(We are pleased to post the following guest commentary from Josh Sugarmann, Executive Director of the Violence Policy Center. Mr. Sugarmann's essay was originally posted on the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence's "Insights" section on its website).
Since its inception, the Violence Policy Center (VPC) has approached gun violence as a broad-based public health, as opposed to solely a crime issue.
The public health approach offers insight into the full range of gun death and injury. At the same time, drawing from a long history of lessons learned from life-saving consumer product regulation, the VPC believes that the most effective approach to reducing firearm injury and mortality lies in looking beyond the gun store counter to the industry itself -- and holding gun makers and their products to the same health and safety standards that all other consumer products must meet.
With the recent regulation of tobacco, guns are now the only consumer product sold in the United States not regulated by a federal agency for health and safety.
This approach is summed up in our 1994 study Cease Fire: A Comprehensive Strategy to Reduce Firearms Violence.
Prior to the release of Cease Fire, gun violence prevention efforts focused almost solely on the user -- not on the industry itself. Since Cease Fire’s release more than 15 years ago, the industry has continued to exploit its unique, unregulated status by designing and marketing increasingly lethal weapons as measured by firepower and capacity. Today’s gun industry is, in fact, primarily a purveyor of military-bred technology.
Trend Toward More Lethal Weapons
As my VPC colleague Tom Diaz states in his 1999 book Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America, “Lethality is the nicotine of the gun industry.” It’s what the industry uses to hook new buyers and keep past customers. The trend is long and all-too-easily documented, beginning in the 1980s when six-shot revolvers were replaced by high-capacity pistols.
This was followed by: assault weapons; powerful palm-sized pistols labeled “pocket rockets” by the industry; “vest-busting” handguns like the 50 caliber Smith & Wesson Model 500, capable of penetrating the most common level of body armor worn by law enforcement; and, 50 caliber sniper rifles capable of penetrating armor plating and downing jetliners on take-off and landing at distances of up to a mile. The common thread connecting each of these technological “advances”?
Increased lethality, eagerly marketed by the gun industry with no concern for public safety.
This constant innovation for lethality is a waning industry’s response to the steady decline in household gun ownership.
From 1972 to 2006, the percentage of American households that reported having any guns in the home dropped nearly 20 percentage points: from a high of 54 percent in 1977 to 34.5 percent in 2006.
During the period 1980 to 2006, the percentage of Americans who reported personally owning a gun dropped more than nine percentage points: from a high of 30.7 percent in 1985 to a low of 21.6 percent in 2006.
The reason is that the primary firearms market of white males is aging and dying off — and they aren’t being replaced by a new generation of shooters. This has resulted in a two-pronged approach by the industry. The first is trying to resell the white male market of current gun owners.
This has resulted in the marketing of militarization (assault weapons, etc.) and specialization (e.g., pistols marketed for concealed carry -- a “movement” that at its core is about selling guns). A key marketing aspect of this effort has been to advertise these weapons as the civilian versions of the guns used by our military and homeland security forces.
The second, following a trail blazed by the tobacco industry, is to entice and engage women and children — an effort that, beyond anecdotes, has met with extremely limited success.
The Modern-Day “Citizen Soldier”
Today, when we look at the gun culture we see that there are two types of gun owners. For the majority, guns are a part of their life. But for a small, yet active and aggressive minority, guns are their life. The gun lobby has become expert at using this second group to further its goals.
Common themes that dominate this group are a distrust of government and law enforcement, an image of themselves as modern-day “citizen soldiers” who are the physical manifestation of what they view as America’s core values, and a belief that the only thing that stands between democracy and totalitarianism is civilian gun ownership.
And while the vast majority of these self-described patriots will never act on their Walter Mitty-esque rhetoric, some do—with devastating results. Last year in Pittsburgh, CCW (Concealed Carry Weapons) holder Richard Poplawski, armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, shot and killed three police officers in an ambush at the home he shared with his mother. Poplawski had voiced to his friends fears that the Obama administration wanted to ban guns.
Recognizing the potential power for activism this distinct pool of gun owners represents, the NRA and other members of the gun lobby have become expert at exploiting their fears for their own political and financial gain.
The NRA’s theme of ‘Obama’s coming for your guns’ is merely a rehash of its “jack-booted government thugs” attacks on federal law enforcement that occurred during the Clinton Administration—a period during which the NRA actively explored the grassroots potential of the militia movement.
The inherent risk in the NRA catering to this paranoid mindset is that the organization can play a lethal, validating role.
During the Clinton Administration, the NRA warned that the “final war has begun.” Former NRA member Timothy McVeigh took the organization at its word, resulting in the deadly 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Right now the national gun violence prevention movement is working together as closely as it has ever worked – exchanging information, developing strategies, and collaborating on the local, state, and national levels. Yet longstanding problems remain.
We face an engaged, well-funded opponent while lacking the financial resources to help give voice to those who want to aid us in our efforts. While a few key foundations have taken a longstanding, leadership role on this issue, a challenge that remains is how do we help other foundations better understand the debilitating effect gun violence has on their own policy efforts in areas such as domestic violence prevention, early childhood education, youth violence prevention, and numerous others
The ability to work together is more important then ever. The election of President Obama has been cynically exploited by the gun lobby and the firearms industry to increase short-term gun sales in America—with no concern for the potential long-term consequences.
At the same time, the President’s election has resulted in a reawakening of the extreme right in America. And all of this is occurring against a backdrop of increasingly lethal, easily available, weaponry.
For those of us who work to stop gun death and injury the question is how do we get the American public to look beyond the national headlines that inevitably appear in the wake of the most recent horrible incident and understand the direct effect gun violence has on their daily lives — from the fear of a stranger on a darkened city street to the loss of a loved one in a suburban home.
In the short term, we must hold the President to the promises he made before his election -- such as banning assault weapons (right now, President Obama can use his executive powers to ban the import of foreign-made assault weapons) and ending restrictions on the public release of national crime gun trace data that was previously available through the Freedom of Information Act (the Tiahrt Amendment).
In the long term, as a public interest movement, it’s our responsibility to make sure that the public understands the true nature of firearms violence, that those most affected by it are given voice, and that we advocate for measures that are effective.
One of the gun lobby’s greatest successes has been in framing gun violence solely as a crime issue—i.e. “bad” people get guns and hurt us, the “good” people — with the all-too-frequent acquiescence of advocates on our own side.
Yet, it’s the “good” people who are doing most of the killing. The majority of the more than 30,000 gun deaths that occur each year are suicides—nearly 17,000 in 2006—acts of despair that result in death as the result of the unique lethality of firearms. The most common homicide scenario is not attack by a stranger, but an argument between people who know one another. And fatal gun accidents speak for themselves.
Our responsibility as a gun violence prevention movement is not to offer the most easily accepted answers, but the most effective solutions.
As a public interest movement, we have a trust and responsibility to give voice to the victims of gun violence and educate the public and policymakers about the realities of firearms death and injury.
While we, of course, have to operate within the confines of political reality, this unique responsibility requires that we offer solutions that will work, not just slogans that will sell.