On the 4th of July in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence the thirteen American colonies then at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain—New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia— announced that they would now regard themselves as thirteen independent sovereign states no longer under British rule.
It was a very brave thing to do, because there were very few guns in the colonies and they had no significant gun industry. Yet the American War of Independence (1775-1783) was won and with it the American gun industry was born. ABC RN’s Rear Vision program recently took a look at the origins of the American gun industry (transcript available) with some erudite published authors and scholars.
Elsewhere John Davidson posted a link to a remakable article by Jeanne Marie Laskas which outlines the work of the National Tracing Center in West Virginia which traces ownership of weapons. Unbelievably, a computer register is illegal, so that tracing gun ownership by name simply cannot happen. Reason? The government may be the enemy.
NRA CEO, Wayne LaPierre, regards the ATF (I gather that stands for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, of which the National Tracing Center is part) as “jackbooted government thugs,” and demands that Congress keep an eye on things.
- “Hitler and Stalin, like every dictator who perpetrated genocide during the 20th century, assiduously confiscated guns before starting the genocide,” wrote gun-rights activist Dave Kopel in a recent NRA publication.
“Registration. Confiscation. Extinction. Each step makes the next step much easier.”
So how did America get to this situation?
When the War of Independence broke out most of the guns in the colonies came from Europe. Britain tried to curtail the supply, but mostly France, plus Spain and the Netherlands, secretly armed the colonists as a way to hurt Great Britain.
Having won the war with other people’s guns the freshly minted United States of America set about stimulating a local armaments industry, which, because they did not have a large standing army, required the development of a local gun-owning culture.
Every conflict engaged in since then by the USA has had the effect of boosting gun ownership. However, other factors contributed along the way.
In the early 1800s there was the war of 1812, the Mexican-American war in 1846 to 1848, and then the constant series of conflicts with native peoples throughout the 19th century. Slavery in the south was predicated on the capacity to suppress any uprising by violent means. These factors led to an increasingly robust and sophisticated arms industry. By the 1840s and 50s Samuel Colt, Winchester and the Remington family were increasingly exporting arms to the Ottoman Empire, South American republics, Asia and also Europe.
Then American Civil War (1861-1865) supercharged the gun industry. Thereafter, reality and myths grew about the frontier society, where native populations were arguably shot like vermin.
After two world wars, the Korean war and Vietnam in the twentieth century the market became saturated. The technology was fairly stable, guns with a bit of care don’t wear out easily, so the expanding market had gone stale. Up to the 1970s guns were integrated in American life in a way that was uncontroversial. Guns were used primarily for hunting, recreational use and marksmanship, and to some extent for self-defence. However, if you needed a handgun to protect yourself, you only needed one.
Enter William Rueger, who decided to market guns like other consumer products, where you had to keep up with the latest style. Also new technology was becoming available, so after Rueger had made his contribution to American life, there were plenty of reasons for people to keep buying new guns. I’ll post here some of the novelty guns from the Laskas article:
Then from the mid-1980s two European companies entered via government contracts – Beretta and Glock. Beretta won the contract for the armed forces when the decision was made to arm them with high-capacity semiautomatic pistols. Then Glock succeeded in becoming the preferred supplier for the domestic law enforcement market, when they too decided to tool up with potent handguns. There is no doubt these developments spilled over into the domestic market with updates necessary as the capacity and power of these guns increased.
From the early years of the 21st century, people increasingly became afraid. The more fear enveloped the people, the more they bought guns. Obama’s ascendancy to the White House gave the industry a huge boost, and his re-election even more so. Somehow the end days were near, and freedom loving Americans became afraid of the government as well as each other. Magazine racks in stores carry gun aficionado magazines taking up a tenth to an eighth of the space, fetishising military style guns. I understand that America does not keep statistics of gun sales, but an American tactical response trainer said:
In 2008, ’09 and ’10 I had 25% increases, 2011 I had a 50% increase.
In this environment, people increasingly felt the need to own guns to protect their families. It’s not everyone. Older white males are the most gun-owning demographic. Only 5% of gun owners belong to the powerful NRA, but the NRA believes everyone should have the right to own a gun that could bring down a helicopter, the government being the potential enemy.
The Rear Vision piece does not mention militant Islam and the fear of ‘terrorism’, but I think there is little doubt that 9/ll and the demise of the Twin Towers played a role. It seems to me that American values of personal freedom, self-reliance and desire for government to be as small as possible, with the ‘state’ being intrinsically negative in relation to foundational values of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and political opponents being cast as the enemy makes for fertile ground for gun ownership saturation.
Wikipedia sees the USA way out in front with 101 guns per 100 people, ahead of Serbia next with 58.2.
The Laskas article details what a frightful mess confronts law officers who find a gun at a crime scene. It seems that every time a gun passes along the commercial chain and is finally sold a federal form 4473 has to be filled out and kept in perpetuity at that point. There are around 55,000 arms dealers in the USA, but they go out of business at an amazing rate. Whenever an outlet closes the forms are transferred to the National Tracing Center in West Virginia. Around 2 million forms arrive each month so they have run out of space, fear whether the piled up boxes will break the floor and are now storing cardboard boxes in containers in the car park.
Here’s Charlie Houser, a federal agent with the ATF, with boxes:
If they have time they convert the forms to microfiche, for easier searching rather than burrowing through boxes.
When the police call the Center, for example to trace ownership of a gun found at a crime scene they have to give the make, the model and the serial number. Not as straghtforward as it sounds. Then the staff guess the gun maker and start from there. Tracing a gun can involve 70 phone calls. They get around 1000 requests each day, 65% of which end up in their own backyard – literally.
- in 2013, U.S. gun manufacturers rolled out 10,844,792 guns, and we imported an additional 5,539,539. The numbers were equally astounding the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that.
Let it be said, though, that gun makers complain now of the Trump slump.
The National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers railed against Hillary Clinton in 2016, but perhaps they should have been more concerned about Donald Trump.
Gun sales dropped in 2017 as fears that the government would “come for your guns” waned. The decline has been dubbed the “Trump slump” and led to Remington Outdoor Co. filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Sunday, a day after hundreds of thousands of people worldwide took to the streets protesting gun violence.
Trump, who has touted himself a “true friend and champion” of the NRA, has repeatedly promised that the Second Amendment was safe with him in office. Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist, told Newsweek that such trust has resulted in a classic supply-and-demand predicament for gun manufacturers: Without fear of a supply crunch, the demand drops.
Real change often comes in ways that are quite unpredictable. They feared a Clinton presidency and hoped for Trump. As they say, be careful what you wish for.