The good, the bad, the bottom line

Local gun store owners discuss challenges

by Clay Neely -


Photo by Clay Neely

Rusty Morris, owner of AR Bunker in Newnan, and Hillary McClure review a 4473 gun transfer form.

It’s been said, in a joking manner, President Obama has been the greatest firearm salesman for five years running.

And while it may appear gun store owners are experiencing a phenomenal period of growth, many individuals know little of the pressures and challenges that local store owners face on a daily basis.

Most owners attest to the fact that their numbers have been on the rise, but it certainly hasn’t been a cakewalk. Many small stores continue to face formidable obstacles, not only from their big box competitors, but from the federal government.

Rusty Morris, owner of Newnan’s “AR Bunker,” has been working with firearms for more than 40 years and has experienced his share of the ups and downs associated with being a small business owner.

Inside AR Bunker one can find store customers and friends alike drinking coffee, sitting on a couch and simply talking shop.

One common topic of discussion is the misconception that while a big box store may carry the same brand of ammunition from a name brand manufacturer as a smaller business, it’s not the same product.

“One thing a lot of people don’t know about is that some of the big box stores have shells made just for them by some more recognizable names, these shells are ‘second’ quality. They may carry the same name and look the same on the box, but, in reality, what they’re selling and what we’re selling aren’t even close to being the same,” said Morris.

Another issue is the amount of knowledge larger chain stores require of staff. Gary DeGeorge, owner of Atlanta Range and Ordinance, notes that many times customers have entered his business with a complete lack of knowledge of the firearm they have purchased from another store, including safe handling and maintenance.

Atlanta Range and Ordinance offers not only a firing range but firearms training and classes.

“There is no doubt in my mind that they don't have the ability to properly instruct their customers on the safe use of a firearm or proper maintenance,” said DeGeorge. “In my mind it’s a huge matter of accountability and liability. A gun is not just something you read the manual to and know exactly how to use it. It’s like handing car keys to a 13-year-old.”

“Our core mission is training and safety. However, after a while it becomes more trouble than it’s worth when we’re spending all of our resources on teaching someone who bought their gun at a big box store just to show them how their gun works,” said DeGeorge. “That should be the responsibility of the retailer.”

In terms of his overall business, DeGeorge says that it’s been very good. While boasting the only indoor range within a 30-mile radius, he feels that last year would have been even better if the availability and pricing issues regarding inventory hadn’t been so rough.

“We’ve seen a 40 to 60 percent price increase in ammunition this year. One of our highest selling calibers (.233) has gone up 58 percent since the end of 2011 along with the 9mm, whose ammunition has gone up 35 percent,” said DeGeorge.

It’s not just the big box stores that Morris and DeGeorge have to deal with as small business owners.

Morris isn’t shy about detailing the increasing federal scrutiny that his company and many others have faced over the course of the last five years.

“The current administration is doing everything it can behind closed doors to make it difficult for the small gun store to survive,” said Morris. “This administration wants to reduce the amount of gun stores, period. That means more audits. It doesn’t bother us since we keep good records. But it puts some of the smaller retailers out of business. It’s really getting harder for gun shops and, more so, the gun ranges.”

According to DeGeorge, his store is subject to an ATF audit every 24-36 months.

“Our only regulatory agency is the ATF, to make sure we’re selling firearms to the person we say they are and aren’t getting into the wrong hands. A full firearms audit. They check all the paperwork and make sure everything is correct,” said DeGeorge.

AR Bunker currently employs a full-time attorney group, kept on retainer, which only deals with ATF issues. They advise the company when ATF comes in and they’re with them for the duration of the audit.

Five years ago, Morris could fill out a 4473 gun transfer form and it would simply be scanned then filed.

Now he has a minimum of three people who look at the form before it goes into the system — one person who does the form with the customer at the time of the sale, the second person to ensure it meets all ATF standards and then, in the back, one more person scans the form to ensure the first two didn’t miss anything before it finally gets filed.

“If you make a mistake with something like say the wrong date or abbreviation, if it happens again, they say ‘that it was intentional’ and they’ll take your license away,” said Morris.

“An ATF inspector once told me that he’s never done a completely clean audit; he’s always found something. It’s always the small stuff. That tells me that 100 percent of the dealers in the U.S. make errors,” said Morris. DeGeorge is quick to confirm these points, but adds that, overall, the business is enjoyable.

“Outside looking in, it’s a phenomenal business to be in,” said DeGeorge. “For me, it’s a business I truly enjoy and I have a passion for. You could easily say it’s a great way to make money — it’s very profitable and it would be a fun thing to do on the side. But it’s highly regulated and scrutinized. You’re under constant pressure from regulatory agencies that could potentially shut you down for any reason.”

All things considered, both owners have no regrets about their careers and are looking forward to the future.

“There’s always going to be a need for firearms, for recreational and personal protection,” said DeGeorge. “I think the market has stabilized again, since so many people have finally bought everything they can possibly buy. There will always be an even-keeled demand for firearms.”

“It’s unfortunate,” said Morris. “We’re just businessmen. I’m sure there are some stores trying to do illegal stuff but the majority of us are trying to meet the letter of the law. But when we make a mistake that’s unintentional, especially at the lengths we go to, it’s frustrating.”

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