Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

The hot new gun market: Weapons for mass killings

Working with the National Rifle Association, gun manufacturers are selling increasingly lethal products that are the ideal tools to commit mass shootings.

There's a common thread that binds the massacres in Isla Vista, Calif., and in Newtown, Conn., and in many other mass shootings in recent years. Killers used semiautomatic firearms with detachable ammunition magazines.

Elliot Rodger owned pistols made by Glock and Sig Sauer. Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle in Newtown. These types of weapons all were designed for the military and police, but increasingly are used by rampage shooters to kill as many people in as brief a period as possible.

It wasn't always this way. Public, high-casualty shootings in America used to be rare. Until the early 1980s, the most popular handgun sold in America was the standard six-shot revolver. Yet by the end of that decade, the production of faster-firing, higher-capacity, and easily reloaded pistols surpassed the manufacture of traditional "wheelguns."

In 1980, semiautomatic pistols accounted for only 32 percent of the handguns produced in America. By 1991, this proportion had jumped to 74 percent.

During this same period, the firearms industry began marketing semiautomatic assault weapons to the general public — civilian versions of the fully automatic machine guns used by armies around the world.

Today, assault rifles like the AR-15, AK-47, and numerous others, as well as powerful, yet compact, high-capacity pistols designed primarily for concealed carry dominate the civilian gun market.

The military and law enforcement pedigree of these semiautomatic firearms, and their accompanying firepower, is the foundation of the gun industry's marketing strategy today. The Austrian company Glock blazed the trail with its aggressive pursuit of U.S. law enforcement sales in the 1980s. "In marketing terms, we assumed that, by pursuing the law enforcement market, we would then receive the benefit of 'after sales' in the commercial market," company founder Gaston Glock told Advertising Age in 1995.

On its website, Sig Sauer stakes a claim to having "led the semi-auto revolution." The P226 pistols Elliot Rodger purchased were, according to the company, "designed for the U.S. Army and carried by U.S. Navy SEALs, Texas Rangers and many other elite military and law enforcement professionals."

Always left unstated, but easily understood by mass shooters, is the reason such pistols are carried by military and law enforcement: they are specifically designed to fire virtually endless rounds of ammunition quickly and efficiently, with lethal results.

This industry-wide marketing shift has come with an immeasurably high price. Today, high-profile gun attacks are so common and familiar that they're identified in a grisly geographic shorthand: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, and now Isla Vista. And the list will go on.

In its official 1967 history, the National Rifle Association stated that it was "not affiliated with any manufacturer of arms or ammunition or with any jobber or dealer who sells firearms and ammunition."

Today, the NRA aggressively seeks and gladly accepts tens of millions of dollars from gun industry "Corporate Partners," to aid in the marketing of the corporations' and NRA's products, and to fight any policy changes that would limit the products' availability or decrease their lethality. In a brochure describing its "Corporate Partners Program," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre promises: "This program is geared toward your company's corporate interests."

Since 2005, gun industry "corporate partners" have donated between $19.3 million and $60.2 million to the organization. The exact total is impossible to know because the NRA only cites a range of giving levels. Among these donors are Glock, up to $500,000, and Sig Sauer, up to $50,000, as well as more than $1 million from Remington Outdoor Co. Inc., formerly Freedom Group, manufacturer of the Bushmaster assault rifle used in Newtown.

At the NRA's annual meeting in April, Sig Sauer announced a "limited edition" P227 "commemorative" pistol embossed with the NRA's logo, pledging $25 from the handgun's sales price, $964 at one online dealer, would go to the gun group. At the same meeting, the NRA proudly displayed a giant $50,000 ceremonial check from Glock.

We need to take a step back and understand how the unprecedented firepower available to virtually any private citizen has resulted in tragedy after tragedy, allowing angry, depressed, or dangerously mentally ill individuals to unleash their violence on innocents. Most important, the gun industry, and the NRA lobbying machine it helps finance, must be held accountable.

Josh Sugarmann, a native of Newtown, Conn., is founder and executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that works to stop gun death and injury. He wrote this for the Sacramento Bee.

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