The Business of Guns

I cannot keep track of these killings. As I was about to complete a blog referencing the shooting in Oregon, another shooting happened at Northern Arizona University, followed quickly by a shooting tragedy at Texas Southern University. Once again, pundits from all over the spectrum weigh in with their views. There are the National Rifle Association (NRA) talking points, including Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson suggesting kindergarten teachers should carry guns, and the gun control advocates spouting the usual – and tiring – cliché about mental illness. But why do so many people have guns in the first place?

Few are talking about two important issues: the “gun culture” that exists in this country and the business of guns. These issues work in tandem to create a demand, which includes sexualized advertising and political rhetoric about "taking our guns", and an easily accessible supply that can be purchased with little legal oversight, according to recent stories appearing on CNN and USA Today.

First of all, Americans have more guns per capita – 88 for every 100 citizens – than any other country in the world. A recent survey also found that American civilians have 270 million guns, dwarfing the countries ranked second and third (India and China); more than half (4.5 million) of the 8 million new guns manufactured annually in the world are purchased by Americans, according to a “Small Arms Survey 2007” by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies.

Former NRA member Tom Diaz discusses this American phenomenon in his book Making a Killing. Indeed, says Tom Diaz, the gun industry helps to promote a gun culture, “within which the firearm is less a utilitarian tool than an icon, so laden with implicit value that its hold over its devotees approaches the mystical.” 

Gun culture can be seen in the number of trade publications devoted to guns. According to a 2013 Ad Week report, gun magazines are performing exceptionally well. The report notes that magazine sales are generally down, except for those related to guns. For example, American Rifleman and America’s 1st Freedom (both affiliated with the NRA) had a 14% and 8% increase in their circulation during the first half of 2013. Two other magazines, Handguns and Guns and Ammo went up by 16% and 7% respectively.

“It hasn't been a particularly great year for magazine circulation, but one category is shining as a beacon of hope for the American publishing industry: guns. American Rifleman and America’s 1st Freedom, both of which are benefits of NRA membership, saw their circulations increase 14 percent to 1.9 million and 8 percent to 545,019, respectively, in the first half of the year versus the year-ago period. Handguns and Guns & Ammo, published by InterMedia Outdoors, saw their circ jump 16 percent to 137,648 and 7 percent to 416,224, respectively.” 

A January 2014 report from IBISWorld noted that the magazine Guns & Ammo expected revenues “to grow 20.2% in 2013 to $14.7 billion.” The report further observed this growth “is at least partly fueled by the tightening of gun laws,” and that “these magazines do better when gun owners feel their rights are being threatened." The message of impending gun scarcity promoted by the NRA and gun manufacturers is simply a calculated business strategy. The fear of liberal reforms sends buyers to gun shows before lax regulations are gone. 

According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, there are about 5,000 gun shows in the United States every year. There are more than 100 gun shows every weekend or about 5,200 shows annually. The National Association of Arms Shows estimates that more than 5 million people attend these shows each year, generating billions of dollars in sales.

However, 25 to 50 percent of firearm vendors at gun shows are unlicensed, according to a 1999 study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). The study found that “private sellers frequently rent table space at gun shows and carry or post “Private Sale” signs signaling that “purchases require no paperwork, no background check, no waiting period and no recordkeeping.” Another study by the ATF in 2000 found that gun shows are a “major trafficking channel,” associated with approximately 26,000 firearms diverted from legal to illegal commerce. According to the study, gun shows rank second to corrupt dealers as a source for illegally trafficked firearms

The Washington Post reported in August of 2013 that according to a Third Way study of a sample of ten states: “At any given time, more than 15,000 guns were for sale in those states and more than 5,000 of them were semi-automatic weapons. Nearly 2,000 ads were from prospective buyers asking to purchase specifically from private sellers, where no background checks are required.” The actual number of guns sold at these shows is not known, but according to a recent FBI report there were about 20 million gun sales at shows in 2012.

Deaths by firearms are expected to surpass deaths in car crashes in 2015, according to data supplied by the Center for Disease Control. The Center for American Progress has issued a report warning that gun violence increasingly results in fatalities for young people, especially minorities. They note specifically that: “American children and teenagers are 4 times more likely to die by gunfire than their counterparts in Canada, 7 times more likely than young people in Israel, and 65 times more likely to be killed with a gun than children and teenagers in the United Kingdom.” There have been far too many deaths from the use of guns. We are way past the time when a workable solution is needed.