the death of liberty by a thousand cuts. And those who oppose freedom have time to play the long game if their legislation moves progressively in the direction they want it to, which, historically, they have every reason to believe is true.
A Time to Panic?
Each panic has specific stages, we’ll conduct our examination in chronological order. We’ll start this examination by looking at two factors that generally, together, initiate a panic.
The Inciting Incident is your first clue that a panic may be coming. In the gun market, the most common type of inciting incident is a mass shooting. The 1989 Roberti-Roos and ’89 import bans were sparked by the January 17th “Stockton Schoolyard Shooting” where Patrick Purdy killed 5 children and wounded and additional 29 before killing himself. The 1994 Federal AWB could be seen as a delayed reaction to the same incident above, but was also influenced by the 101 California Street shooting in which eight adults were murdered and five were wounded (killer committed suicide—I am not counting him among the victims). New York’s SAFE Act and Connecticut’s latest revisions to their assault weapons bans were reactions to the December 14th, 2012 Sandy Hook Massacre. Colorado’s 2013 magazine ban, etc was a reaction to the July 20th, 2012 movie theater killings in which 12 people were murdered and an additional 70 were wounded.
What is the difference between a “mass shooting” and an inciting incident? Certainly not all mass shootings produce gun control legislation. The infamous April 20th, 1999 Columbine shooting may have influenced the passage of California’s SB23 (effective January 1st 2000) but didn’t produce legislation on the Federal level, nor did the April 16th, 2007 Virginia Tech shooting which was by far, the deadliest mass shooting in US history (with 32 victims murdered, 17 wounded). Any mass shooting could become an inciting incident, but to do so, it must be accompanied by the reasonable threat of anti-gun legislation—enough to provoke the market to action.
To that end, gun control is an inherently divisive and unpopular subject. In order for the freedoms of the people to be curtailed, there must be a compelling reason for doing so. Mass shootings are useful to anti-gun advocates because they can be interpreted as tangible evidence for increasingly restrictive measures. But there is one principle to remember when evaluating mass shootings: life is a circus. The American public gets jaded. And just like a stuntman who must jump 50 cars this time to impress the same audience that stood on their feet clapping for yesterday’s 25 car jump, something has to set the next inciting incident apart.
It’s not just how many people get killed. It’s also who gets killed. Nidal Malik Hassan murdered 13 people and wounded an additional 30. Additionally, Hassan used what might be the bugaboo of all pistols, the FN FiveseveN, replete with “high penetration” ammunition and “ultra-high capacity magazines.” This case should have been a slam dunk for the anti-gunners. Except that it happened on a military base and the victims were soldiers. I believe is a specific reason why this incident did not provoke threats of legislation or subsequent panic.
But let’s also mention three additional shootings, the June 1st 2009 Little Rock Recruitment center shooting (1 murdered), the July 16th, 2015 Chattanooga Recruitment center shootings (5 murdered, 2 wounded) and the September 16th 2013 DC Naval Yard shooting (12 murdered, 3 wounded). None of these resulted in any attempt at wide-spread gun control either. All three also happened in “gun-free” zones (just like schools). But, the measures proposed to combat these incidents were widely ridiculed (“close the blinds” etc). And it’s not because they were considered “terrorism” instead of crime, because they weren’t: the US Department of Defense continues to classify the Fort Hood shooting as “workplace violence” to this day.
The difference is, in one word: Innocence. The soldiers murdered in these incidents weren’t better prepared, armed, or up-armored than regular folks doing their jobs in civilian gun-free zones. But they were adults, and they are viewed by the American public as warriors (pogues or not), somehow more able to absorb the tragedy that befell them (and perhaps even deserving of it, to some ultra-left sectors of American society who would otherwise support a gun control agenda).
School children, be they the victims in Stockton or Sandy Hook, however, are not. Instead, they embody the nation’s ideals of innocence and youth. Unlike soldiers or college students, these victims had something that a majority of the public can empathize with. Not everyone was in the military, not everyone was in college. But everyone was a child once. In order for a mass shooting to have a long enough and deep enough impact to generate legislative action, it has to make a big enough splash on the American psyche and that is through perceived “fictive kinship” with the victims (“fictive kinship” is a concept popularized by Melissa Harris Perry, irrespective of her liberal leanings, it is a useful and wholly applicable concept in this case). If most of America feels something in common with the victims of a shooting (or better, yet, can see themselves as the victims) they are more likely to do something about it-thus politicians are more likely to feel empowered to propose otherwise unpopular legislation following a school shooting as opposed to an attack on a military base or other “adult” institution such as a college or workplace.
There is a trend here, particularly with regard to the inversely proportional relationship of impact vs age of the victims. I will refrain saying anymore, or giving concrete hypothetical examples because I am no way interested in proposing a roadmap for the next inciting incident/mass shooting. However, I hope I’ve said enough for perceptive readers to see the direction of my theory.
There may be one exception to the above relationship between age and impact. At this point it is theoretical, and I sincerely hope it stays that way, but that exception is police officers. You might think that police officers would be viewed more like military than children, but in this case there is a specific reason why attacks on police officers are often viewed differently than those against military forces.
From my observations, there is almost an expectation that our military will be attacked and that those attacks, however domestic they may be, somehow are separate and exclusive from those attacks on civilians (as if Americans in the military were attacked because they were military, as opposed to being attacked because they were Americans). While illogical, this is very different from the way that police officers/LEOs, who are by definition more domestically oriented, are viewed.
Probably the best way to explain this is that the military is used by politicians to project power “over there,” while police are used to project power “here at home.” Of course “over there” (terrorism, foreign soil, etc) can’t be dealt with by legislation, ergo, politicians have no legislative answer for attacks on the military. However, since an attack on police/law enforcement is a domestic incident, it can be “answered” with legislation. If a politician passes a law, who will enforce that law? Domestic law enforcement. Therefore at attack on domestic law enforcement is a direct attack on a politician’s power. This is particularly the case for liberal politicians who believe that the police, and politicians who control those police, should be the only ones in possession of firearms (i.e. The Master gets mad when you attack the Master’s house with the “Master’s tools”).
Domestic law enforcement represents everyday security—and if that security is insecure (as in the case of the 1997 North Hollywood shootout) then it would be easy to make the case that there is only one kind of security (state security) and that any means necessary to achieve the safety of the state are justifiable. I would suggest that this is one significant reason why HR218 (Nationwide LEO carry) was so easily accepted on a Federal level when national concealed carry is not.
A second type of inciting incident, while less common, is somewhat more predictable: political uncertainty. If an anti-gun politician, or group of politicians is elected, this can trigger a panic. Obama’s victory in ’07 led the Panic of ’08, but in reality, the panic started in late ’07, long before Obama’s official swearing in on January 20th of the following year.
The Rumor Press: Anticipated vs Actual legislative response
The important thing to remember as a consumer is that the market moves faster than the legislature and while the legislators are often driven by a tenuous grasp of the facts, if any, the market is driven by an even more volatile fuel: pure speculation. Shortly after Obama’s initial election in ’07, rumors began popping up that this new president would initiate a 5-cent ammunition tax and some new form of AWB. This drove both the ammunition and reloading components markets into a tizzy, in addition to the more predictable AR/Magazine market rush. In reality, had Obama attempted political suicide by enacting gun control as the very first measure he took on it office, we still would have been months away from seeing actual legislation.
In reality, the 5-cent ammunition tax/new AWB rumor comes up every democrat-heavy political election cycle. And while a new AWB might be more realistic, both measures none-the-less require both executive and legislative buy-in which takes tremendous amounts of time (particularly the introduction of any new form of tax). Tangentially, one might even wonder if Seattle’s surreal 2015 passage of an illegal 5-cent per round ammunition tax (the only one in existence) was not in fact, inspired by the fiction dreamed up by ammo-dealers or panicky gun owners, in order to move their wares.
If you wait for actual legislation before buying what you want, chances are, if it is a commodity item, you won’t like the price you’ll see when you get to the store (if it’s even available by that time). This is why it’s so important to be able to recognize an inciting incident and feel how the market is reacting to it. Of course, it’s better to have what you need now and avoid the rush, but that’s not always financially possible.
In summary, your only two chances to buy before the panic hit are before or immediately after the inciting incident. Hopefully the following will help you figure out what to buy and when, and possibly even what to trade away for that piece that you really need to finish your build.
Panic Mode—Influences on Demand and the origin of parts
In general, the things which will be snapped up most quickly during a panic can be identified using several pre-requisites:
1) Relatively low initial entry cost
2) Common/popular usage, large pre-existing user pool.
3) Widely available
4) Perceived demand (known product)
We’re talking about things like AR lowers, AR magazines, and Glock magazines. Why? Because there is a huge pre-existing market for these items, they are fairly inexpensive to begin with (and thus can appreciate several times over and still be realistically flippable) and easy to get, at least initially.
During the scare of ’13, both Glock 19 magazines and FiveseveN magazines dried up. But the market for standard capacity Glock 19 magazines is much larger (we even had LEOs come to us looking for them for duty guns) and the initial buy-in cost on Glock magazines, even at full retail, is much lower than a factory FiveseveN magazine and the pool of users is much larger for the Glock magazines.
With the AR market, I tell customers “There are many rabbits, but few magicians.” That is, there are few true manufacturers in this market. That is why, when you see X outfit out of stock on-line and you go searching for more, everyone you find is also out-of-stock.
There are only a few foundries that make the basic stripped uppers and lowers. These are produced as ingots (0% upper/lower) which are then purchased by machine-shops who do some work on the outside, but mostly hog out the insides of the ingots to form the shapes that we recognize as lowers or uppers.
The outfit whose stamp you see on the side of the lower is either a machine shop that machines the lower or an FFL that has a variance agreement with the machine shop that did the actual machine work. As far as I know, there are no foundries with FFLs and anodizing divisions that own the process from ingot to finished-serialized-lower.
During the Panic of ’13, I was doing research and found that Anderson, the most prolific lower manufacturer (who, I believe has variances for at least half a dozen major brands that you would instantly recognize) was unable to meet demand because they could not get enough 0% lowers. I suspect ingot forgings by the foundries are scheduled months, if not years in advance, which means that any pronounced spike in demand that eats up the existing supply of finished lowers would easily spill over and cause a shortage of on-hand ingots (which will then be competed over not only by the various FFL’d machine shops/”manufacturers” who serve “manufacturers” but also independent non FFL’d machine shops looking to cash in on the 80% lower market).
Note: Cero Forge “Keyhole” forge mark appears in both the finished lower and the “0%” ingot. Both are products of Cero Forge. Cero Forge also makes upper and lowers for Colt. Though it’s is likely that many “manufacturers” do not have single-source requirements and take bids from different foundries since, whether the lower is in-specification depends largely on post-ingot mill-work (which the machine-shops/manufacturers themselves control).
AR lowers and uppers aside, there are also few LPK makers out there. I actually don’t know a single company that makes their entire LPK from scratch (Knights and Daniel Defense might—DD claims to source everything in-house). Again, many rabbits, few magicians. For most outfits that may call themselves “manufacturers” but are actually assemblers by function, machining LPKS or lowers in-house doesn’t make sense financially when that function can be so easily and economically outsourced under normal non-panic circumstances.
The panic of ’13 was so widespread that even BCGs and charging handles became scarce. Standard CH seem relatively easy to manufacture, but BCGs took a while to come back. Again probably because there weren’t that many machine-shops that made them to begin with. The good thing about uppers, BCGS and the other non-regulated parts is that there’s no FFL/SOT required to make these items, so machine shops that would otherwise be doing auto/aerospace/etc parts can be enlisted to make these pieces (and why these markets tend to recover more quickly than ammunition, lowers, or complete rifles). Indeed some of the BCGs that I bought following the ban (and still have) were a product of this “market expansion” where non-gun makers chose to cash in on pronounced demand from a market segment that they had not previously served. It’s a good thing because even if they leave the AR market in slack times, they’ll have the experience and programs needed to make a rapid re-entry (reducing the chance that we’ll see $300 phosphate-no-name BCGs again).
Panic Mode--100-50-25-12 Theory (a.k.a. “100-50-25”)
This is general theory which I devised and use to explain AR parts shortages during panics. The exact percentages vary regionally, but the principles remain the same. The rule goes like this: For every 100 AR stripped lower receivers that are sold, 50 will go on to become complete lower receivers (requiring LPK, and stock kits), 25 of those 50 will then become complete rifles, and 12 of those will receive optics/extra kitting of some sort.
Stripped AR lowers tend to be one of the two major demand commodities in a panic market (the other being AR magazines). This occurs for a number of reasons, the first being political: ARs have been the target of nearly ever successful and unsuccessful gun control measure since 1994. And AR lowers are the basic building block of the AR. But AR lowers are also an appreciable commodity since they can be had relatively cheaply and thus there’s much more room for percentage increase. An AR lower that appreciates even 200% of its normal $89 is much more attainable than the result of a similar percentage increase for, say an FN SCAR-17 at a non-panic base of ~$2,700.
Whenever there’s a gun panic, and in particular AR panics, people run out to buy lower receivers. These people can be divided into two categories: those that already own lowers, and those that do not. In general, people who already have lowers tend to purchase more than those who never owned one before. This can be chalked up to a variety of reasons some being technical familiarity (thus willingness to invest a purchase of multiple lowers), a greater understanding of the potential for a ban, etc. The lowers purchased by this category of people tend to stay as stripped lowers since their owners already have at least one fully assembled AR already. Thus lowers purchased during ban scares by those who already own ARs mostly become “rainy day” items. One or two might be built up, but there’s no rush.
While the number of multiple lower purchases comprises, in my experience, mostly of “collectors” there can be an equal or larger number of lowers sold in singles and pairs to individuals who simply want to make sure they get theirs before the ban. Such newcomers are usually more hesitant to buy in quantity, but since they don’t already have multiple ARs, they tend to “follow through” on their purchases till they become complete rifles. They’re also willing to pay more for lower receivers and thus tend to drive/maintain “late market” pricing increases.
Lowers that remain stripped exercise no influence on the second tier commodities such as stock kits and LPKs. However, the sudden influx of new AR lower owners does because these folks do want their build finished. So why doesn’t the guy who just bought 2-3 lowers and doesn’t have an AR already build up all three of his receivers? Because the cost of subsequent parts (second, third, and fourth tier products) rises following the increase in price of lowers as other buyers scramble for the same parts to also finish their builds. 10,000 lowers of all makes and models being sold in three weeks will result in a shortage of lower parts kits and stock kits. Finishing a single AR in such market conditions can be challenging (with phosphate BCGs running $300 and LPK at $150), now multiply that by the number of lowers you want to finish and it soon becomes economically unviable to try to finish multiple builds during a panic. Most new buyers tend to find that one, or two at most, complete rifles is enough and choose to wait out the rush. Such new buyers may not even be sure they want an AR at all, they just don’t want the gov’t telling them they can’t have one in the future. Thus even if new owners do purchase multiple lowers, they tend not to finish building all of them at that time.
In the above graphic (not to scale), demand starts at the bottom and diminishes the further up the chart you go. The narrowing shape of the triangle, as you proceed up the tiers, also indicates the diminishing number of lowers/finished units that make it to the next tier. Thus while shortages in a previous tier indicate the transfer of demand, items at the upper tiers see much less demand and price fluctuation (if any at all) than items lower down and the overall number of lowers that get topped off with an NVG/Thermal sight is much less than the number of stripped lowers purchased during the panic, overall.
There is also somewhat of a negative feedback aspect the top where people have to choose between a very expensive accessory , or buying more basic commodities like lowers and magazines. This often discourages the purchase of tier three, four, and five items in favor of items that are more likely to either A) get banned, or B) appreciate in value (lowers and magazines primarily).
Ultimately, this theory explains why, even when the price of magazines and lowers increases 300%, the cost of a quality optic, tactical light, bipod, or set of NVGs remains the relatively steady. As you go up the tree, there is less demand for the item in that tier than the tier below it. It also explains the lag between when a lower reaches price apogee at 300% and when an upper receiver or BCG sees the same percentage of pricing increase and why items further up in tier level tend to appreciate less. For consumers, it’s a good way to look at what commodity will next see a price increase and for retailers, 100-50-25-12 is a way to anticipate demand/commodity minimums in terms of stock-on-hand.
Magazines, while an integral part of the firearm, should fit in tier two. But because they are specifically targeted by legislation the case could be made that they should reside in tier one. However, since they generally don’t have an effect on other AR components, they don’t really fit in the graph at tier one. That having been said, the war-on-magazines might actually justify taking them out of the graph and making them their own category entirely simply because they are so fiercely targeted by legislation as their own stand-alone entity.
We’ve already touched on standard capacity magazines for ARs and Glocks. These are going to be the two primary market drivers and bellwethers for a panic market. If you see AR magazines start flying off the shelves, expect Glock magazines to go next (everyone either has a Glock or knows someone who does). Any 7.62x39 AR owner would be served well to stock up on 7.62x39 magazines as they tend to be relatively rare and when .223/5.56 goes up, AR owners may seek other calibers which are “cheaper” to shoot—which naturally leads to a demand for 7.62x39 accessories. Pistol magazines tend to be much more diverse—with the exception of Glock magazines, the pistol mag market is much more segmented and harder to predict. Predicting a general rise in pricing of magazines over ten rounds is easy, but other than Glock magazines easily doubling in pricing (with the extended G18 style leading the pack), it’s hard to predict what would next in terms of the most popular/in-demand magazine.
A relatively new development in the AR market has been ARs in the .308 class. These magazines tend to be more expensive than 5.56 magazines (sometimes astronomically so: e.g. Larue Tactical’s 20 round 7.62 magazines @ $79 each and Knight’s SR-25 magazines @ $124 each). While most SR-25/AR-10A/DPMS pattern guns would be adequately served by the humble PMAG LR/SR, even these magazines saw a 300% price increase during the last panic. Though the pool of .308 AR users remains smaller than the pool of 5.56 AR users, .308 users also tend to purchase fewer magazines per gun than respective 5.56 AR users, so when the panic comes, so does the pinch. This probably explains the price increase during the ’13 panic, though it remains to be seen whether the trend will continue in the next panic.
My personal opinions aside, PMAGS are THE magazine for the AR-15 market, which is why I keep a number around NIW, in case I should have to trade for an upper receiver or bbl, etc. [applying 100-50-25-12 theory here] Since I know that PMAGs will likely appreciate both prior to and more than BBLs, uppers, or BCGs do, in a panic market, I know that my trade offerings are likely to keep up with or outpace the value of that which I am trading for. Additionally, since magazines do not require FFLs for transfer (even out of state), they are generally superior to stripped lowers as panic-currency.
If you stash some lower-tier items specifically for trading during panics, you’ll also not feel bad when you have to let them go. Even more so, if you don’t have any particular affinity towards those items.
Panic Mode—Finished non-AR MSRs
Non-AR Modern Sporting Rifles also see a price increase during the panic. Probably the most pronounced are the imports and lower-priced AKs. The later occurs because MSR demand is sympathetic to the AR market and their prices can increase and still create viable sales. The former is uniquely affected by foreign production sources: i.e. supply of imports are more vulnerable than domestically manufactured items (traditionally easier to ban imports, e.g. the ’89 import ban/EO which hurt FN, Styer, and HK badly). The “get it now before you can’t” effect still applies though, but because we are talking about relatively more expensive complete firearms vs $100 lower receivers, these items tend to be less accessible (most people would rather buy 4 lowers than 1 AK).
During the last panic, our store had a number of customers who, while owning multiple ARs (and being somewhat bored with them), couldn’t get enough of the just-released Tavors. While this market is small, it definitely exists and shouldn’t be underestimated by retailers.
I have a general rule when observing panics: Watch .223/5.56. If you get to the store and you can’t find .223/5.56, then buy 9mm. If you can’t buy .223/5.56 or 9mm, then buy .22lr. If you can’t buy either of those three, you’re too late.
But LDD, .22lr is still hard to get! Yup, that’s because we’re are still looking at the long tail of the last panic. We’ll get to .22lr, but in terms of a nominal market that is not afflicted with a pre-existing condition of panic, it’s not the bell weather cartridge—or at least historically hasn’t been.
That place has typically been occupied by .223/5.56. Why? Because AR15s predominantly shoot .223/5.56 and those are the guns that politicians have typically gone about attempting to ban. The people who will react to a gun panics are .223/5.56 owners. A grab for ammunition is a natural extension of the grab for ARs/lower receivers/MSRs. Furthermore, ban scares have a tendency to encourage folks who never wanted an AR before, to get one in their collections. And guess what these AR owners will want to go along with their 5.56 guns? 5.56/.223 ammunition. Additionally, since they didn’t start out with a pre-existing supply, and they are just now entering a panic market, buying a case of 500 rounds doesn’t sound so excessive. You might be able to image what kind of impact this sudden influx of first-time buyers would have on existing retail ammunition stocks? There is a direct connection between politicians’ attempts to ban guns, and the impact that perspective bans have on the supply of available ammunition.
And then there are the very real attempts by BATFE to target rounds like the M855/SS109 as “armor piercing.” The average hunt-only gun owner isn’t worried about his stock of .243 or 7mm Rem running low. 40 rounds is plenty enough to get through the season. But ask any .223/5.56 AR owner if 40 rounds of 5.56 is enough. 9mm also falls into a similar category—it’s also perceived to be cheap to shoot and there are a lot of guns out there that consume it. People who purchase ammunition for defensive use tend to be more rigorous in their requirements for that ammunition, both in terms of quality and quantity-kept-on-hand.
Ok, so what about .22LR? .22LR is actually a really interesting case of fixed supply/increasing demand. This tiny cartridge is really the perfect storm. As I’ve told customers: “There are many rounds that can kill a man, but there’s only one that can make him sit up and beg—the mighty .22LR!” Let’s look at the supply side of .22LR:
1) .22LR is the least profitable per round cartridge to manufacture. And while we as consumers may be paying more per round than we ever have, that does not mean that manufactures like Federal, CCI, (actually both are owned by ATK), or Remington are making more money per round.
2) The machines that make .22LR cannot make any other cartridge.
If you don’t make a lot of money per round, and you can’t use that machine to make rounds that are more profitable, that really puts the damper on expansion plans for .22LR production. I haven’t been able to confirm that the machines that make .22LR are more expensive to set up than centerfire ammunition machines, but I suspect this to be the case due to the specialized nature of .22LR manufacturing.
Companies can’t base their long-term profitability on panic figures. If the market slackens, they’re stuck with a line of minimally profitable machines making ammunition that the market expects to buy “cheap.” These machines are highly specialized and will take many years of constant production to pay off. The panic of 07-08 did include a small run on .22LR, but didn’t last anywhere near this long. I don’t really fault ammunition companies for not adding production—they might be considering it now, but they had no reason to consider it before. So, no help from the supply side.
Now the demand side:
1) When prices of .223/5.56/9mm/.40/.45 etc rise shooters tend to look for something that is perceived to be less expensive. And even though someone might have bought .223 at $0.25 per round “a long time ago,” that stockpile of 10,000 rounds that was purchased for a quarter per round will now be perceived as “worth” $0.80 per round, or whatever that round appreciates to, during the panic. In other words, shooters tend to evaluate their stocks based on replacement cost, rather than initial purchase cost. It’s understandable that someone wouldn’t want to shoot up their new nest-egg. But they still want to shoot: this makes .22LR an attractive choice. It’s perceived as the go-to cheap caliber & centerfire alternative. And, up to the last month of 2012, we had been spoiled by the relative ease of finding bulk .22 LR.
2) .22LR caliber guns tend to be cheaper than centerfire analogs. With the economic barrier to entry lower, and reputation for tame handling characteristics, more people own .22LRs than any other caliber.
3) Everyone shoots .22LR: Boy scouts, people who don’t own any other caliber, casual shooters, competitors, beginners, pros, varmint hunters, suppressor enthusiasts, etc. It’s shot out of bolt guns, wheel guns, single shots, lever actions, pump-actions, semi-auto pistols and rifles, and even some MGs.
4) No one reloads .22LR. This is a big one. Reloaders take pressure off the centerfire rifle and centerfire pistol caliber markets. Not so with .22LR.
So .22LR really is the confluence of increasing demand and limited supply. Some of it can be imported to relieve supply-side strain (Aquilla, Eley, Wolf Gold, etc), but the cost of importing, plus the normally stiff domestic bulk market means that most of the imported .22LR that comes in is specialized in terms of being subsonic or match. In other words, .22LR importers normally have to differentiate their products from widely available domestic offerings in order to make such importation worth-while. Thus, when the normally easy-to-get bulk domestic production dries up, foreign producers/importers may not be in a position to have on-hand or offer otherwise economically-unfeasible foreign bulk .22LR stocks (some outfits that specialize in small runs of match-grade ammunition might not even be set up to make bulk .22LR).
Panic Mode—Reloading Components
In ‘07-’08 the panic in this sector of the market largely revolved around primers. I believe this was basically a misfire by market speculators. Primers, as it turns out, aren’t that expensive and can be easily stockpiled. Powder, on the other hand, is a little bit harder to come by and store in massive quantities. The panic of ’13 seems to have proven this to be the case as, in some parts of the country, pistol powder is still hard to get.
So what’s the deal behind powder shortages? I recently had a rather memorable interaction with a customer who was looking for Varget. It’s something we try to carry whenever we can get our hands on it and we just happened to be out. When I told him we had none he glared at me like I had just told him I’d just got back from sleeping with his wife and his daughter in the same afternoon. And this happened in September of 2015, almost three years after the events of Sandy Hook, which initially set off the panic in reloading components (among other things).
Some of the same factors are at play in the powder market as in the AR parts market. IMR, Hodgdon, and Winchester powders are actually different brands of the same company. So, again, many rabbits, few magicians.
Additionally, some popular powders are shipped into the US from international sources and repackaged domestically. This means that US consumers of said powders are at the end of a long supply chain (along with all the dangers that such an arrangement entails). This is why you will see “made in X, bottled in the USA” tags on some powders. International sources vary. Vihtavouri powder is made in Finland. Hodgdon Varget, H1000, Benchmark, and International are all made in Australia. IMR 3031, 4064, 4320, 800-X, 700-X, and many others are imported from Canada. Alliant 10X, Reloader 25, AR-Comp, and Reloader 17 are made in Sweden. Reloader 33 is made in Switzerland. Sourcing is probably at least part of the reason why the supply of powder seems pulsy—that is when you find it you find a lot of it, then it disappears. A big shipment of it comes in, it’s repackaged for sale, and if stocks are depleted then you have to wait till the next boat from Sweden, Australia, etc arrives.
Sourcing alone doesn’t answer the whole question of “where did my favorite powder go?” Popular pistol powders like Alliant Bullseye and Unique are both manufactured here in the US. I believe the answer lies in how people use powders. At the beginning of the panic, it was basically impossible to find anything. Now, only the most popular rifle powders (like Varget) are in short supply, along with common pistol powders. And while it’s true that the average rifle case takes more powder than the average pistol case, rifle shooters are reloading for accuracy, while pistol reloaders tend to do so for reasons of volume/economy. That is, the rifle shooter is loading so he can shoot slowly and accurately, whereas the pistol reloader is reloading so he can shoot more. Naturally this means the pistol shooter is more likely to go through more powder than the rifle shooter even given the greater-volume-per-case of the rifle round.
How not to Panic during the Panic
Hopefully some of this has been interesting or new to you. The best line of defense against panic is to not subject yourself to panic at all. Buy what you need before-hand with enough space commodity items to trade if you run out of something unexpectedly.
I’ve had to give the sad face to multiple customers during the panic of 2013. I heard “I could have bought that for 1/2 the price three weeks ago!” so many times I almost told the last customer who said it “Then you should go back to three-weeks ago and buy it!” Don’t be that guy. Be the guy who comes in and shrugs while saying “I have ten of those at home, NIW.”
Retailers will raise their prices in accordance with demand, especially when supplies drop. I understand that it’s unpopular to see pricing increases, but I actually got laid off for a little while in 2013 because we had no product to sell. If my boss had to raise prices to keep me employed a little longer, and prevent other stores from buying out our stock and jacking their own prices up (absent competition), I was ok with that. It’s just market physics, whether you like it or not, expect it to happen.
But you don’t have to be subject to it if you plan ahead. Even if you are in the middle of it, hopefully something I’ve said here will make sense and help you figure out whether to buy that Aimpoint first, or the stripped upper receiver in front of you. Stock up and Good Luck!
Like the TTP and Obama care, I did not fully read your essay yet, but having skimmed it and printed it to read in my office over coffee, I applaud your work here.
A Well done primer.
Back from burning bridges, made lots of friends.
Very informative, very logical, and very well written...
Definitely food for thought!
.22LR fits your four criteria very well.
-The investment is negligible.
-There are probably more .22 rifles and pistols existing than all of the rest of the calibers put together.
-Anyone who sells ammunition sells .22LR when available.
-When available large quantities of it are shot.
And like primers, .22LR Ammunition is very easy to store, a non bulky, long shelf life, way to speculate or hoard.
I agree, really well done.
Thanks LDD, That was very informative.
Awesome article LDD. I sometimes fear that the failure of the POTUS to pass more federal restrictions after the Sandy Hook affair has led many gun owners towards a sense of invulnerability and that guards may be way down. I often hear folks at work say things about how they have no chance of passing anything......... acting as if there is no need to remain vigilant. I remind such people that folks also said those same sort of things before the 1994 AWB (that you referred to) was passed. Some of the younger gun owners I talk to are not even aware that there was a 1994-2004 AWB. They will say things like "a national magazine ban has and will never pass" and I have to tell them it already did and expired.
Honestly it disheartens me to some degree that the gun control part of this great forum here is one of the quieter areas. The laws passed in NY are downright scary and the goal of course will be to move these to the national level. Pollution control laws work largely the same way....for example California's emission laws from 10 or 15 years ago seem to end up being national law today whilst they have moved on to even more draconian rules and the cycle begins again. I have posted before that it will be interesting to see how the ammo part of the NY law gets played out in the future. If they play it as tight as they could, it could end up comprising a way to effectively destroy the hobby of firearms shooting in NY. For example, how many rounds per month (for training) would be deemed as unsafe and result in purchase denials or sheriff or state trooper intervention? The most current plans are very scary as they seem to have two clear goals. One is to set the stage for confiscation and the other is to set the stage for killing the industry via civil liability (for example allowing lawsuits against ammo and gun makers when the hardware does what its supposed to do which is to fire a bullet when the trigger is pulled).
I thoroughly enjoyed your well thought out analysis of the situation. I've not seen anything so concise yet fleshed out, in one article.
Not to blow smoke...but I find your writing style, both here and your other contributions (SHOT, Sig stuff, etc) to easy to follow, yet full of weight.
One question for further thought:
In your opinion, how do you feel the market saturation and those who have purchased for the next panic will impact any coming panic?
While there are many new shooters who potentially will fall prey to any coming panic, it seems that these panics have inspired the entrepreneurial spirit of resourceful individuals to prepare, not only for their needs but also to profit, as you've addressed.
Do you feel like the second hand sellers have reached a point of saturation, coupled with the backlog of supplies in the system, that we will see an abbreviated panic?
I know there's no way to logically discern the who/what of the next panic and it's absolutely ok to say, "I don't know" but I can't help but feel like the entire market, first hand and second hand, are maxed out.
To put a point on it:
I'm a person of pretty modest means but I did a total inventory the other days and was pretty shocked by what I've managed to acquire in the decade or so that I've been at this seriously. I would imagine, if some of our members did a serious inventory, they would be pretty surprised by all that they have.
Again, thanks for the article.
Way to long. Way to over thought.
If you want to know the future of gun control it is simple.
1. NO semi-autos.
2. The government bans ALL guns for future sales it does not want the public to have.
3. The government forbids sale or gift to heirs. NY and CALI have that NOW for assault weapons!
4. NO Magazines or no magazines over <= 10 rounds.
5. The government bans having more the 50-200 rounds of ANY ammunition in the home.
6. Long guns can only have 5 rounds or 2 rounds.
7. No carry permits unless government and doctor approved.
8. Liability insurance.
9. GUNS locked up
10. ONLY smart guns the government can remotely turn off.
11. Eventually turn in all smart guns.
BASICALLY no gun rights unless you are rich.
Well Said Practical, the only major thing you may have forgot is Registration. Of course criminals can't and won't do it but that is true control........ to be able to take them as wanted. But perhaps in a way you did say registration since liability insurance of course goes along with universal knowledge/admittance of what you have.
I also suspect that after the 10 round ban is in effect it will be moved to 6 or 7 perhaps by the NYS mode which is you can't put more than 6 or 7 in your 10 round mag. All a bunch of insanity. I also suspect the mental health checks wont extend to just CCP folks but will be a universal requirement to get a "gun owners permit". All of these items sound nice to liberals but as you can all see, pretty much end gun ownership as we know it now.
Lets get started on the panic now!!!!
There will be a foreign born high casualty event long before a ban. Theres some good news for you right there....
The day after Sandy Hook I advised my employer that he might want a few 100 mag cases of PMAGs as there were still 50,000 magazines showing in our main distributor's warehouse(s) and the price had not increased. I wasn't very insistent, and perhaps I should have been because by the end of that business week, all 50,000 were gone.
There is tremendous elasticity in market demand during a gun panic, partly fueled by hobbyists stocking up but also "investor" types who want to flip certain commodities.
If you asked this question in the last two years, I would have said there is no room for speculation due in part to the massive production in lowers and magazines, but also "panic fatigue." Items like .22LR, can't really panic in the same sense, because they're still scarce (although we could see prices go up on the secondary market, the shelves at Walmart aren't full enough to clear out). Those exceptions aside we just got through some of the best pricing on AR lowers/uppers etc that we've ever seen mostly due to over-production by manufacturers--it's that natural balancing act that the market does. This means that there can be another panic soon once manufacturing reduces to match the lull in demand & existing overstock is depleted (depends on the item, forged lowers are probably overstocked/oversaturated right now, magazines: probably not). I would say that by Nov 2016 we will be in a market state that could support a minor panic, but the model for it will be the Panic of '08 (when Obama was first elected) and not the mega-panic of '12-'13.
With each panic, a certain percentage of people will try to make a business of it. But you only make money when the market fluctuates. If there is a long time between panics, most of these folks will give up and liquidate their holdings in favor of something more immediately rewarding (new mountain bike, vacation, boat etc).
There will be a larger percentage who assume that surviving the last panic with no special preparation means that they can also survive the next one with just as much forethought. Possibly for the same reason that we tend to hold on to pleasant memories rather than distasteful ones.
At this point, I don't think we could see a very strong panic. As stated before, I see 2016 as the earliest the market could support a true panic, even if it is a small one. There's no threat of national legislation on the horizon at this point so the earliest predictable inciting incident will be the presidential election of 2016.
Looking at what you have is good, but I would definitely go one step further and divide it into what you must keep on hand for personal security, and what you would be ok with letting go of in case you had to trade for something you really wanted.
If you have nothing you would be ok with letting go, that's ok too.
But if the opportunity presents itself to "trade-up," that trade is always easier to make if you've already given some forethought as to what you'd put on the table. This will prevent you from impulsively trading or selling away something you really wanted to keep. It will also help you maintain a baseline so when your doe-eyed buddy comes to you asking for 20 PMAGS because he knows you have "a few" you can tell him you've hit your minimum holdings and aren't liquidating any more.This message has been edited. Last edited by: LDD,
Let's stay on subject.
The article is not about bans or the future of gun control, it's about the panic that precedes threats of a ban and how to navigate that market state.
|Get on the fifty!|
When in doubt, pinky out.
Right, I show them these magazines and tell them 1994-2004 magazines without this marking cost $100 or more depending on the pistol. At a time when G17 mags were $15 full retail under normal circumstances.
I live by the creed: By it cheap, stack it deep.
Nice photos gaspipes. A picture is worth a thousand words. One things folks also do not seem to get is that the intensity of the media coverage of these incidents is simply extreme and way more than it was back before 1994. The amount and intensity of the reactionary rhetoric from the politicians is also drastically ramped up from those old days and we even have Obama going to two of the places where these incidents were reported to have occurred. Look at the media coverage given to the small theater shooting a couple months ago with just two dead if I recall. Having two people die in a drunk driving accident is a daily if not hourly occurrence and you hear nothing about it nationally (only local news and its a one time coverage deal).
Food for though folks: On May 14, 1988, a drunken motorist driving on the wrong side of a Kentucky highway slammed head-on into a school bus carrying 67 people, mostly children, headed home from a church trip to an amusement park. The crash ruptured the bus' gas tank, sparking a fast-moving inferno that claimed the lives of 25 children, the bus driver and an adult chaperon; 34 other people were injured. It gets a quick two minute media report and its history. When this crap happens, you don't see the president come on with fake tears in his eyes saying "this has happened one too many times and we must act now, even if it saves just one life". You also don't get to know the names of the victims and the surviving family members by watching interviews with them for three weeks straight 24/7 ala Sandy Hook do you? With almost all mass shootings, you also get immediately proposed solutions that can clearly be shown to have not been able to prevent the original incident that occurred (the shooter stole the guns or actually bought them legally with background checks, etc.) Well logic dictates that when the solution doesn't match the problem, that its a political agenda at play and nothing more. Basically, Americans need to start to understand the difference between an authentic public safety initiative and propaganda carefully designed to help take away their rights. There are obvious differences between the two entities.
Anyway, in clearer regards to the original post, the extreme intensity with which the media and politicians like Hillary and Obama throw at these incidents nowadays has the power to affect the markets. Anybody who watches even the local news is getting bombarded to unprecedented degrees with anti-gun messages and talk of future legislation.
|Get Off My Lawn|
Yep, CA gets new anti firearms laws every year. We have our own little panics because of Single Shot Exemption being outlawed, or a particular handgun going off-roster (Ruger Mark IIIs became very scarce when it was going off-list), or a new ammo law (pre Sandy Hook) banning internet sales (thankfully ruled unconstitutional) triggering a run on ammo and reloading supplies. That is why I bought a Dillon 550 and a huge amount of powder and primers, even though the rest of the country had plenty on hand.
"Did IQ's just drop sharply while I was away?"- Ellen Ripley, Aliens, 1986
Well written and I remember those California incidents.
Yes I am old.
I am quite guilty of Panic Buying in California.
Let see I bought a SIG 516 in 2013 when they were trying to outlaw the Bullet Button in California. I never thought I needed an EBR boy was I wrong.
I bought a Stripped Lower in 2013 when California was going to register long arms per serial number and make and model in 2014.
I purchased a P320 last year before California removed the Single Shot Exemption from their Handgun Approved System.
Working on some 80% lowers.
There are a few others.
I own a Mossberg 500A that doesn’t have a serial number on it anywhere and a Marlin 22 auto that also doesn’t have a serial number on it. I will not be able to sell them in California now.
Like I said I am old and purchased some long guns before serial numbers were required
because they were cash and carry.
Beware the man who only has one gun. He probably knows how to use it! - John Steinbeck
I read the entire thing; I am blessed in that I speed-read.
I think your analysis and observations are spot on - and much of it I have echoed for years, albeit incrementally.
You should be published.
You should really submit that for publication.
well done. I must admit that I am still working through it, but I believe it is worth publishing.
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