by Ron Kenner
Baldwin Hills, Calif.
December 23, 2012
Part VII: FIRST, TO KNOW; THEN, TO DO
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- 2012 has been the worst year for mass shootings in U.S. history.
It seems strange to write this sentence. But it's true.
Shortly before the Dec. 14 rampage in Newtown, Conn., that killed 27 people, Mother Jones magazine decided to track mass shootings in the United States over the past 30 years, using the FBI's definition of a mass murderer as someone who kills four or more people in a single incident, usually in one location.
They identified and analyzed 61 of them, and found one common thread.
"In not a single case was the killing stopped by a civilian using a gun. Moreover, we found that the rate of mass shootings has increased in recent years - at a time when America has been flooded with millions of additional firearms and a barrage of new laws has made it easier than ever to carry them in public. And in recent rampages in which armed civilians attempted to intervene, they not only failed to stop the shooter but also were gravely wounded or killed."
There are about 300 million firearms in private hands in the United States, or about 100 million more than there were in 1995. That is a contributing factor to the number of mass shootings. Of the 62 incidents investigated by Mother Jones, 24 of them have happened in the last seven years. A study reported Dec. 19 on CNN told us mass murders occur, on everage, every two weeks in the United States.
Throw in this contributing factor: the laws governing firearms have been loosened considerably around the country in the past few years. In 37 states, the National Rifle Association and other pro-firearm groups pushed through 99 laws that make firearms easier to own, easier carry in public, and harder for the government to track.
Of the weapons used by mass shooters, semi-automatic handguns were the most used, with semi-automatic rifles not far behind. In 48 of the 61 incidents, the killer obtained his weapon legally.
Then there is the factor of mental illness. Mother Jones found roughly half the killers in these incidents have had problems ranging from paranoid schizophrenia to suicidal depression. But despite laws designed to improve the sharing of mental health records with federal authorities, millions of records from the FBI's database for criminal background checks reportedly are still missing.
Take all these factors together - a nation that is awash in firearms, inadequate mental health treatment, and a powerful political lobby that sees any attempt to regulate firearms as tantamount to dictatorship - and you can see why about 80 people die violently every day from firearms in the United States, and why we have a rate of gun-related homicides about 20 times higher than any other developed nation.
But there's one other factor that doesn't get talked about as much. Profit.
According to the federal Bureau of Alcohol. Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives (ATF), as of 2011 there are about 5,400 licensed firearms manufacturers and 950 licensed importers of firearms in the United States. And these companies amassed a collective profit of around $13.8 billion.
Making firearms is definitely a growth industry. The number of firearms manufactured in the United States has gone from 3,040,934 in 1986 to 5,555,818 as of 2009.
The NRA long ago ceased to be an advocate for responsible firearms ownership, and has completely given itself over to whipping up fear to help the firearms manufacturers sell more weapons. The NRA has been particularly busy in the last four years, and as a result, gun and ammo manufacturers have enjoyed record profits as the more paranoid among us stockpile enough firepower to wage a small war.
There's are lots of ways of dealing with violence. Why not try taking the profit out of it? Why not start treating firearms and ammunition like cigarettes, and tax them heavily? Why not file class-action suits against the gun makers, as was done to the tobacco industry? Why not limit the marketing and sale of firearms, as has been done with tobacco? Why not pressure pension funds and other institutional investors to drop firearms makers from their portfolios, as was done with the tobacco companies?
Would applying the tobacco strategy to the firearms industry make a difference? Now that a pack of cigarettes costs $7 or $8, depending on where you live, you don't see as many people smoking, and certainly many fewer smoke two or three packs a day, which once was common. Smoking in public places is all but outlawed, and the general attitude toward tobacco use by Americans is one of disgust.
You see signs of this strategy being pursued in their beginning stage around the country. The New York State Common Retirement fund is reviewing its $150.1 billion portfolio and is mulling a sell-off about $18 million in stock in four firearms and ammunition makers.
The huge California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) is considering the same approach, as is New York City's pension funds, which hold nearly $14 million of shares in ammunition maker Olin Corp., $1.7 million in Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., $2.4 million in Sturm Ruger & Co., and $17,866 in Brazillian gunmaker Forjas Taurus SA. All these companies have seen their stock values slide this week.
And the private equity company Cerberus, a hedge fund, announced this week it is selling its interest in Freedom Group, the largest U.S. firearms manufacturer and the company that makes the Bushmaster rifle, the semi-automatic weapon that was used in the Newtown massacre.
Ironically, CalSTRS has a 2.4 percent stake in Freedom Group.
The only language that power seem to understand is the language of money. Take the profit out of making and marketing guns and ammunition, and the gun lobby turns into a puny, ineffectual force in American politics. Once defanged, Congress might be able to pass sensible firearms laws without the fear of getting voted out of office.
It's not the whole solution, but it might be a good start.
Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.