‘My friends like to knit. I like to shoot’: Seniors fuel gun sales

Seniors show increasing interest in gun practice

At the Frontier Justice shooting range in Lee's Summit, quite a proportion of Tuesday's customers are seniors. The statistics from the National Rifle Association shows more and more older people are acquiring guns for recreational pleasure as well
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At the Frontier Justice shooting range in Lee's Summit, quite a proportion of Tuesday's customers are seniors. The statistics from the National Rifle Association shows more and more older people are acquiring guns for recreational pleasure as well

Senior citizens are already waiting in the parking lot when the Frontier Justice gun shop in Lee’s Summit opens for business.

On Tuesday, they were among the first through the door and the first to take their places at the indoor shooting range.

One of the regulars is a woman from John Knox Village who has long guns and handguns and visits the range every day.

“My friends like to knit. I like to shoot,” she explained to Bren Brown, president of Frontier Justice.

People 65 and older make up one of the most solidly growing demographics for the firearms industry. They’re acquiring guns and getting training — for recreational target practice and a perceived need for self-protection.

“With ISIS in the news and mass shootings and current events that are happening around the world, I think it brings to the forefront all people’s sense of need to protect their family and to protect themselves,” Brown said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “And certainly one of the most vulnerable components of our society are seniors.”

Jack and Janet Kirce of Lee’s Summit spend 45 minutes to an hour at the firing range every weekday. Jack Kirce is former military and was already proficient with firearms. Janet Kirce became interested more recently. Now they both have concealed-carry licenses. She packs a 9 mm handgun, and he’s got a 40-caliber.

“My brother used to take me shooting when I was a kid, so I always enjoyed it,” said Janet Kirce, 65. “But I didn’t have the time to do it, and now that we’re retired and we have this (Frontier Justice) club so close to us, it’s our hobby. It’s something we do together.”

The Kirces believe their hobby may someday save their lives.

“I hope I never have to use it,” said Jack Kirce, 79, “but if I have to, I’ve got it.”

The National Rifle Association reports a fourfold jump since 2010 in the number of older Americans taking basic firearms training courses taught by certified NRA instructors. That is greater than the 265 percent increase in all demographics taking firearms training during the same period.

That helped push the overall number of Americans participating in target shooting from 34.4 million in 2009 to 40.8 million in 2012, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The increase is not only seniors. The number of women of all ages who target shoot has jumped nearly 57 percent since 2006. Target shooters also increasingly are people who live in cities or suburbs.

The shooting sports trade association also reports that the economic impact of the firearms and ammunition industry has grown 158 percent in the last eight years to $49.3 billion.

The number of jobs supported by the industry grew 73 percent in the same period to about 288,000.

From 2014 to 2015 alone, the economic impact grew by more than $6 billion, the trade group said.

The industry in 2015 supported more than 5,000 jobs in Missouri and more than 2,600 in Kansas with an average wage and benefit package of more than $46,000, according to a study by John Dunham and Associates, an economic research firm.

Both Missouri and Kansas rank in the top 10 states for growth in economic output, jobs and excise taxes from the firearm industry.

Based on such data, the industry is confident that overall business and firearms training are on the rise — even if that runs counter to gun ownership estimates based on surveys that indicate gun ownership has been stable or has actually declined.

Industry spokesmen and others point out there is no national gun registry to use as a guide.

“There is no definitive data source from the government or elsewhere on how many Americans own guns or how gun ownership rates have changed over time,” according to a report by the Pew Research Center.

Statista.com says the number of households in the U.S. with a firearm has risen and fallen over the years, but the 42 percent statistic in 2014 was not much different from the 43 percent in 1972.

A survey by the independent National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago showed a sharp decline in both households and individuals with guns, from 49 percent in 1973 to 34 percent in 2012.

A CBS News poll conducted this summer after the Orlando, Fla., nightclub shooting found that 36 percent of U.S. adults either own a firearm or live with someone who does. CBS said that was the lowest rate in its poll since 1978 and down 10 percentage points since 2012.

According to a Gallup poll, in 1960 half of poll respondents said they had a gun in their home. In 2015, that number was 41 percent.

But surveys about gun ownership are problematic. For one thing, gang members, drug dealers and other criminal types — who fuel the high gun murder rate in urban areas — are unlikely to participate.

“I don’t know how necessarily reliable those surveys are,” said Jason J. Brown, media relations manager for the NRA. “All indications, as far as we know, are that Americans are buying more firearms and are taking more training classes. The trend has been clear to us quarter after quarter, year after year. American gun ownership is growing and has grown over the past eight to 10 years.”

Another indicator is the number of background checks conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice. It did fewer than 15 million in 2014, down from an estimated 17.6 million in 2013. But some of its checks are for people applying for a concealed-carry permit. When the shooting sports foundation crunched the numbers to pull out anything other than gun sales, it found the number of checks has grown nearly every year since 2000.

There was a downturn in 2014, but the number of checks for gun sales again topped 14 million last year.

And that doesn’t count firearms sold at gun shows and in other personal transactions, which are exempt from the background check requirement.

Somebody is buying the guns from an industry that is adding jobs and boosting wages. They may be people who already own a gun but want to increase their arsenal. A Washington Post analysis from 2015 found the average gun owner has about eight of them, double the number from the 1990s. A 2004 survey similarly found the average gun owner had more than six firearms. A 2016 CBS poll found about one in five gun owners had 10 or more.

“All of our information indicates that gun ownership is rising and that we have new gun owners that tend to be younger and female and urban and suburban,” said Bill Brassard, senior director of communications for the shooting sports foundation.

And then there are the seniors buying guns. The growth is so pronounced that Frontier Justice this year began offering firearm training classes exclusively for seniors. Courses range from basic pistol skills to more advanced tactical instruction. The gun range also offers a simulator that allows students to use laser weapons in various scenarios, such as a parking lot attack or a home invasion.

The gun shop, which also has a boutique and a cafe and whose motto is “Faith, Family and Freedom,” also offers one-on-one instruction and helps seniors find the right gun for them. Senior women, for example, often prefer a revolver to a gun with a rack they have to slide to change the round, Brown said.

“I think a lot of people like me that grew up with guns, our parents taught us safety and how to handle a gun,” said John Hardt, a member of the Frontier Justice advisory board. “But when you get people who are late in life and take an interest in it, they need somebody to teach them how to do it and what to do.”

At one lane of the firing range on Tuesday morning was 68-year-old Jerry Oliver of Oak Grove. He has a concealed-carry permit and keeps his handgun in his car because “people are growing crazy. Carjackings are a growth industry.”

Two lanes away, Beverly and Bryce Sherman of Lone Jack, both 75, were target shooting for recreation.

“Little by little, I’m getting used to shooting,” Beverly Sherman said.

Earlybirds Dan and Dee Thomas of Lee’s Summit had already finished their target practice for the day. He is 83, and she just smiles and acknowledges she is a senior. After a home burglary in Florida, they each have a revolver.

“The primary purpose of our getting (concealed carry) licenses was deterrence,” Dan Thomas said. “We’re not out to hurt anybody if we don’t have to.”

Dee Thomas said if a thief just wants to take things, she would not feel compelled to use her gun. But if the situation were more threatening, that might make a difference.

“Knowing that I have taken a class, I feel better at the idea that I could do it,” she said. “I feel more confident that I could do it.”

Matt Campbell: 816-234-4902, @MattCampbellKC