America's Big Problem With Guns? Our Gun Industry Profits From Fear and Death

The mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night is unusual in many regards, most obviously because of its unimaginable body count, which seems more like the report from a battlefield than the result of one armed man in a hotel room. But the fallout in public discourse was still roughly the same as it is whenever one of the daily mass shootings in this country becomes big enough to garner national attention: Everyone sits around with bated breath, waiting for the details to come out and discusses whether they are seen as benefiting one "side" or another in the endless, miserable debate about when or whether we will stand up against the endless mass murder perpetrated by people armed with extremely profitable high tech weaponry.


But whatever the specific details of the most recent shooting may be — whether it's "terrorism" or not, whether the weapons were legal or not — there's an overarching truth that we must recognize. The gun industry and its lobbyists in the National Rifle Association are to blame. It isn't just the overly lax laws that they've gotten on the books, but the entire culture of gun-nuttery they've cultivated in order to sell more guns. While specific regulations need to be debated and passed, the big-picture problem here is an industry out of control.

Gun manufacturers are the problem. The entire industry, as we know it, needs to be eradicated.

In this particular shooting, there's good reason to believe that the 64-year-old shooter, Stephen Paddock, was armed with an automatic weapon. (It's worth noting that an experienced marksman can get off more than 1,000 shots in 5 minutes with a semiautomatic weapon.) This gives defensive gun nuts a rhetorical weapon to use against the usual liberal calls for more gun control. Automatic weapons, they can point out, are already regulated by the federal government. They must be registered, and there are limits on manufacturing that make the number available for legal sale extremely low, at least compared to semiautomatic weapons (which are widely and legally available). Unregistered automatic weapons are black market items.

But even if a shooter gets a weapon from the black market, that doesn't mean that the legal gun industry bears no responsibility.

“It is too easy for guns to be diverted from the legal to the illegal market," Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, explained to Salon.

Regardless of whether Paddock's gun was legal or not, the grim truth is that the illegal gun market is so robust because of the legal gun market, not despite it. Most illegal guns, and arguably all of them, started out as legal guns and wound their way onto the black market in various ways, such as bulk purchases, corrupt gun sellers, straw-man purchases or outright theft. Whether the NRA likes it or not, this suggests that one of the quickest ways to shut down the illegal gun market is to shut down the legal one.

"The gun industry profits when it sells a gun that is eventually sold to a criminal," Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, told Salon. "And the gun industry also profits when the culture of fear it created — having armed those criminals, often through irresponsible or negligent sales — makes other people think that they also need to have a gun."

The link between the legal and illegal gun market is nakedly obvious when you look at the situation in Mexico. Mexico has strict gun laws, but because of the legal gun industry in the United States, criminals in Mexico have a well-stocked black market to buy from. According to a 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office, "87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last five years originated in the United States."

This issue also goes back to social and cultural forces, especially the way that the gun industry and the NRA have cultivated a culture of gun-powered macho power fantasies. The number of people who own guns has steadily declined in recent years, so the gun industry has shifted its marketing tactics.

“It's clear that the gun industry is marketing to people who are already their customer base and finding new and novel and unfortunately more dangerous weapons to sell them," Nichols said.

The gun industry uses a carrot-and-stick approach to get this done. The carrot is the power fantasy -- the idea that having a whole bunch of guns will make you feel manly and tough. Gun advertising also emphasizes the diverse range of technical attributes available, appealing to the "collect-'em-all" mentality. On the stick front, the NRA and other gun-industry propaganda arms have heavily promoted visions of social collapse and discord to make gun owners feel they have to buy enough weapons to start their own personal army in self-defense.

"The gun industry and the NRA is profiting off a sense of fear," said Kris Brown, the other co-president of the Brady Campaign. 

Most gun owners don't commit violent crimes, of course. But it's difficult to deny that this culture of heightened emotions and power fantasies is a huge factor in producing so many mass shootings. The gun industry's message that an arsenal of weapons makes you manly and powerful falls on the ears of unstable people every single day. Whether their motivations are rooted in domestic violence, political terrorism or just a desire to cause chaos, one thing mass shooters have in common is that they're plugged into gun industry marketing that appeals to that desire to dominate.

"Sometimes it's a mistake to focus on what kind of gun was in a particular shooting," said Gardiner, adding that there was a bigger "national conversation on how we stop gun deaths in America, not whether a gun with this particular feature should be regulated one way or another."

There are numerous policy details to mull and debates to have, but ultimately the problem with guns in the United States is the problem with the gun industry. Our lack of political will or ability to pass reasonable laws, the toxic culture around guns and the sheer proliferation of guns, both legal and illegal, all go back to the industry's psychotic desire to put its profits ahead of public safety. Until that changes, our problem with mass shootings will never end.

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