The Gun Industry Is Weaker Than It Looks
It’s vulnerable when it comes to the one thing it cares about most—money.
By George Zornick
The Parkland shooting unfolded with a grim familiarity. News alerts that shots had been fired at a Florida high school quickly gave way to reports of multiple casualties and then a final, horrible number: 17 dead, students and teachers. Republicans offered their thoughts and prayers as ambulances pulled away from the school, and they also warned against any “knee-jerk” reactions to the killings, in the words of House Speaker Paul Ryan.
But then something rare happened: The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High got angry and declared war on inaction. “Every single person up here today, all these people, should be at home grieving. But instead we are up here standing together, because if all our government and president can do is send ‘thoughts and prayers,’ then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see,” said student Emma Gonzalez at a rally, speaking through her tears and while still holding notes for her AP Government class. “Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this—we call BS.” Video of her speech quickly went viral, and “We call BS” became a new rallying cry for the gun-control movement. In short order, plans came together for a nationwide student walkout and a march on Washington.
Fatalism about what these young people—and the larger gun-control movement—can achieve is unwarranted and self-reinforcing. Last November in Virginia, the National Rifle Association backed 13 State House candidates in competitive races and Republican Ed Gillespie for governor. Twelve of those candidates lost (the 13th won on a coin toss), and Gillespie got trounced. At the state and local levels, gun-control advocates have been able to pass measures that Congress has failed to enact, like assault-weapons bans and expanded background checks. It’s worth remembering that the movement didn’t really exist in its current form before the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. Most of the major gun-control groups today were formed in response to that shooting, and Democrats rarely advocated for gun control in the decades prior to that. Given time, this movement can grow—and win—if it has confidence in itself and its arguments.
That’s not to discount the immediate limits of our ossified political system, especially with Donald Trump in the White House after getting over $30 million from the NRA. Trump will never sign significant gun-control legislation, and a Congress that couldn’t even ban bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre won’t pass it anyway. But as the movement works to elect a different Congress and president, there’s another thing it can do. It can go after the one thing that gun manufacturers value above all else, including human life: money.
These days, the gun titans are loaded with debt and facing declining consumer demand. In the same week as the Parkland shooting, Remington Outdoor Company, one of the largest gun manufacturers in the United States, announced plans to declare bankruptcy. Signs abound that other parts of the gun industry are in danger, too: According to an SEC filing, a $140 million loan to United Sporting Companies, a major middleman between manufacturers and retailers, lost half its value in 2017. Gun retailers aren’t faring much better: Gander Mountain, a big-box sports retailer that sold guns in most of its stores, went belly-up in 2017 and began to liquidate locations nationwide.
Activists can help deliver a knockout punch to these merchants of death. Divestment is one route, by making guns as radioactive as fossil fuels. In 2013, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System voted to divest itself of millions of dollars’ worth of shares in gun manufacturers. New York City’s employee pension fund did the same in 2016 and also pulled money from sporting stores like Cabela’s and Dick’s that sell guns. College students nationwide should ask their endowment offices whether they have holdings in gun stocks—and if so, challenge their colleges to dump them.
Divestment can happen at the personal level, too. Thirty-five percent of US stock funds include investments in gun and ammunition manufacturers—a staggering $17.3 billion invested in 2,120 funds. At GoodbyeGunStocks.com, you can learn whether your investment fund owns shares in gun companies. If it does, a tool on the website allows you to find gun-free funds.
Letitia James, New York City’s public advocate, has put considerable pressure on banks to stop lending to gun manufacturers, and suggests the city shouldn’t do business with them if they continue to make those loans. PayPal, Square, Stripe, and Apple Pay already don’t allow payments for firearms to be processed—what if the major banks and credit-card companies did the same?
If Congress managed to repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005, gun manufacturers would no longer enjoy broad immunity from civil claims. The families of people hurt or killed by guns could finally hold manufacturers responsible for the damage they caused, with the lawsuits against Big Tobacco serving as a model. Both industries sold things that, when they worked as intended, ended countless lives.
The NRA’s power in Washington is fueled by money from the gun industry. It’s time to turn off the spigot and make it unprofitable to sell death.
George Zornick is The Nation’s Washington editor.
Trump’s Go-Nowhere Memo on Banning Bump Stocks
A symbolic move, but one that won’t change any gun laws.
By George Zornick
On Tuesday afternoon (Feb. 20), President Donald Trump signed a memo directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to propose a regulation making bump stocks for guns illegal. Bump stocks are used to make semiautomatic weapons fire bullets at such a rapid rate they essentially become machine guns; Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock used them to shoot 422 people last October.
In some small sense, it’s a victory for the gun-control movement that Trump felt sufficiently pressured in the wake of the Parkland school shooting to make at least a motion towards tightening gun laws. But that’s what this is—an empty gesture that in all likelihood will not stop bump stocks from being sold.
Federal agencies have for several years now tried to ban bump stocks, dating back to the Obama administration. (Trump, unable to pass up a dig at his predecessor, actually noted in his memo that “Although the Obama Administration repeatedly concluded that particular bump stock type devices were lawful to purchase and possess, I sought further clarification of the law restricting fully automatic machine guns.”) Last December, following the Las Vegas shooting, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms announced that it would yet again review the law and investigate whether bump stocks might be banned. It asked for public comment on a potential rule, and that comment period closed on January 18.
That’s the first thing to understand about Trump’s announcement Tuesday: he just re-announced an existing review process. The memo instructs Sessions to “dedicate all available resources to complete the review of the comments received, and, as expeditiously as possible, to propose for notice and comment a rule banning all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns.” That was already going to happen; the most Trump did was nudge Sessions along.
But there’s a reason the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms concluded it couldn’t ban bump stocks under Obama, who was no friend of the gun lobby: bump stocks don’t appear to violate federal law. Banned machine guns are defined in the National Firearms Act as “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.” Bump stocks do not modify a weapon’s trigger nor make it fire automatically with a “single function.” Rather, they use the natural recoil of a gun to bounce the weapon off the shooter’s shoulder and back onto his or her trigger finger.
This may seem like a meaningless distinction, but the law is the law, and it does not appear to prohibit this type of modification. The executive branch can’t simply declare something illegal without statutory authority. Congress will ultimately need to change the law to specifically ban bump stocks.
Justice Department officials have been saying exactly that “publicly and privately” for months, according to a New York Times report late last year. According to the Times, top DOJ officials told Senate Judiciary Committee staffers outright in a closed-door meeting that the bump-stock regulation would go nowhere because ultimately an act of Congress is needed. The acting director of the ATF told a law-enforcement conference the same thing in October.
Trump notably did not call on Congress to act on bump stocks in his public announcement of the memo. He probably wants to avoid a congressional fight with the NRA, which opposes any bump stock bills in Congress. A more cynical interpretation might be that Trump and the NRA are electing to pursue a process they both know can’t go anywhere. Either way, Trump’s memo isn’t going to change anything.
Has the NRA Finally Met Its Match?
After Parkland, a generation is rising up, giving hope for a bold new gun-control movement.
By Katha Pollitt
I was all set to write a column about the paralysis of progressives around guns: how even the ghastliest school shootings rouse few of us to more than hand-wringing and despair. After each massacre, I was planning to say, we go through the motions, writing letters to the editor, making donations to gun-control groups and politicians who promise to fight to stem the tide, but, except for the most dedicated activists, our involvement is pretty small-bore and low-key. The Million Mom March was the last major national mobilization, and that was back in 2000. A majority of Americans support gun control, but the passion—and the money, and Congress—is with the National Rifle Association.
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, aren’t having any of that. Survivors of a horrific rampage by Nikolas Cruz, a former fellow student who murdered 17 and wounded more than a dozen, they’re speaking out—screaming out—in a way we haven’t seen before, confronting the politicians who have failed them.
They’re all over TV. Twitter is exploding with their rage: “You are the President of the United States, and you have the audacity to put this on Russia as an excuse. I guess I should expect that from you,” one student tweeted at Donald Trump. Senior Emma Gonzalez may have made history with her blistering speech at a rally three days after the massacre: “Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this—we call BS. They say tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS.”
Plans are afoot for marches: The Douglas students are organizing a “March for Our Lives” in Washington on March 24, and others may be in the works as well. Students at a high school in Boca Raton have already staged a walkout, and maybe you saw the coverage of the students who staged a die-in outside the White House. Meanwhile, wags are writing checks for “thoughts and prayers” to NRA-funded pols. Silly, but better than rolling your eyeballs and sighing.
Maybe the kids will save us in the end—and not a moment too soon. Because too many of us well-meaning liberal/progressive adults have been cowed by the gun lobby. We’ve resigned ourselves to quasi-defeat and accepted the NRA’s framing, the mythological sanctity of “gun rights.” So we speak of “responsible” gun owners. Proud rural folk taught to shoot by Granddad. “Commonsense” gun laws. Respect for the Second Amendment. We say, “We don’t want to take away anyone’s guns.” For progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, deferring to the NRA was, at one time, not just a perceived political necessity but also a way of signaling respect for the values of (white) rural voters. Even saintly Paul Wellstone, longtime gun-control advocate, introduced a 1997 bill watering down a ban on guns for those convicted of domestic violence.
Meanwhile, for the pro-gun crowd, it doesn’t seem to matter how many people die (over 35,000) or are injured (over 81,000) per year; or that you are vastly more likely to kill yourself or others if you have a gun in the house; or that, on average, one to two women are shot and killed each day by a past or present partner. Each atrocity is just another reason for more guns. Rush Limbaugh called just the other day for guns to be allowed in classrooms, while Education Secretary Betsy “Grizzly Bear” DeVos argued that arming teachers is an “option.” Because kids are never shot by accident when a gun falls out of a purse or pocket, and not one of the 3.6 million teachers in the land would ever use a gun to threaten a student.
The commentariat hasn’t always been much help, either. In the mainstream media, playing the pundit who takes weird and contorted “contrarian” positions is good for your career. A few years ago, libertarian writer Megan McArdle wrote a piece in The Daily Beast claiming that nothing much could be done about guns, so kids should be taught to rush the shooter: “If we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.” Let the kids handle it! McArdle, by the way, just got a column in The Washington Post.
In The New York Times, meanwhile, David Brooks worried, post-Parkland, that gun-control advocates don’t show enough “respect” to red-staters, while Ross Douthat tied himself in knots explaining why guns should be permitted but abortion banned. Douthat also defended the paranoid right-wing fantasy that guns let us resist the state “when it imposes illegitimately” (good luck with that!) and proposed to reduce gun violence by delaying the age at which citizens can buy AR-15s to 30 (for semiautomatic pistols, he suggests waiting until 25). It’s as though 64-year-old Stephen Paddock never killed 58 people in Las Vegas (and injured another 851) less than five months ago. It’s as though the vast majority of killings with guns, including mass murders, were not committed by grown-up men. Well, at least they’re not having abortions.
Enough with the craziness, and enough with the clever pundits and the quiet politicians and the defeatist citizenry, too. There’s no reason why anyone—of any age—needs to own an AR-15. In fact, maybe I shouldn’t say this, because we progressives seem to be all about winning the MAGA-hat-wearing white working class, but I don’t believe you have a right to own a gun, period. So show up for the gun-control marches and bring your friends. Follow the money—the NRA money—and work like heck to elect anti-gun candidates. The Douglas students have changed the conversation. It will take a whole lot of us to keep it going.
Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation.
Out of Bloodshed, Hope for Gun Control
Three reasons why the aftermath of the Parkland shooting is different.
By Gary Younge
There is a learned hopelessness about mass shootings in America that creates the foundations for an emotionally hollow, politically impotent, media-saturated response. Conservatives offer prayers for those who have died and oppose any action that will prevent more deaths. Liberals offer outrage at the carnage and demand that something must be done, but then go on to do relatively little. (Gun owners are almost twice as likely as non–gun owners to have contacted a public official about gun policy, and almost three times as likely to have donated to a group that takes a position on the issue.) The rest of the world looks on aghast that an ostensibly mature democracy could witness such a tragedy and decide to do nothing to prevent it from happening again. Cable-news channels screen mawkish portraits of the dead and arm’s-length, usually posthumous profiles of the killer. Talk of evil is “balanced” by calls for legislation. Then, after a few days, the talking and the calling stop—until the next time.
With nothing changing but the name, place, and number of victims, what some call “compassion fatigue” sets in. But as Susan Moeller, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, argued in her study of the responses to the media’s reporting of such atrocities, the problem isn’t so much fatigue as it is the cycle of avoidance that causes people to avert their gaze. She writes, “We’ve got compassion fatigue, we say, as if we have involuntarily contracted some kind of disease that we’re stuck with no matter what we might do.”
There is reason to believe that the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were killed by a single shooter, has the potential to break that cycle. Students, including those from Parkland, have spoken out in ways that are difficult to ignore, calling for youth-led activism against political complacency in general and the National Rifle Association in particular. Piercing through the “Now is not the time for judgment” rhetoric, these students leveraged their vulnerability to political effect. They have held a press conference and called a national demonstration. The issue isn’t fading from the news as quickly as mass shootings tend to do, with interest in the term “gun control” enjoying a sustained high in Google searches a week later.
There are, nonetheless, grounds to be pessimistic or even cynical. We remember Sandy Hook. The kids were younger, the outrage greater; the president even cried—and still, many insist, nothing happened.
But there are three main reasons why we might see progressive possibilities in this moment. The first is that something did happen after Sandy Hook: President Obama spoke up. Five months before that atrocity, James Holmes went into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and shot 12 people dead during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The next morning, at a scheduled event in Fort Myers, Florida, Obama said what presidents white and black, Republican and Democrat, have said for the best part of a generation: “There are going to be other days for politics. This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection.” But after Sandy Hook, he said something else: “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.” Belatedly, Obama set a new tone. We shouldn’t be too surprised that, after years of presidents and congressional leaders refusing to bring the issue of gun control into mainstream political debate, this new tone did not result in legislative change the first time. You can’t fatten a pig on market day. It takes time.
Second, this time the challenge is being led by young people who are motivated in a way that the mostly white, suburban gun-control movement has not been. “Maybe the adults have got used to saying, ‘It is what it is,’” said 18-year-old Emma Gonzalez, who was in the school when the shooting happened. “But if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you will fail. And in this case, if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead.” Parkland was the eighth school shooting and the 30th mass shooting of the year—and it was only Valentine’s Day. In the four days afterward, there were four more mass shootings.
Finally, and crucially, this fight comes at a moment of heightened consciousness about the nation’s political trajectory and with a new critical mass determined to correct it. As a result of Donald Trump’s victory, many liberals and progressives have been doing things over the past year—campaigning, marching, phone banking, running for office—that they hadn’t done for a long time, if at all.
In the course of this activism, many are now realizing that the issues that energize us most—whether it’s immigration, sexual harassment, racism, or health care—are not isolated. In the past, campaigning around a tragedy like Parkland would have concentrated solely on gun control. That doesn’t go far enough. Avoiding the more enduring American pathologies that allow the gun culture to flourish—the obsessions with conquest, domination, force, power, masculinity, and rugged individualism—means failing to explain why a racist, anti-Semitic teenage boy with a grudge and an easily available weapon of war can go to school and kill others at will, and what might be done to prevent it. It means failing to recognize that America’s gun culture is deeply embedded in its general culture.
The Trump agenda is a broad and unrelenting assault on equality and human rights. But it did not come out of nowhere, and it did not invent the divisions that it exploits. For the resistance to be effective, it cannot be narrowly focused. It must, instead, shed light on how these various struggles are connected. The young campaigners have a stake, an audience, a platform, and allies. That may not be enough to stop the next school shooting. But it’s more than gun-control advocates have had for some time.
Gary Younge is a columnist for The Nation.