Handguns Off Targets in Production and Sales

Times Staff Writer

No public clamor for guns has developed in the wake of the 'subway vigilante' shooting.

America's love affair with the handgun may be cooling off.

Contrary to the popular image of the United States as a country with an insatiable appetite for these guns most often associated with both crime and self-defense, the reality is--at least for now--very different.

The public has not sprinted to buy weapons after the waves of publicity and public approval given to Bernhard Goetz's wounding of four young men with a handgun on a New York subway and to similar incidents, including the killing of a robbery suspect in Beverly Hills by 81-year-old Thomas Korshak, firearms retailers and trade groups say.

Moreover, the domestic handgun industry is still in the grips of the last recession. Production is down. Sales are anemic. And sagging demand is being blamed for the layoff of 140 workers by one major manufacturer, Smith & Wesson, which began in mid-January. Another blow was delivered at the same time by the federal government when it chose Beretta, an Italian manufacturer, to produce the armed forces' new sidearm.

At the New York offices of Colt Industries, parent firm of Colt Firearms, spokesman Peter Williamson read a company statement that said in part, "There is, in fact, an overabundance of weapons for sale."

In California, the state attorney general's office reported that 258,104 handguns were legally sold in 1983, down from 289,539 in 1982, the year a handgun control proposition was soundly defeated by voters. However, applications to buy handguns in 1982, when many apparently feared more restrictive controls, reached 311,870, significantly more than were actually purchased.

Two-Year Sales Decline

Handgun sales and production have been declining for about the last two years, industry spokesmen say.

In 1982 the country's handgun manufacturers produced 2.6 million handguns, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

In 1983 production declined to 1.96 million, a drop of about 25%, the bureau reports.

In addition, gun sellers report a growing public interest here in non-lethal types of self-defense, particularly electric stun guns.

Imports seem to play a marginal role in this decline. The number of handguns imported into this country has ranged from about 300,000 to about 350,000 each year of this decade, federal firearms bureau reported. In all, there are now an estimated 40 million to 60 million handguns in this country. Production figures aren't available yet for last year, but Don Gregory of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute in Wallingford, Conn., said, "We know it wasn't a good year . . . it was probably worse than 1983." He also noted that sales and production of "long guns" (mainly rifles and shotguns) have been on the decline since 1980.

National sales figures aren't kept by the institute, spokesman Tom Hill explained, because a gun may be sold and resold in unrecorded transactions many times after it enters the marketplace. Likewise, there is no accurate method to determine the number of illegal or unregistered guns, he said.

(The decline in the handgun market coincides with a decline in the use of handguns in murders and an overall decline in the murder rate. Nationally, handgun murders, as reported by police to the FBI, have declined 18.2% in this decade, dropping from 10,012 in 1980 to 8,193 in 1983, according to FBI statistics. During the same period murder by all types of firearms declined 20.2%, from 13,650 to 10,895, while the total number of murders reported by police to the FBI dropped only 14.6%, from 21,860 to 18,673.

In mid-January the California attorney general's office issued a release that said, "The use of firearms in willful homicides dropped in 1983 to its lowest point since 1976, although firearms (all types of guns including handguns) remained the preferred weapon in 54.5% of California's reported homicides. . . ." The report added that the figure represented a 6.1% decline from the peak figure of 60.6% in 1980. In 1983, there were 2,640 "willful homicides" in the state, compared with 3,405 in 1980, a drop of more than 22%. However, California has run counter to the national handgun trend. Despite the overall decline in firearm homicides in the state, handguns consistently account for about 40% of murders, the attorney general's office reported.)

Varied Explanations

Explanations for the current state of the handgun market are varied and sometimes contradictory. Generally, retailers and manufacturers said that consumers are buying other goods, such as computers, refrigerators and cars, instead of guns. Partly, they said, this is a function of price. Handguns, they noted, are expensive items, costing up to $500 or more.

"People remember the old days when you could buy a handgun for $150," said Bob Leismeister of the National Assn. of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a trade group that represents 30,000 gun stores. "Now that consumers can buy a full-blown computer that they'll use all the time for $500, they're more likely to do that than buy a handgun they take out of the closet to a firing range only once or twice a year."

Gregory of the sporting arms institute said that blue-collar workers, the principal market for all types of guns, have not participated in the economic recovery as much as other groups.

But there were other reasons given that had little to do with economics.

Klaus Nietzschmann, owner and operator of California Combat in Los Angeles' Fairfax district, said, "The people who are afraid to walk the streets because of crime don't need them (guns). They already have them." The primary market for guns these days are collectors, hunters and target shooters with guns purchased solely for defense against crime placing last, he said.

Arthur Kassel, president of the Beverly Hills Gun Club, said that the club has sold eight Taser guns, electric shock devices that are supposed to be non-lethal. Tasers fire wireless darts that stun the target with a 50,000-volt shock. The non-lethal nature of Tasers appeals to people who want self-protection but are leery of firearms, he said. This month the club has sold eight of the devices at $325 each. "We haven't pushed sales of Tasers," he added. "When people see the potential for stopping an assailant without the emotional trauma of killing or wounding, they decide to buy." Another gun retailer, who asked not to be identified, also said that Tasers and similar weapons have been gaining in public appeal. The Taser also has been adopted by many police departments, including the Los Angeles force.

At Monrovia-based Taser Industries Inc., president James DeSimone said his company recently tripled its factory space, based in large part on the potential for the consumer market. The device has appeal within his own home, he added. "My wife is anti-handgun or any kind of gun actually . . . but she'll use a Taser," he said.

(While the stun gun is rated as non-lethal, a 27-year-old suspect did die when the Taser was used to subdue him in 1983. Los Angeles police were later cleared in that death, which an autopsy found was caused by heart failure resulting from PCP poisoning.)

Impact Felt

Besides economic and personal moral factors, some believe a tightening web of gun restriction laws is beginning to have an impact. While admitting that reasons for the trend are unclear, California Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp said in the report released this month that "the laws governing the use of weapons in the commission of crimes have been toughened in recent years, and it would appear that the 'use-a-gun-go-to-prison' laws are having some impact."

At Handgun Control Inc., a Washington lobbying group, spokesperson Barbara Lautman said she thinks a combination of laws and growing public awareness that "owning a handgun is a serious responsibility" have made many people think twice about buying handguns.

A Gallup poll in 1983 found that 59% of Americans, including 47% of gun owners, thought handgun laws should be stricter.

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