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Gunmakers and sellers grapple with decisions in wake of Newtown shootings

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Guns have been good to pawnshop owner Frank James.

Someone buys one just about every day. Selling them has brought in half the revenue at Loanstar Jewelry and Pawn for the past several months.

James gave that up this week. He says he'll never sell a gun again in his shop.

"Conscience wins over making money," the 46-year-old Connecticut native said.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead, America's multibillion-dollar gun market is grappling with the financial and moral conflict of selling guns after unthinkable tragedy.

Dick's Sporting Goods, one of the nation's biggest gun outlets, said Tuesday it would suspend sales of modern rifles in its more than 500 stores and remove all guns from the store closest to Newtown, the site of the massacre.

Wal-Mart Stores, the nation's biggest seller of guns and ammunition, removed online listings this week for the Bushmaster AR-15, the semi-automatic rifle used by the shooter, though the gun could still be bought in stores.

And a private equity firm that owns a huge chunk of the U.S. gunmaking industry — including the company that makes the Bushmaster — said it would sell the business.

Cerberus Capital Management, a $20 billion giant, said Tuesday it would sell Freedom Group, which includes Remington Arms Co., the nation's oldest and biggest maker of shotguns and rifles. The father of Cerberus' founder lives 6 miles from Sandy Hook.

"It is apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level," Cerberus said in a statement.

It is a rare shiver in a resilient industry unhindered by the recession, where record sales led to a $31.8 billion impact on the national economy last year, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry group based in Newtown.

Gunmakers Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co., which saw sales this year grow nearly 50 percent over the year before, have seen their stock prices plummet about 15 percent since the shootings. It's not a given that these companies' would stumble after disaster: The firms' shares rose after the shootings at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in July.

Investors and pension funds at the top of the financial food chain have already exerted pressure on gunmakers that could erode their bottom line. On Monday, California's treasurer asked the state's public pension funds, including the country's biggest, to dump investments in companies that make guns banned in the state.

But that pressure could also squeeze the industry from the consumer side, including in stores like Tampa Bay's longest-running outdoor retailer, the Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure, where business leaders are having second thoughts about selling firearms.

Decision makers at the outfitter, with its own gun department and firing range, disagree over whether to continue or suspend gun sales, said vice president Darry Jackson, the founder's son.

"We're all torn on the subject. We can't come to an agreement. All this is so new," Jackson said. "Everybody's pretty passionate in what they believe in."

Questions of where and when to sell guns could take center stage in Florida, the home of more concealed weapons permits than any other state. This week the state will issue its millionth active permit, which requires a background check, a short class and $112 in fees.

This tug-of-war comes in the middle of perhaps the gun industry's most lucrative season. December has been Florida's busiest or second busiest month for firearm background checks every year since 1998, when the FBI began publishing the data.

Last month was Florida's most active in more than 14 years, data show: More than 88,000 prospective buyers were evaluated by the FBI, three times as many as November 2002. The FBI does not track gun purchases, and any of those checked buyers could have purchased multiple guns.

How long this business tremor will resonate remains in question, as guns, ammo and accessories remain a lucrative business in Florida and beyond. There is a gun in this country for nearly every American, according to the Department of Justice: about 300 million guns in 2009, a third of which are rifles.

Corporate pressure may have little impact on the four out of every 10 guns sold in this country in "private," at gun shows or on the Internet, without requiring a background check. Florida Gun Shows has scheduled more than a dozen shows across the state through April, an online promotion said. Children 12 and under are admitted free.

But gun control advocates said business leaders should have considered the implications of selling guns long before the school shooting.

"There are corporations across America that realize how it's inappropriate to market these weapons in the wake of a tragedy . . . but the reality is, tragedies like this happen every day," Josh Sugarmann, who grew up in Newtown and founded the Violence Policy Center, a Washington research group that advocates gun control, told the Times. "If it's appropriate to pull guns off the shelves now, why would they consider putting them back on in the future?"

At the Loanstar pawnshop, James, an NRA member and concealed weapons permit holder, acknowledges the situation is "tender and touchy." He has already faced backlash from gun rights advocates who call his change a publicity stunt.

But James said after talking with his 6-year-old daughter, he couldn't put the AR-15 back on display.

"I'm not trying to send a message. I'm not trying to change laws. I believe in the Second Amendment," he said. "I just don't want to be part of a business where the ingredients . . . can cause such destruction."

Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8252.

Gunmakers and sellers grapple with decisions in wake of Newtown shootings 12/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 11:50pm]
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