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NRA to Break Silence as Corporate Response to Connecticut Massacre Deepens

NBC Sports Group Pulls Gun Ads; Dick's Halts Some Gun Sales

By Published on . 4

The National Rifle Association -- which has kept quiet in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting -- is about to break its silence.

In a short statement released Tuesday, the organization said it "is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again," and added that it will hold a "major news conference" in the Washington, D.C., area Dec. 21.

The massacre, which left 27 people dead, including 20 children, has already created more corporate upheaval than other recent mass shootings.

NBC Sports Group confirmed on Tuesday that is has "indefinitely pulled all gun and hunting advertising and programming," saying in a statement to Ad Age that "we do not feel it is appropriate to air such content at this time." Gun-related shows on NBC Sports Network include "3-Gun Nation," which features the "guns, gear and lifestyle that define the high-octane sport of 3-gun competition." Other gun-related shows on the network are "Guns & Gear" and "Gun Talk."

Also on Tuesday, private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management announced plans to sell its stake in Freedom Group, the nation's largest manufacturer of commercial firearms, including the Bushmaster brand of rifle used by the Connecticut gunman, Adam Lanza.

Meanwhile, Dick's Sporting Goods has suspended sales of "modern sporting rifles" in all of its stores "out of respect for the victims and their families, during this time of national mourning." Walmart, one of the nation's largest run retailers, has not changed its gun assortment but did pull a listing on its website for a semiautomatic assault rifle similar to the one used by Mr. Lanza, CNN Money reported.

The responses come as public support for new control measures reach its highest level in a decade at 57%, according to a CBS News poll released this week. That's up from the 39% support measured in April and 47% in January 2011 in the wake of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011.

"We may be witnessing the tipping point on this issue," said Adam Mendelsohn, a partner with Mercury, a political- and corporate-public-relations firm whose practices include crisis management and communications. "It's a combination of what happened in Newtown and the collective belief that people have just had enough." The NRA statement "is the most telling indicator that this is a very different tragedy," he added. Gun-rights advocates typically are "the first to come up with a defense of guns, whereas the response this time is a willingness to have a dialogue. Now whether that translates into meaningful action is yet to be seen."

Indeed, the NRA did not provide any details of its proposal, saying only that "details will be released to the media at the appropriate time." At the same time, the organization re-activated its Twitter and Facebook accounts, which had been shut down or inactive for days.

NBC's decision to pull its gun shows came after broadcaster Bob Costas earlier this month took on the nation's "gun culture" during a "Sunday Night Football" telecast in the wake of an incident in which NFL player Jovan Belcher killed himself and his girlfriend.

Even before the Connecticut shooting, gun and ammunition marketers faced an uncertain future. The military -- which accounts for a quarter of industry revenue -- is expected to curtail spending as combat operations wind down in overseas hot spots such as Afghanistan, according to market researcher IBISWorld. At the same time, the improving economy could lower crime fears, which is predicted to result in fewer gun purchases by consumers seeking protection.

Add it up and annual industry revenue is expected to slow to 3.5% a year through 2017 from the robust growth of 5.7% in the five years ending in 2012, according to an IBIS report published in October. But sales could swing wildly as gun control gets a new look in Congress.

In the short term, the scrutiny could spur demand as gun enthusiasts stock up for fear of new restrictions. "You're going to see an immediate uptick in gun sales ... particularly related to assault weapons and other weapons that are more so on the chopping block," said Nima Samadi, an IBISWorld senior analyst. "Over the long-term, it ultimately depends on whether or not there is an actual change in gun laws."

The company with the most at stake could be Freedom Group. The North Carolina-based gun and ammo maker will take in a projected $745 million in U.S. revenue in 2012 and is the largest maker of commercial firearms, according to IBISWorld. Its brands include Remington, Bushmaster, Dakota Arms, Parker Gunmakers and Marlin Firearms. Bushmaster "might particularly be exposed if there is a change in gun laws," Mr. Samadi said.

Cerberus's move to sell Freedom Group came after the California State Teachers' Retirement System pension fund said was reviewing its investment in the private-equity firm, citing policies that "require that the risks associated with products that pose significant threats to human well-being be taken into account." In its statement, Cerberus stated that "it is apparent that he Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level."

Other prominent U.S. gun makers such as Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co. are "pretty heavily leveraged in hand guns and other smaller firearms that likely would be unaffected by a change in regulations," Mr. Samadi said.

All gun makers, though, might face pressure to soften their marketing. "A lot of these manufacturers might be a little more conservative." Mr. Samdi said. "Everyone realizes the sensitivity associated with the recent events. A lot of these manufacturers are going to tread somewhat lightly in the immediate future."

As a whole, the gun industry spends a relatively small amount on traditional advertising. Gun and gun-accessory brands spent a mere $9 million on measured media in 2011, according to an Ad Age DataCenter analysis of Kantar Media figures on hunting equipment spending.

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