Corporate Greed and the American Bloodbath
Like sweeping sand in a sandstorm, gun control efforts are well intentioned but futile, even if enacted. Gun control advocates propose outlawing specific types of guns and increasing background checks for the people who buy them. They might as well try to outlaw sand or try to regulate where the wind takes it. Real reform cannot happen until we sequester the storm at its source. Gun manufacturers make and market millions of guns, and like all corporations, their purpose for existence is to expand markets and attain the highest possible rate of return for their shareholders. It isn’t a gun rights issue at all. The issue that matters is corporate greed. Like the tobacco industry, the gun industry will exploit consumers and profit from death as long as it is economical to do so.
Guns were traditionally marketed as tools for hunting, but sales waned as Americans migrated into the cities and suburbs and lost interest in hunting. With guns no longer needed as tools, gun manufacturers adapted to the changing demographics and began manufacturing new guns and cultivating new markets. These guns are not like your grandfather’s hunting rifle. To increase the appeal of guns, the industry began manufacturing civilian models of military and police guns, promoting gun use as symbols of power and masculinity. These guns are marketed to young men to make them feel more powerful, and then to homeowners and women to protect them from people who shouldn’t have guns, and even to children for “recreation.” It is a successful strategy. This market has ballooned at a 27 percent annual rate in just the last five years.1
One study commissioned by the shooting sports industry suggested recruiting children ages 8 to 17 years old, who already have shooting experience, to serve as “peer ambassadors” to entice other kids into the sport. The industry-supported Junior Shooters magazine has featured the Bushmaster AR-15 as a great weapon for target shooting. Children were encouraged to share the story with their parents, enticing them with this teaser, “Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!” According to the editor, Andy Fink, semiautomatic firearms are not weapons unless they are used against other people, and there is no legitimate reason why children shouldn’t learn how to safely use an AR-15 for recreation.2 The AR-15 is the assault rifle used by Adam Lanza to gun down twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.
Adam Lanza had no prior criminal record. But he spent a great deal of time alone in his basement immersed in Call of Duty, scoring points for kills. Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, quickly and publicly blamed the video game industry for the Sandy Hook tragedy. But behind the scenes, the gun and video game industries are often in bed together. Gun manufacturers have allowed video game producers to portray real-life gun models in video games, and video warfare gaming sites have featured advertising for gun and ammo manufacturers. Restless young men, having spent hundreds of hours immersed in simulated warfare, were tempted by advertisements to buy real weapons. The direct advertising was discontinued after complaints, but video games still feature authentic gun models and condition users to kill.
Even without marketing, men are susceptible to the false sense of power that comes with a gun. I still remember listening to the stories in the boys’ locker room in junior high. Kids bragged about how they blew away some coyote or varmint with a gun. The bigger the gun and the more they decimated the creature, the bigger the brag, as if there is something profoundly manly about being able to squeeze a trigger. Hunting to feed one’s family is one thing, but guns can distort a user’s personality, contributing to a fundamental disrepect for life. As a hiker, I often encounter “sportsmen” who go out in the woods to drink beer and blast away at the trees, rocks, and wildlife for entertainment.
The gun industry knows how to capitalize on the natural insecurities of young men who want to feel more powerful. Fortunately, most young men, confined to the cities, don’t have the opportunity to exercise their manliness on the local wildlife. Unfortunately, the gun industry is flooding our cities and towns with weapons and ammunition, putting them in the hands of testosterone-hyped young men with no outlet to use them, except against other people.
For the gun industry, it is a win-win marketing situation. By aiding and abetting gun violence, the gun industry bolsters the market for yet more gun sales, but now on the pretext of security. As Wayne LaPierre, vice president for the National Rifle Association, said after the Sandy Hook massacre, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”3 What the gun industry wants is for every law-abiding citizen to own a gun, or better yet, a whole gun collection. Be trained and prepared for self-defense. Keep one behind the counter to defend your business. Keep a gun in your car, or get a permit to carry a concealed weapon and keep it on you at all times. Arm our pilots, our teachers, and our taxicab drivers. Legalize guns on college campuses, and make sure everyone has one for self-defense. Because a world that is awash with guns requires that everyone be armed to defend themselves against people with guns.
There are already an estimated 310 million guns in the United States,4 approximately one gun for every man, woman, and child in the country. The problem with the gun industry, as with all corporations, is that there isn’t an end to it. It wouldn’t matter if there were 310 billion or 310 trillion guns in the country. The nature of corporations is to expand and sell more products this year than they did last year. A banner sales year for guns only requires newer and better marketing schemes to con people into buying yet more guns the following year. But more guns will never make us safer, and gun violence doesn’t necessarily turn people against gun ownership.
One would think that gun violence and massacres like Sandy Hook would be bad for the gun industry. Publicly, industry representatives lament such tragedies, and privately, they must worry about the impact on the corporate bottom line. But strangely, even mass murder is good for business. Sales of guns and ammunition spiked immediately after the massacre, before the children’s bloody corpses were laid to rest. Presumably, consumers buy additional guns and stock up on ammunition because they fear new gun control legislation.
Fear of gun control is perhaps the gun industry’s best marketing tool of all. The NRA fans these flames of fear, manipulating gun owners until people wildly exclaim that, “The government is going to take our guns away!” even though no such legislation has been proposed. It’s absurd.
As one fed-up gun-toting Wyoming mother lamented, “I am tired of going to the local ammo supplier and finding out that every bullet they had sold out as quickly as they put them on the shelves. I am tired of listening to hateful rhetoric about how the President is coming to take everything down to our pea shooter away. It’s ridiculous. We know that the only people who stand to profit from this are the ones who sell guns and bullets. They have motive, means and opportunity. All they want is our money.”5
Keeping gun control in the news as much as possible is good for business. And fortunately for the gun industry, it’s a win-win situation, whether or not gun control legislation is enacted. If defeated, the battle continues. If approved in some miniscule way, the battle continues. And even if specific gun models and clip sizes are banned and background checks required, the impact to gun sales and gun violence won’t be significant.
As gun advocates like to say, “If you outlaw guns, then only outlaws will have guns.” But Adam Lanza wasn’t an outlaw, and his mother had a permit for the gun he used to kill her and everyone else.
Nancy Lanza was not a bad person for buying a semiautomatic rifle. She never could have predicted how the weapon would ultimately be used. And that’s the problem. Merely buying and owning the AR-15 made the Sandy Hook massacre possible. And it will happen again. The gun used in the next massacre may be properly locked away in someone’s gun safe right now. No person can absolutely gaurantee that their gun won’t be used to commit murder, any more than they can guarantee that they themselves won’t one day suffer from severe emotional stress and mental illness. Even well-trained and properly certified police officers and soldiers go rogue now and then and start killing people.
As long as our society is awash in guns, we will be plagued by gun violence. An estimated half million guns are lost or stolen every year in this country.6 By merely owning guns, well-intentioned gun owners are unintentionally putting guns in the hands of criminals. Ultimately, we are not suffering from a lack of gun control, we are suffering from an excess supply of guns. Out of 12,664 homicides in the U.S. in 2011, 8,583 were committed with guns. Guns were also used in 19,392 suicides in 2010, accounting for about half of the total.7
In response to gun violence, Chicago enacted the nation’s strictest gun control laws, but to little avail. Guns can be purchased legally only by properly trained and certified, permit-carrying, law-abiding citizens. Everyone else buys guns through the black market, imported from elsewhere or sometimes stolen from law-abiding gun owners. A handgun can be purchased on the streets of Chicago for $40 or $50, or a semiautomatic for $100.8
Twenty-nine students from Chicago’s Harper High School were shot in just one year, eight of them fatally, which prompted Public Radio International to do an in-depth story for This American Life. Three reporters spent a semester in the community, interviewing students, staff, and parents. For the students, just walking home from school each day required strategy to stay alive. They often walked down the center of the street, blocking traffic, to avoid close quarters with trees or other obstacles along sidewalks where gunmen might be hiding. They walked close enough to each other to benefit from group security, but far enough apart to avoid implying any affiliations that might get them knocked off by one gang or another.9 This is daily life in Chicago, USA, and it is a potential harbinger of things to come as gun manufacturers flood our cities and towns with millions upon millions of new guns. As noted in the story, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida has attended funerals for forty-four slain children in just four and a half years.10
The gun industry, like the tobacco industry, is driven by profit, and both profit from death. The drug war in Mexico, for example, is partly fueled by American-made guns flowing across the border. Between government agents, rival drug cartels, and innocent civilians caught in the cross-fire, more than 60,000 people have died in the battle.11 Murder has become so commonplace in places like Juarez, that residents have been known to yawn while passing by yet another murder scene. Young children routinely witness the mopping up of blood on the street. The American gun industry quietly profits from the bloodbath and has done nothing to stem the flow of guns and ammunition to Mexico. Every bullet fired ultimately translates to more profit for corporate shareholders.
Mexicans have responded by glorifying the drug cartels on television, glamorizing a lifestyle of guns, drugs, sex, and money, which ultimately recruits yet more gullible young men into a life of violence. As the violence spills across the border, our southern states are becoming increasingly ghettoized and everyone is in prison. Those with limited means put bars on their own windows. People with more money lock themselves into gated communities, but no one is free.
It is a stark contrast to the world I grew up in here in Montana, where many people didn’t bother to lock their doors at night. Some didn’t bother to lock their doors when they went away on vacation. But the world out there is steadily encroaching, making Montanans live in fear like everyone else.
If we are to reverse the trend and regain our security, we must deal with the superstorm at its source. To have any hope of reducing gun violence, we must first stop flooding the marketplace with cheap, mass-produced guns. The manufacture of traditional hunting rifles is not the concern, nor the cottage industry of small-time, custom gun makers. But any type of gun that regularly shows up at crime scenes needs to be addressed. What would happen if we were to apply a crime tax to problem gun types, both real and virtual?
For example, placing a significant crime tax on handgun sales could reduce demand enough to eventually make them scarce. How much tax would be required on legitimate handgun sales to raise the black market price of a handgun from $40 to $400 in Chicago? Would there be less gun violence if cheap guns were not being passed around the neighborhood? Would there still be an incentive to rob a convenience store if it necessitated a $400 investment instead of a $40 investment? And what if this crime tax were used by law enforcement to aid gun buy-back programs? At what price would gang members be more interested in cashing out gun collections for quick, easy, and legitimate cash? What would happen if we also taxed violent video games and included the revenue in the gun buy-back program?
Alternately, what would happen if the gun industry were held accountable for crimes committed by their products? If a particular type of gun were implicated regularly in crime scenes, then perhaps the manufacturer should re-examine the gun style, marketing campaign, and/or customer screening associated with that model. If a corporation fails to address the issues, then it should be held indirectly accountable for the resulting crimes. How might a gun or ammunition manufacturer adjust its product lines, consumer screening, education, and tracking, if the company were fined a million dollars for each person murdered by their brand of gun?
I don’t know the best answers for reducing gun violence. What I do know is that the best-intentioned gun control laws won’t make much difference as long as the gun industry retains the incentive to flood the marketplace with millions upon millions of cheap new guns. If we are going to make meaningful change, we must shift the debate from the end user to the true source of the problem: corporate greed. We will never be safe as long as there is profit to be made by conning people into believing they need more guns.
Thomas J. Elpel is the author of six books and the founder of Green University® LLC. Tom is admittedly not a big fan of guns, but he does use them as needed. Tom kills only what he will eat, and he prefers hunting with sticks, rocks, and bows & arrows, which engenders deeper respect for one’s quarry.
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1. Jonathan Thompson. “Which way will the West go on guns?” High Country News. February 04, 2013. http://www.hcn.org/issues/45.2/which-way-will-the-west-go-on-guns.
2. Mike McIntire. “Selling a New Generation on Guns.” The New York Times. January 26, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/us/selling-a-new-generation-on-guns.html?
3. Wayne Lapierre. NRA Press Conference. December 21, 2012. http://home.nra.org/pdf/Transcript_PDF.pdf.
4. Jonathan Stray. “Gun Violence in America: The 13 Key Questions (With 13 Concise Answers).” The Atlantic. February 4, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/gun-violence-in-america-the-13-key-questions-with-13-concise-answers/272727/.
5. Sarah Zacharias. “Gun Owner Holsters Her Weapon, Challenges NRA.” The Big Slice. April 16, 2013. http://thebigslice.org/gun-owner-holsters-her-weapon-challenges-nra/.
6. “Fact Sheet: Stolen Guns.” The John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-gun-policy-and-research/publications/guns_theft_fs.pdf
7. Jonathan Stray. “Gun Violence in America: The 13 Key Questions (With 13 Concise Answers).” The Atlantic. February 4, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/gun-violence-in-america-the-13-key-questions-with-13-concise-answers/272727/.
8. Ira Glass. “488: Harper High School, Part Two.” This American Life. Public Radio International. Originally aired 02.22.2013. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/488/transcript.
9. Ira Glass. “487: Harper High School, Part One.” This American Life. Public Radio International. Originally aired 02.15.2013. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/487/transcript.
10. Ira Glass. “488: Harper High School, Part Two.” This American Life. Public Radio International. Originally aired 02.22.2013. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/488/transcript.
11. “Q&A: Mexico’s drug-related violence.” BBC News. December 24, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-10681249.