San Bernardino Shooting: Gun Sales Soar in Familiar Pattern of Panic and Profit
Stocks in Smith & Wesson, maker of some of the weapons used in the San Bernardino attacks, have surged in the days since the tragedy, in keeping with a pattern that sees the the share prices of gun manufacturers jump after high-profile shootings in America.
The phenomenon appears bleak for advocates of tighter controls, but could also open up a new line of attack against the industry that profits from it.
The profits generated by firearms sales should, some campaigners believe, intensify public attention on the corporations and retailers who benefit. While liberal arguments against the right to bear arms have made little headway over the years, they hope a hard-headed economic case could gain more traction – especially in a climate in which presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ attacks on big business have resonated.
On Friday the group Common Cause launched an online petition to the US Congress under the title “Give back the gun lobby’s dirty money”. Since 2000, it alleged, pro-gun groups have spent more than $101m in lobbying on Capitol Hill. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence estimates more than 100,000 Americans are victims of gun violence every year.
In particular, activists have identified a perverse cycle whereby a mass shooting prompts the president to call for tougher gun restrictions, which the gun lobby exploits to sow fear, which in turns leads to an outbreak of urgent stockpiling, all of which boosts profits. In short, a massacre is “good for business”.
Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance, a pressure group formed after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012, said: “I think this pattern occurs because the gun industry and the corporate gun lobby stir a significant fear in the base that guns will be taken away from them, so they can sell more guns. It’s the gun industry’s heartless pursuit of profit. They have no regard for life or the devastation is causes to communities.”
Murray, who is bringing numerous families affected by gun violence to a national vigil in Washington next week, believes the trend is deliberate. “Recently some information leaked from boardroom conversations shows they are delighted and celebrating the fact that, after a massacre, profits increase significantly.”
She was referring to an article published on the Intercept website that quoted several corporate executives describing how mass killings improve their profit columns. It told how Tommy Millner, the chief executive of retailer Cabela’s, boasted at an investor conference in Nebraska that his company made a “conscious decision” to stock additional weapons merchandise before the 2012 election in the hope that Obama’s re-election would result in a surge in sales.
After the Sandy Hook shooting, in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adult staff members, “the business went vertical … I meant it just went crazy,” Millner was quoted as saying. Cabela’s “didn’t blink as others did to stop selling AR-15 platform guns”, meaning the company “got a lot of new customers”.
The Intercept also highlighted reported comments by Ed Stack, chief executive of Dick’s Sporting Goods. “The gun business was very much accelerated based on what happened after the election and then the tragedy that happened at Sandy Hook,” he told a Goldman Sachs Global Retailing Conference last year. Stack noted that the industry saw “panic buying” when customers “thought there were going to be some very meaningful changes in our gun” laws. The new sales “didn’t bring hunters in” but rather “brought shooters into the industry”.
Cabela’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods did not respond to requests for comment.
The role of manufacturers and retailers has possibly been underplayed in the past. Murray said: “We do need to educate people about the economic impact on society. Studies have shown gun violence costs us more than $200bn a year in terms of work lost, medical care and other losses, as well as the huge toll on the families. I do think the Republican members of Congress would have to listen to that. They are on the wrong side of history.”
But critics say the tentacles of the National Rifle Association, which advocates for gun rights, reach deeper into Congress than ever before. Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said: “The gun lobby is clearly funding more and more of the NRA’s operations. The gun lobby and the gun industry now are virtually indistinguishable. There used to be a wall between them and the NRA had its own agenda; now the manufacturers set the agenda.”
The current familiar sequence – massacre, political fallout, panic buying – has grave consequences, he continued. “It’s double tragedy if a terrible shooting happens and then more people go and buy guns, putting themselves at risk including from suicide. You see tremendous rates of suicide in states with high gun sales.”
Although the early momentum of the Sanders presidential campaign appears to have waned, his message has indicated a resurgence of populist, left-leaning economic policies among Democrats. The Vermont senator’s own commitment to gun control has been questioned, but frontrunner Hillary Clinton has pledged that she will challenge what she describes as “the gun industry’s unique immunity protection” by repealing a law that prevents victims of gun violence from holding negligent manufacturers and dealers accountable.
Horwitz commented: “The big issue is that the gun industry has legal immunity for its negligence. They’re immunised from liability like no other industry. That’s going to have to change.”
Campaigners say politicians are behind the curve of public opinion, where even many conservatives and NRA members favour stronger background checks. Gun rights groups and their supporters have pumped millions into the election campaigns of members of Congress, expecting their interests to be protected. On Friday Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz held a pro-gun rights rally at a shooting range in Iowa. On Saturday he released a campaign ad vowing to “kill the terrorists”.
Mark Glaze, former executive director of Everytown for Gun Safety, has argued that while the NRA alone spent $37m the 2014 elections, the new mode of operation is to funnel dollars to “dark money” groupsthat do not have to say who gave them the money, or how much was given.
“The NRA’s business model is based on fear,” he said. “The reality of the economy of the gun industry is that it’s in trouble. The number of households that own a gun is lower than ever as the population becomes more urban and hunting fades away.”