Gun Brand Licensing in a Polarized Landscape

Last week, the U.S. government submitted a court filing that assigned responsibility to Academy Sports, a sporting goods discount chain with more than 250 stores in 16 states, for contributing to a church shooting in Texas in 2017. The retailer had sold the shooter the semi-automatic rifle and high-capacity magazine used in the shooting. The government, which is being sued by the families of the victims, is arguing that it should not be held responsible. Academy has said it did not break any laws.

No matter the outcome of this case, it illustrates the tough political landscape that retailers of guns—and gun brands and brand-licensing programs—are facing. They are under pressure from gun-control proponents, who blame them, in part, for the spate of mass shootings in recent years. At the same time, any action they take to address the concerns of the former group causes an uproar from the gun-rights advocates that tend to be key customers for their brands.

Retailers that have been taking steps toward the gun-control side of things include Dick’s Sporting Goods, which stopped carrying assault-style weapons and recently said it destroyed $5 million worth of assault rifles formerly on its shelves. It also removed firearms in general from 125 stores (citing declining sales levels) and divested eight of its 35 hunting-centric Field & Stream stores to Sportsman’s Warehouse. The chain took a hit in its financials after reducing its firearm inventory, as much of its customer base protested, but its performance has started to improve more recently. Meanwhile, Sportsman’s Warehouse, which continues to sell a full array of guns and ammunition, attracted many of Dick’s former customers.

Other retailers pulling back on guns include Walmart, which ended sales of military-style rifles and prohibited sales of firearms and ammunition to purchasers under 21, and Fred Meyer, a division of Kroger, which discontinued sales of all firearms and ammunition.

Gun makers are not only dealing with the loss of some major retail customers, but also facing a public relations backlash for both their core products and for some of their licensing activities, particularly when it comes products that appeal to children. In particular, gun-control advocates’ attention is on replica air pellet guns and other replica firearms, which are purchased for use by both adults and children. In addition, some states and municipalities have implemented laws banning or limiting such products, although others have gone in the opposite direction, loosening their laws. Walmart has also said it would limit sales of pellet guns that are replicas of assault rifles.

According to a 2019 survey by The Trace, a nonprofit that tracks guns and gun violence, 33 gun makers offer branded air pellet guns, mostly through licensing relationships. Manufacturers include Umarex, which works with brands including but not limited to Colt, Beretta, Ruger, and Glock; Cybergun, which has licenses for Colt, Kalashnikov, Arsenal Firearms, Swiss+ Arms, Smith & Wesson, Mossberg, and others; Daisy Outdoor Products, which holds right to Winchester; and Crosman, which licenses the Remington brand.

Even as they deal with these industry challenges, many gun brands maintain robust licensing programs, with a small group of typically long-term licensees selling to a strong and loyal customer base consisting of hunters and outdoors aficionados, military families, law enforcement, and others. Key categories include:

  • Gun accessories and ammunition. Winchester licenses Granite Security Products for safes, DAC Technologies for safety and cleaning products including cable and trigger locks, Hodgdon Powder for gun powder, Custom Leather for rifle slings, and Carlson’s for choke tubes; Browning works with Signature Products for concealed carry and travel handbags and Olin Corp. for ammunition; and Colt licenses Double Tap for ammunition and Brownell’s for gun parts. Both Colt and Uzi work with Campco for law enforcement gear.
  • Outdoor recreation. Browning’s licensee roster includes ALPS Mountaineering for hunting blinds and camping supplies, Prometheus Group for trail products, Bass Pro Shops for fishing gear, Barnett for crossbows, and Polaris for ATVs; Remington works with High-Performance Designs for wheels and Buck Knives for cutlery; Winchester’s partners include Blue Grass Cutlery for knives; and Smith & Wesson works with Taylor Brands (a longtime licensee now owned by Smith & Wesson) on cutlery.
  • Collectible and lifestyle goods. Winchester licenses Vintage Editions for wooden boxes, New York Belt for leather belts and wallets, Winfield Galleries for cabin décor, and Bellmore Johnson for period signal or salute cannons; Remington has paired with Vintage Editions for gifts, Ashgrove Marketing for calendars, and Desperate Enterprises and Open Road Brands for tin signs; Smith & Wesson collaborates with Trenz on t-shirts and caps; and Browning counts Kimlor among its licensees, for bed and bath, as well as licensing Signature Products for apparel, belts, wallets, automotive accessories, and pet supplies.

Like any segment of licensing that is impacted by politics or social movements, gun makers walk a fine line in today’s polarized society. They continue to appeal to a customer base that is largely on the side of gun rights (although increasingly willing to consider some controls related to assault weapons and gun registration). But they also must deal with negative publicity, contraction of retail customers, new laws and regulations, and other factors that could negatively affect their reputation and their sales of licensed products.

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