Smith & Wesson, Ruger shares explode

Wall Street pundits often talk about the resiliency of stocks such as McDonald's Corp. (MCD) and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT). Shares of Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. (SWHC) and Sturm, Ruger & Co. (RGR), the two publicly traded gunmakers, have vastly outperformed them both.

Smith & Wesson, one of the iconic names in American weapons making, is up more than 112 percent this year in the wake of its recent strong earnings report. Strum, Ruger, maker of Ruger firearms, is up more than 60 percent. A spokesman for Smith & Wesson did not return phone calls. David Renken, Strum, Ruger's manager of corporate finance, referred a reporter to the company's SEC filings and urged him to "draw your own conclusions" about the company's sales. The company's fourth quarter firearm sales soared 42 percent.

The stocks' rise comes as Americans purchase guns in record numbers, even as they deny themselves everything from medical procedures to buying cars because of worries about the economy.

Data from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) show that background checks for firearm sales rose 23.3 percent. Background checks -- a proxy for gun sales -- have risen at a double-digit rate since the election of Barack Obama in November. Some law enforcement officials and gun-control advocates say they are worried that the rising sales may lead to increased violent crime. The National Rifle Association and its allies have traditionally rejected those arguments.

Both pro- and anti-gun control groups argue the reason for the increased sales is simple: some gun owners were worried that an Obama administration would either confiscate guns or tax them at such a high level to make owning them unaffordable. This makes for brisk business for gun dealers, even on a Monday morning as worries about rising crime further motivate people to seek self-protection. Some gun buyers may even be facing shortages.

"It's a perfect storm," said Frank Briganti, director of research for National Shooting Sports Federation, in an interview.

Exactly how long the increased gun sales will last is difficult to say. The rate of increase from NICS is slowing but the data does not include all sales of weapons. Buying guns is also not an economic decision, though they are not cheap. In fact, officials figure that many of the sales are going to people who already own weapons, raising fears of weapons stockpiling.

Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Hand Gun Violence said his group is concerned that many of the recent purchases are for assault weapons being purchased by militant gun enthusiasts with "insurrectionist beliefs about the second amendment . . . I don't think its soccer moms going out there and buying AK-47s."

Police officials, such as Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, Superintendent Michael Chitwood, have long argued that there are too many guns on the street. In an interview, Chitwood said he was "absolutely" worried about the increased sales. His officers will find caches of 15 to 20 weapons in domestic violence calls or on drug arrests."

But before people worry about a return of the Wild West, Daniel Vice, senior attorney for Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, points out that gun ownership is at its lowest level in 25 years.

"Typically we have seen people buying additional guns because of the gun industry marketing it as now is the time to buy guns," he said.

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