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Save Lake Mead, Save America

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Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area.

If we can save Lake Mead, we can save America. The issues that face Lake Mead, formed by Hoover Dam in 1935, are emblematic of the issues that face America. Water from the Colorado River, like the federal budget, is over-allocated. The deficit isn’t so much a lack of water coming in to the lake, but too much going out to water users in California, Arizona, and locally at Las Vegas, Nevada. The result is a permanent white bathtub ring 150 feet above the remaining lake, leaving an oversized dam, and decaying infrastructure throughout Lake Mead National Recreation Area. There is a potential solution to this slow-motion crisis, which can be found three hundred miles to the West.

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Lake Mead is the closest place to Montana with palm trees, where a person can comfortably pitch a tent and camp in the middle of winter.

Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area in 1936, originally named the Boulder Dam Recreation Area. Measured by capacity, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States, but water levels have fallen to 37 percent of capacity. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is administered by the National Park Service, similar to a national park, but with greater emphasis as an outdoor play area than on natural preservation.

Lake Mead has been slowly drying up since 1983. I first discovered the lake in the early 1990s on a winter trip from my home in Montana south to Arizona. Lake Mead is the closest place to home with palm trees, where one can comfortably pitch a tent and enjoy camping in mid-winter. If need be, I can drive the 822 miles from home to the campground at Echo Bay in one long day on the road.  Back then it still looked mostly full, as if the white rim around the lake was due to seasonal fluctuations, rather than a cumulative drop.

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Touring Hoover Dam with my boys back in 2008. The white bathtub ring in the background is much larger now.

For better or worse, Hoover Dam was constructed when America still had the vision and balls to dream big and tackle the impossible, in this case, the most challenging engineering project ever undertaken, temporarily diverting the Colorado and building a 726-foot dam to restrain the mighty river. 660 feet thick at the top and 45 feet thick at the bottom, the Hoover Dam required so much concrete that the core of is still cooling down from the chemical reaction of cement and water nearly a century later. The entire job was completed in just five years with the aid of 5,000 workers.

Throughout American history, we were a nation of dreamers, from the founding of democracy to construction of the transcontinental railroads and the founding of Yellowstone as the first national park in our country and in the world. Inspired by the dream of America, oppressed peoples in the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Poland, and around the world rebelled against autocratic governments and founded democracies of their own, spreading freedom without American intervention beyond the inspiration of our existence.

Ditto for America’s parks. Author Wallace Stegner described our national parks as “America’s best idea,” an idea that inspired other nations to form similar parks to preserve their own national treasures for future generations. As part of our national parks system, Lake Mead is effectively one of our ambassadors to the world.

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Every city should be surrounded by wilderness!

Lake Mead and Las Vegas is also a model for the interface between urban centers and wildlands. The city is uniquely surrounded by vast public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities, what former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt described as a “city in the wilderness.” Every person in Vegas is about a half hour drive from the middle of nowhere, where hiking, camping, and boating opportunities abound. Wouldn’t it be great if every city shared similar opportunities?

Despite proximity to town, Lake Mead is strangely deserted in winter. High temperatures hover from the mid-50s to the mid-60s in December and January, sometimes dipping down to the 40s, chilly, but not unlike camping in the mountains of Montana in summer. By February, temperatures often reach the mid-70s and the cottonwoods leaf out three full months ahead of spring at home. Still, the campgrounds are largely deserted as Las Vegans consider this winter.

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Lake Mead is a great winter getaway, especially coming south from Montana.

The lake doesn’t get busy until spring break or later, when urbanites from Vegas to Phoenix to Los Angeles begin flocking to the lake to cool off and play in the water. That suits me just fine. I’m content to paddle around the lake in a canoe, enjoying the lack of noisy motorboats and the waves they leave in their wake that could potentially swamp a canoe.

I also enjoy hiking the park’s rugged backcountry before it gets too hot. Lake Mead is rich with wildlife from bighorn sheep and burrows to jackrabbits, roadrunners, and Wile E. Coyote. Unfortunately, the recreation area has taken on an increasingly apocalyptic look as water levels have dropped and facilities have deteriorated or been completely abandoned, mirroring a general decline across America.

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As water levels fell, the National Park Service poured more concrete to extend the Echo Bay boat ramp, eventually becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere.

The Echo Bay Hotel was still a waterfront resort when I first visited Lake Mead. I savored ripe dates below a date palm on the west side of the building, wishing I could scale the tree to pick more. The boat ramp in front of the hotel provided easy access to the lake. Each time I returned, the lake was a little farther from the hotel, and the Park Service had poured more concrete, extending the initial board ramp downhill to catch up with the receding lake, ultimately becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere, terminating far from the present lakeshore.

The marina was also pushed farther out into the lake, requiring constant re-engineering of the facilities and ever-longer water pipes, electrical lines, and anchor cables. A quarter mile beyond the boat ramp, the marina was abandoned, and the Park Service plowed a mile-long dirt road from the hotel to access the remaining lake.

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The Echo Bay hotel and marina were abandoned, contributing to a post-apocalyptic aura.

Not surprisingly, the hotel soon went out of business. Vandals broke the windows and destroyed the interior. Ditto for the abandoned marina. Yet neither place has found room in the budget for demolition and removal, presumably because the Park Service has prioritized chasing the lake to keep facilities functional, rather than cleaning up old messes. The race to migrate the marinas with the receding lake has left behind a litter trail of old docks, parts, cables, concrete blocks and tire anchors. Abandoned boats are surprisingly common in the old dead stands of tamarisk far above the present lake.

Some of my anti-establishment friends see the decline of Lake Mead as prophetic to the inevitable abandonment of Las Vegas and Phoenix, desert cities that shouldn’t exist, sustained by water restrained by a dam that shouldn’t have been built. We should blow up the damn dam and every other dam to allow rivers to flow wild and free and restore the healthy ecology and natural fisheries, they exclaim. This article isn’t about whether or not Hoover Dam should have been built, but as long as it exists, I believe we might as well use it. Besides, if the lake ceased to exist and Las Vegas dried up, all those people might move to Montana.

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There are many abandoned boats in the dead and dying tamarisk around Lake Mead.

There are also people who cheer the decline of America. Civilization as we know it is not sustainable. We’ve paved over paradise, fracked the planet for consumable resources, and terrorized the world with warfare. They see the collapse of our nation as a necessary step in the path to sustainability, to restoring balance with nature. I see it a bit differently, since there are enough guns and ammo to turn our country into Syria and to wipe out all remaining wildlife for food. All our toxic chemicals would spill unchecked into surface and groundwaters—and best of all—our untended nuclear reactors would melt down and irradiate all life on the planet. Collapse is no longer a viable option. Saving America, and saving Lake Mead, seems like a much better plan.

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Vandals broke windows and destroyed the inside of the inside of the Echo Bay hotel before it was boarded up to prevent further access.

The doomsayers do have a point though. America has overreached and become a world terror. Gone are the days when we were the most respected and admired nation on earth. Somewhere we transitioned from inspiring other nations to bombing them in the name of peace and democracy. In the latest round of democracy-or-else, we invested $5 trillion dollars a) to remove Saddam Hussein (whom we previously supported and armed against Iran), b) to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (after originally arming and training Afghans to fight the Soviets), and c) to destroy ISIS (which was born in our own Army prisons and armed with American weapons left behind from tasks a and b). In terms of bang for the buck, we don’t have much to show for the investment. Invested differently, $5 trillion could have saved Lake Mead as well as most of America.

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Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas is dependent on water from Lake Mead.

American infrastructure is declining, and Lake Mead is drying up. Due to falling water levels, Las Vegas invested $817 million to construct a new intake pipe to reach deeper into the lake, yet it too is in danger of becoming a straw to nowhere as lake levels continue to drop. The problem is that downstream water users claim too much of the Colorado’s flow, such that experts forecast that Lake Mead will never rise to capacity again. At this point, I haven’t heard of a plan, a vision, or apparently even a discussion on how to remedy the problem. As a country, we lack the dream or the initiative to tackle our most basic problems.

Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas and Phoenix depend on the Colorado for their very survival. Farmers in California’s Central Valley also depend on the river to grow much of the nation’s produce. Los Angeles and San Diego, however, are situated adjacent to the world’s biggest bowl of water, the Pacific Ocean, three hundred miles west of Lake Mead. If these urban centers obtained their water from the ocean and left Colorado water in Lake Mead, the lake would refill at the rate of about 4 percent per year, enough to eventually fill the lake to capacity and potentially restore partial flows across the Mexico border to the Gulf of California.

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Investing in desalinization to provide water to Los Angeles and San Diego from the Pacific Ocean could save enough Colorado River water to refill Lake Mead.

At present, desalinization is considered energy-intensive and cost prohibitive, about $2.20 to $5.00 per thousand cubic feet of treated water, compared to $2.00 to purify river water. Yet, the cost of desalinization is falling as other countries, notably Israel, invest heavily in the technology. The cost of wind, solar, and wave power are also falling, making desalinization a realistic possibility, if not now, then in the near future. The federal government and all water users would have to work together to determine who would pay for construction and operation of the desalinization plants.

Notably, Carlsbad, California has recently completed a desalinization plant to augment their water supply, and other plants are being discussed in the state, but apparently not towards the goal of restoring Lake Mead or guaranteeing future water supplies to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Due to the 1922 Colorado River Compact governing water use, any water saved on the California coast would likely be utilized by other entities to fulfill their own claims. This is not an insurmountable problem. The effort required to renegotiate the water compact and build desalinization plants is far less than the bold action initially required to build the dam and create the lake.

Lake Mead needs what America needs, a bold vision for a better future and the balls to commit to making it happen. If we can save Lake Mead, we can just as easily save America and once again become an inspiration and positive role model to the world.

Elpel.info logo. Thomas J. Elpel is the director of Green University, LLC in Pony, Montana and the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. In 2006, Thomas Elpel and friends paddled the Virgin River from Mesquite, Nevada downstream to Lake Mead… dragging canoes ten miles through the sand. Read the full story.

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Roadkill: It’s What’s for Dinner

My grandmother mentored me in breaking the law. It wasn’t legal to pick up road-killed game along the highway, but she taught me that it was the right thing to do.

My grandmother mentored me in breaking the law. It wasn’t legal to pick up road-killed game along the highway, but she taught me that it was the right thing to do.

My grandmother mentored me in breaking the law. It wasn’t legal to pick up road-killed game along the highway, but she taught me that it was the right thing to do. The key was to do it quickly, while nobody was coming. Roadkill deer were loaded into the back of her truck and brought home for gutting, skinning, and butchering. Good meat went into the freezer. Any questionable meat was a treat for the dogs. Fortunately, the 2013 Montana legislature legalized the use of roadkill game (limited to deer, antelope, elk, and moose). Although my grandmother passed away years ago, I know that she would have appreciated the new law.
The illegality of salvaging roadkill game always seemed nonsensical to me. After all, Montana has a law that forbids the wanton waste of meat if a hunter kills a deer, yet there were thousands of deer going to waste along our highways every year. Moreover, according to the Foodbank Network, thirty percent of the population in Montana is at risk of food insecurity, especially the poor, the elderly, and children. According to their website, “Food insecurity is characterized by not having the financial means to buy food or grow food, the need for emergency food assistance, and adults skipping meals. Food insecurity exists when the availability of nutritionally adequate food or the ability to access it on a consistent basis is uncertain or limited.”

Montana’s new roadkill law applies to deer, moose, elk, and antelope.

Montana’s new roadkill law applies to deer, moose, elk, and antelope.

I asked around, but no law enforcement officer could offer a compelling reason why it wasn’t legal to pick up roadkill game, and they always seemed to be drawing straws, making up answers about issues such as safety, liability, or the risk of encouraging poaching. But I finally figured out the answer myself: It wasn’t so much illegal as merely unlegal. Montana had no law against picking up roadkill game, yet no law allowing it either. According to Montana’s fish and wildlife laws, game animals can only be taken by approved methods, and anything not specified in the rulebooks isn’t allowed. Thus, picking up roadkill game was illegal by omission. For similar reasons, it isn’t legal to hunt upland game birds, such as grouse, with sticks or rocks. By the letter of the law, one is required to cheat nature and hunt with a gun or a bow.
I once dreamed of getting into state politics, and if I did, then I would have introduced legislation legalizing the use of roadkill game. But Steve Lavin (R-Kalispell) beat me to it. Lavin was previously a police officer. He and other police officers admittedly donated roadkill game to the food bank on occasion, even though it wasn’t exactly legal. Evidently, my grandmother was not the only outlaw! No doubt there were many other closet lawbreakers. It was the right thing to do.

Montana is especially rich with roadkill game. There are only about a million people in the state, somewhat less than the combined population of deer, antelope, elk, and moose.

Montana is especially rich with roadkill game. There are only about a million people in the state, somewhat less than the combined population of deer, antelope, elk, and moose.

I have enjoyed many roadkill deer over the years. Most were processed exclusively to fill the freezer with delicious steaks and roasts. Others were made partially or entirely into jerky and utilized as trail food for walkabouts and canoe trips. Processing roadkill deer is an essential component of our Green University® LLC internship program. Interns are encouraged to pick up roadkill game for processing. They learn how to properly gut, skin, and butcher the animals, as well as how to soften or braintan the hides and make fashionable buckskin clothing.
Montana is especially rich with roadkill game. There are only about a million people in the state, somewhat less than the combined population of deer, antelope, elk, and moose. Montana is also the fourth largest state, with a lot of long, empty roads that are often driven a little too fast. Thus, drivers face about a 1 in 77 chance of hitting a deer in any given year, compared with a 1 in 232 chance in neighboring Idaho.
Drivers are most at risk of hitting deer during the fall breeding season. Deer disperse during the summer while the females raise their fawns, but group together in the fall and winter. The late season routine covers more area and takes the animals into unfamiliar territory. In addition, male deer wander more in search of females. The learning curve is steep, as vehicular selection removes a great many inexperienced deer from the gene pool. The survivors are less likely to be hit during the winter months, once the herds have established a familiar routine. Mortality rises again in the spring as the herds separate once again.

To avoid a collision, it is important to reduce speed in the spring and fall during the evening, night, and early morning hours.

To avoid a collision, it is important to reduce speed in the spring and fall during the evening, night, and early morning hours.

To avoid a collision, it is important to reduce speed in the spring and fall during the evening, night, and early morning hours. Be especially careful where irrigated alfalfa fields line the highways. Whitetail deer breed like rabbits on the rich food. Driving these corridors can be a bit like running the proverbial gauntlet. The odds of colliding with a deer is substantially higher in these few key locations than elsewhere in the state. Drivers who blow by at seventy miles an hour without full light are courting disaster. In addition to the unfortunate death of the animal, the damage to a vehicle can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and passengers are often injured and sometimes killed. Nationwide, about two hundred people die in collisions with deer every year. By that measure, these docile creatures are the most dangerous wild animals in North America!
Montana’s new roadkill law makes the best of a bad situation. It is good news for Montanans. Any family of limited means can now put healthy, organic free range food on the table and thereby save money and improve their financial situation. Moreover, they don’t need to buy a gun or a tag or wait until hunting season to feed the family. Anyone who is thrifty like me will no doubt butcher their own, but other people will haul roadkill game to the butcher shop, providing additional four-season employment.
Montana’s roadkill law applies only to roadkill deer, antelope, elk, or moose. Salvaging other roadkill game, such as pheasants, grouse, geese, mountain lions or bears, still isn’t legal. (However, no permit is required for nongame roadkill, such as rabbits or coyotes.) The law was supposed to take effect October 1st, but wrangling over the rules and procedures delayed implementation of the law until November 26th, 2013. The final rules are very user friendly to anyone interested in salvaging game.

In addition to the unfortunate death of the animal, the damage to a vehicle can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and passengers are often injured and sometimes killed.

In addition to the unfortunate death of the animal, the damage to a vehicle can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and passengers are often injured and sometimes killed.

A “Vehicle-Killed Wildlife Salvage Permit” is required for each animal taken, but the permit is presently free. A law enforcement officer can issue the free permit if they happen to be at the scene of the collision. Otherwise, individuals are required to apply for a permit online within twenty-four hours after picking up an animal. The permits serve as a tracking system for wildlife officials to watch for signs of misuse of the program. Law enforcement officers may occasionally require inspection of the animal, parts, and meat and/or they may ask to see where the animal was picked up along the road. It is a sensible check-and-balance system to help reduce abuse of the program by poachers who might shoot game and try to claim it as roadkill.
Salvaged game must be entirely removed from the roadway by the permittee. It is okay to field dress the animal on site, but the entrails and all other parts of the carcass must be removed to avoid attracting scavengers and predators to the roadside. The meat must be used for human consumption and may not be used as bait for hunting predators. And despite anecdotes to the contrary, the Montana Food Bank Network officially does not accept donations of road-killed game.
      One aspect of the rules I question is that citizens are not supposed to kill animals wounded in collisions. The individual is expected to call a law enforcement officer to the scene to finish the job. However, the more humane thing to do is to put the animal out of its misery right away. A blunt instrument to the head, such as a crowbar or tire iron, is highly effective. Death is instantaneous and humane, and it is the moral thing to do. Aside from that issue, I wholly support the new roadkill law, and I am glad to have competition for the resource from other Montanans. I would rather come home empty-handed, knowing that the meat went to someone else’s freezer, than see perfectly good meat go to waste on the side of the road. I believe my grandmother would have felt the same way.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder and director of Green University®, LLC and Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS). He is the author and producer of numerous books and videos. Harvesting and processing roadkill game is detailed in his book Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills and expanded upon in his forth-coming book, Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.

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Profiting from Gun Violence

Corporate Greed and the American Bloodbath

Advertisement for the Bushmaster AR-15. It isn’t difficult for the gun industry to capitalize on the natural insecurities of young men who want to feel more powerful.

Advertisement for the Bushmaster AR-15. It isn’t difficult for the gun industry to capitalize on the natural insecurities of young men who want to feel more powerful.

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.

Boys-becoming-men grow up on the couch, spending thousands of hours immersed in simulated warfare and murder, learning how to blow people away without remorse or emotion. [Photo credit, Get Gaming Now]

Boys-becoming-men grow up on the couch, spending thousands of hours immersed in simulated warfare and murder, learning how to blow people away without remorse or emotion. [Photo credit, Get Gaming Now]

      Urbanization has made men like Lanza increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by savvy marketing firms. Young men do not have the opportunity to build rippling muscles and self esteem by doing traditional work – building fences, swinging an axe, or taming a wild horse. Instead, boys-becoming-men grow up on the couch, shooting people in video games, using virtual guns that are often the same or similar to actual models pushed by gun manufacturers. They spend thousands of hours immersed in simulated warfare and murder, learning how to blow people away without remorse or emotion. I have met young men with that background, and they often talk of becoming Army Rangers. They want to go to war so they can use their “skills” in the real world.

"Alexa." An "ex-girlfriend turned zombie" on display as a target at the NRA convention. Source: New York Daily News

“Alexa.” An “ex-girlfriend turned zombie” on display as a target at the NRA convention. Source: New York Daily News

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 (and it's non-profit affiliates) bolsters the market for yet more gun sales, but now on the pretext of security.

For the gun industry, it is a win-win marketing situation. By aiding and abetting gun violence, the gun industry (and it’s non-profit affiliates) bolsters the market for yet more gun sales, but now on the pretext of security.

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.

Mass murder is good for business. Sales of guns and ammunition spiked after the Sandy Hook massacre, even before the bloody corpses of the children were laid to rest.  Top row: (L-R) Ana Marquez-Greene, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Emilie Parker, Noah Pozner. Second row: (L-R) Jesse Lewis, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Charlotte Bacon, Chase Kowalski. Third row: (L-R) Daniel Barden, Jack Pinto, Catherine Hubbard, Dylan Hockley, Benjamin Wheeler. Fourth row: (L-R) Grace McDonnell, James Mattioli, Avielle Richman, Madeleine Hsu, Allison Wyatt.Image source: MercuryNews.com Original source: REUTERS/Handout

Mass murder is good for business. Sales of guns and ammunition spiked after the Sandy Hook massacre, even before the bloody corpses of the children were laid to rest.

Top row: (L-R) Ana Marquez-Greene, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Emilie Parker, Noah Pozner. Second row: (L-R) Jesse Lewis, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Charlotte Bacon, Chase Kowalski. Third row: (L-R) Daniel Barden, Jack Pinto, Catherine Hubbard, Dylan Hockley, Benjamin Wheeler. Fourth row: (L-R) Grace McDonnell, James Mattioli, Avielle Richman, Madeleine Hsu, Allison Wyatt.
Image source: MercuryNews.com Original source: REUTERS/Handout

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. I’ts 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.

Adam Lanza wasn’t an outlaw, and his mother had a permit for the gun he used to kill her and everyone else.

Adam Lanza wasn’t an outlaw, and his mother had a permit for the gun he used to kill her and everyone else.

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

More than 60,000 people have died in the drug war in Mexico, yet American gun makers have done nothing to prevent the flow of guns into the country, nor expressed any concern. Why should they? It is all profit for them. Illustration by Matt  Wuerker

More than 60,000 people have died in the drug war in Mexico, yet American gun makers have done nothing to prevent the flow of guns into the country, nor expressed any concern. Why should they? It is all profit for them. Illustration by Matt Wuerker

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.

A .50 Caliber Flintlock Pirate Pistol purchased by the author.  The manufacture of traditional hunting rifles is not the concern, nor the cottage industry of small-time, custom gun makers.

A .50 Caliber Flintlock Pirate Pistol purchased by the author.
The manufacture of traditional hunting rifles is not the concern, nor the cottage industry of small-time, custom gun makers.

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?

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.

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.

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?

Although he sometimes uses guns, Thomas J. Elpel prefers to hunt with sticks, rocks, and bows and arrows, which engenders deeper respect for one’s quarry.

Although he sometimes uses guns, Thomas J. Elpel prefers to hunt with sticks, rocks, and bows and arrows, which engenders deeper respect for one’s quarry.

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.

Learn about nature. Respect nature.
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Participating in Nature:
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Footnotes
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.

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