One of the greatest successes of the National Rifle Association has been its ability to define the terms of the debate over guns in America.
Whether in the wake of the most recent mass shooting, or the broader discussion of the tens of thousands of Americans who die in gun suicides, homicides and unintentional shootings each year in our nation (more than 38,000 in 2016 alone), the NRA stands at the center of what is almost always presented as solely a political issue. But what about the companies that manufacture the tools that make such carnage possible? Rarely does public attention focus on gunmakers and their products.
Most Americans would be shocked at what today’s gun industry has become. Traditional hunting rifles and shotguns have been replaced by semiautomatic assault rifles and tactical shotguns. Six-shot revolvers have been supplanted by high-capacity semiautomatic handguns and assault pistols. And the capacity of detachable ammunition magazines continues to expand, even up to 100 rounds.
Faced with a decades-long decline in household gun ownership, the gun industry is left with trying to make repeat sales to a shrinking customer base, with military-style assault weapons (as well as concealed carry handguns) the focus of their efforts.
To move its assault weapon wares, the industry uses increasingly militarized language and images. Phrases like “justice,” “mission,” “duty,” and “patrol” appear routinely in their catalog and advertising copy. While the industry never specifies what “mission” their products are needed for, one recurring, horrific answer emerges when these same firearms are used in mass shootings.
The NRA constantly works to make the gun debate about more than guns, presenting firearms as the physical embodiment of freedom, with the implied understanding that the more lethal the gun, the greater the freedom imparted. Yet, despite the NRA’s mythmaking, guns are nothing more than consumer products, manufactured by companies with a profit motive and a bottom line. The only difference between firearms and every other consumer product manufactured in the United States is that guns are the only product exempt from federal health and safety regulation.
All other products that Americans use or come into contact with are regulated by a federal health and safety agency. For example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates household and recreational products (except for guns). The Food and Drug Administration oversees the safety of food and prescription drugs, including tobacco. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulates motor vehicles.
Common powers granted such agencies include standard setting, the ability to force design changes, data collection to measure a product’s effect on public safety and help inform effective injury prevention strategies, recall capability, and, in some cases, the power to ban particular products that present an unreasonable risk of injury or death.
Thanks to gun lobby’s political clout, firearms escaped safety regulation in the 1970s when the Congress created the major product safety agencies. This unique exemption has allowed gunmakers to innovate for lethality rather than safety. To add insult to literal death and injury, in 2005 Congress added additional gun industry protections in the form of immunity from certain types of civil liability.
Guns today fall under the aegis of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is empowered to enforce only the federal gun laws that are on the books (which regulate commerce in firearms and not the guns themselves).
Today’s NRA functions as a de facto trade association for the firearms industry, opposing measures, such as an assault weapons ban, that would negatively affect industry profits, while promoting those that benefit it financially, such as expansion of lax concealed weapons laws.
Not surprisingly, recognizing their shared goal of increasing gun ownership, gun industry financial support of the NRA totals in the tens of millions of dollars. Smith & Wesson, manufacturer of the M&P15 assault rifle used in the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting, is a member of the NRA’s Golden Ring of Freedom, an honorary society for those who have given a million dollars or more to the organization. As Smith & Wesson CEO James Debney explained in an NRA promotional video, “I think it’s important for everybody to step up and support the NRA. They are our voice.”
The reality is that there really are no rules for what today’s gun industry can make or sell. As a result, gun manufacturers thrive on developing, manufacturing and marketing cross-over military technology with no concern for the real-world effect the sale of such weaponry has on public health and safety. Until this changes, our nation will continue to witness the escalating level of carnage made possible by America’s last unregulated industry.