To give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them without respect of persons or principles; to aristocrats and republicans, to Nihilist and Czar, to Capitalist and Socialist, to Protestant and Catholic, to burglar and policeman, to black man, white man, and yellow man, to all sorts and conditions, all nationalities, all faiths, all follies, all causes, and all crimes.
– business credo of Undershaft the arms merchant,
in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (1905)
We are having terrific growth right in the middle of this recession, and I’m delighted to be in this business.
–Bob Morrison, CEO, Taurus International (2011)
“Guns aren’t going to be my boy’s life.” In Shane, the classic 1953 Western, the mother confronts the hired hand, a gunslinger trying to start a new life, after he demonstrates his prowess with a revolver. Her young son objects: “Why do you always have to spoil everything? Bang!” Shane explains, “A gun is a tool, Marion, no better and no worse than any other tool, an ax, a shovel, or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.” Marion doesn’t buy it. “We’d all be much better off if there wasn’t a single gun left in this valley, including yours.”
This scene succinctly presents the two sides of the debate over guns and their use in the United States. A recent poll revealed that gun control comes in third behind gay marriage and abortion as an issue where Americans assert they are “not willing to listen to the other side.”
In Michael Moore’s over-the-top three-minute cartoon version of “A Brief History of the USA” in the documentary Bowling for Columbine, he notes that America was founded with the help of muskets used on Native Americans and the British. “The rifle is distinctively an American weapon,” observed General John Pershing during World War I. The same could be said of 21st century semi-automatic “assault” weapons, along with handguns, sawed-off shotguns, and Saturday Night specials.
And they all cost money, including the toy guns that appeal to children such as the boy in Shane. Indeed, the movie’s plot involves a land grab backed by guns in the hands of bad guys. In other words, guns = money = power.
The American capitalist ethos grew in tandem with the country’s gun obsession. The right to bear arms is even written into our Constitution, and Eli Whitney made money not only from his cotton gin, but from manufacturing guns for the U. S. Army in 1798.
There are plenty of pro-and-con books about guns, and the debate over them is not likely to end anytime soon, especially in light of the recent tragic shootings in Aurora. I have no illusions that I will change too many minds with anything that I write on the subject. So why another book on guns?
Money. Follow the money, and suddenly the business end of a gun takes on a whole new meaning. Gun sales amount to some $4 billion annually in the United States. Guns, and the money they command, are the inspiration for small businesses, for military purchases, for lobbyists, for criminals. We may want more bang for the buck, but we require ever more bucks to acquire the bang. At the same time, the U. S. gun market is nearly saturated, and most guns last a lifetime. How will a desperate industry continue to sell firearms? The answer: through every means imaginable, but mostly through manipulation of our deepest fears.
Bang Bang will look at all sides of the gun-money issue, including implications for public health, the drug wars, and shooting sports. As with my previous books, readers will learn while being entertained, given important historical background and perspective, introduced to fascinating characters, and challenged with persuasive arguments from both sides of the gun debate. I’ll write in the first person and, along with me, readers will be led to question some of their most deeply held assumptions. We’ll visit previously unexplored places within our culture, including many that are obscure, quirky, and counterintuitive. But they all have one thing in common – an appreciation for the power of the gun and the almighty dollar.
In the final chapter, I’ll discuss my own conclusions, but without landing both feet on the side of any armed (or disarmed) camp. For this book research, I joined both the National Rifle Association and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence – organizations that are mirror images of one another, using scare tactics to raise money and members. Although they appear to be the bitterest of enemies, NRA and Brady need one another in a kind of political symbiosis. Neither side can afford to declare victory and disband.
I keep a button on my desk, “Risk Changing Your Mind.” Thus, I may have to revise my opinion during the course of the research, but I’ve never been accused of lacking a point of view. I think that guns are tools, as Shane said — often quite beautiful, clever, astonishing, expensive tools, but invariably dangerous tools, designed specifically to kill. And some guns, such as semi-automatic weapons and handguns, are designed specifically to kill only people. They need to be handled with care, and the way they are sold and purchased has an impact on lives far beyond the pocketbook. Ownership of machine guns by the public was made illegal during the Prohibition Era. I believe semi-automatic weapons should be added to that ban, handgun possession should be limited, “smart guns” should be encouraged, gun licensing required, and similar common sense regulations that the NRA bitterly opposes.
Research will take me around the county to meet militia groups, politicians, re-enactors, gun enthusiast “meet-uppers” (weapons on hip) in coffeeshops, and pistol-wielding inner city drug dealers. I’ve already attended the SHOT Show in Las Vegas (the world’s largest firearms event), as well as an Atlanta gun show (where I could easily have purchased a gun without any background check) and the annual shoot-out of the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) at the Smith & Wesson shooting range in Springfield, MA, after which I toured the Smith & Wesson factory. (Thanks to booming sales and $6 million in tax credits from the state, the gun firm is expanding, adding 125 employees over the next two years.)
I visited Dattilio’s Discount Guns, part of Dattilio’s Sunoco in South Burlington, Vermont, where grizzled gun guys hang out, similar to those who used to frequent the country store, except that every other word at Dattilio’s is an obligatory expletive (“I can’t fuckin’ believe this fuckin’ weather. How about that piece of shit scope on that fuckin’ 30-30?”)
I will visit NRA and Brady Center headquarters, Texas gun collectors, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, Michigan militia families, FBI agents involved in an international firearms sting operation, and I plan to take part in a south Georgia bird shoot.
I’m shooting for 120,000 words delivered in three years.
While other magazines were losing readership in the last six months of 2009, American Rifleman was one of the few with growing subscriptions, up 20.2 percent to 1.7 million readers (NYT, 2/9/10). There are an estimated 80 million gun owners in the United States. (There are around 280 million guns in the country, nearly enough for a gun per person). Shooting sports are the second most popular consumer sport in the nation, ranking behind exercise but ahead of golf. Some 60,000 people from more than 100 countries attend the annual Las Vegas SHOT Show, and those are only people in the industry; the general public is excluded. Over 2,000 of the attendees are members of the outdoor and mainstream media.
On an anecdotal level, I have found that at any social gathering, from the most liberal to the most conservative, there are people who light up at the mention of a serious look at the gun business – and a surprisingly wide range of people are gun collectors, target shooters, and hunters. In the last month, I’ve met (by happenstance) a gun-loving IBM engineer, anthropology professor, car mechanic, Procter & Gamble executive, social worker, psychotherapist, retired high school English teacher, and family physician. (That doctor is one of my childhood friends who now saves lives as an occupation and travels the world to kill big game in his spare time.)
When I manned the NRA booth in February 2010 at the Yankee Sportsman’s Classic in Essex Junction, Vermont, I sat directly across from the Republican booth (the Democrats being conspicuously absent). The NRA, which is notoriously conservative, has some 4 million members. But there is also a Shooting Liberally organization (i.e., liberals who shoot, although NRA members might prefer that it were a group using liberals for target practice). There are approximately 15 million self-identified liberals who own guns.
Guns are constantly in the news. I receive a daily listserve (www.gunpolicy.org) that is a valuable resource for such articles. The New York Times ran a front-page story (Feb. 23, 2010) on how gun sales have soared because of paranoia over the Obama administration’s alleged anti-gun aims, and gun sales have again ramped up in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings for the same reason. Lawsuits about gun rights are in the news, and of course the horrendous mass shootings, which occur with alarming frequency.
There is thus a potentially large market for a well-researched, well-written book about guns and money, including readers interested in business books and American culture.
Mark Pendergrast has written numerous books that have been recognized as the comprehensive works in their respective fields. Noted for tackling challenging subject areas, Pendergrast says (only half-joking) that he should have earned an honorary Ph.D. in epidemiology, public health, astronomy, physics, business, economics, psychology, and international relations for his disparate works. See www.markpendergrast.com for detailed information on his books.
Introduction: Guns are big money. Overview of book, a bit of history. Guns are such a part of our culture that we use them in everyday speech without even thinking about it – riding shotgun, going ballistic, trigger-happy, a shotgun approach, pistol-whipped, gun-shy, hired gun, jumping the gun, a smoking gun, going great guns. In 1798 Eli Whitney was commissioned to manufacture 10,000 muskets for the U. S. Army. From the beginning, money was the great motivator for inventors such as Samuel Colt, Richard Gatling, John Browning, and Hiram Maxim.
Chapter 1: The SHOT Show. First person account of the world’s largest gun show, full of glitz, sex, money, image, military, greed, and right-wing ideologues. This chapter introduces characters and sets up many of the themes of the book. At the SHOT Show, I got a poster signed by Jaycelle, an attractive young woman at a gun booth. In the poster, she is skimpily clad, holding guns in both hands, with another pistol attached to her crotch. She inscribed it, “To Mark, I’ll blow you…away! Bang!” I also shot a wide array of guns at the “Media Day on the Range.” It was actually a lot of fun, if deafening. Met a lot of nice people with whom I completely disagreed politically.
Chapter 2: Who Makes the Guns? Although many readers may think that America supplies the world with guns, we import more firearms, from places such as Italy, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Russia, than we sell abroad. But there are plenty of guns manufactured in this country as well, at Smith & Wesson, Remington, Ruger, and by foreign firms with factories here, such as Glock, Taurus, and Sig Sauer. An amazing array of small businesses make guns or accessories you wouldn’t imagine. Profiles of such businesses in this chapter.
Chapter 3: Who Sells the Guns? Coverage of gun stores and dealers, such as Dattilio’s in Vermont. Will describe gun shows (there are 4,000 across the U. S.), where anyone, including felons and terrorists, can buy guns without background checks from non-licensed dealers. Also includes interview with “straw men” who buy guns on commission basis for criminals who could not pass the background check.
Chapter 4: Who Buys the Guns? Hunters, competitive shooters, police, military (more details below), and people who are afraid of being robbed, attacked, or having their individual freedoms abridged. And gangs, drug dealers, and other assorted criminals and mental defectives. With fewer young people taking up guns, the firearms industry is going after women. Interviews with members of organizations such as Babes with Bullets, Gun Divas, and Pink Pistols. Women taking classes at “First Shots” (NSSF) and “First Steps” (NRA). The NRA offers special hunting programs for women, “Women on Target.” The cost of providing guns and accessories to the police and military. The battle between Glock, Smith & Wesson, and Ruger for the police market. Collectors spend big bucks on antique and rare guns.
Chapter 5: Lobbying for Guns, Country, and Dollars. Covers the NRA lobby, a brilliant fund-raising machine disguised as a consumer group, and legislators who work to make guns more available and fight against closing the gun show loophole. Most politicians are afraid to cross swords with the NRA, but this chapter also covers Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Taxes on guns provides a built-in governmental incentive to keep sales strong. Since the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, excise taxes on firearms and ammunition have funded wildlife conservation and restoration.
Chapter 6: Hunting for Your Wallet. The expensive nature of various types of hunting. Guides make a living from guns. Wealthy hunters can pay for “canned” hunts on stocked reserves, where they are guaranteed a kill. I interview hunters (deer, bird, rabbit, big game), and go hunting myself. Covers hunting ethos, deer camp, camaraderie, attitude towards wildlife and nature. Groups such as Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Chapter 7: Target: $$$. The competitive shooting world and who profits from it. A recent survey indicated that 15% of the U. S. adult population went target shooting in 2009. This chapter covers the varied culture of shooting competition, from traditional Bullseye competition (shooting a pistol from a standing position using one hand, the nationals held annually at Camp Perry, Ohio) to “practical” or “action” shooting, which arose in the 1970s, in which competitors shoot in real-life simulations, such as a robbery in a home or at an ATM machine. Shooters have to avoid shooting “hostage” targets as well. I attended the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) annual national competition in Springfield, MA, at the Smith & Wesson Shooting Range, and will also write about the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), in which members adopt shooting aliases such as Judge Roy Bean, Wyatt Earp, or Blaze Crittenden, and dress up as cowboys to compete with revolvers and other guns from the Wild West. There is an annual “End of the Trail” shoot-out in Founders Ranch, New Mexico. I plan to attend, having joined SASS, received my own sheriff’s badge, and adopted the name Mighty Pen. There are also paintball games and now more popular “airsoft” games with realistic plastic-pellet guns, Civil War re-enactors, etc. I have interviewed Joshua Olson, a member of the elite U S. Army Marksmanship Unit, who takes part in international rifle competitions. He joined after losing his right leg in Iraq. Interview with Todd Jarrett, who makes his living in action pistol shooting and from gun manufacturer sponsors. Jarrett reveals how he nearly blew off his hand when a round went off outside his gun, and how a bullet he shot at a bowling pin spun the pin around and flew back to shoot him in the hip. There are yet more associations and types of target shooters, such as the International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Association, where people shoot at stainless steel outlines of animals.
Chapter 8: Paranoia Strikes Deep. Gun sales have increased dramatically since the 9/11 terrorist attack, but paranoia has really prevailed since Obama’s election. I will visit ATF headquarters for tour and interview, then go to Michigan to interview Lee Miracle, a postal worker and an active member of the Michigan militia movement, and his six gun-carrying children, including 6-year-old Morgana, who holds a stuffed animal in one hand and a pink rifle in the other. Includes interviews with members of the Tyranny Response Team, an over-the-top gun rights group.
Chapter 9: Gun Rogues. The day before the SHOT Show in Las Vegas in January 2010, an FBI sting operation arrested 21 members of the gun industry for bribes/kickbacks. The FBI agents had posed as representatives of an African country looking for arms. This chapter will detail that operation as well as discussing the case of Chuck Byers, who made James Bond-type firearms and incendiary devices for the U. S. military and who alleges that he was nearly killed by rogue CIA agents who sold his weapons to terrorists.
Chapter 10: Shooting Up in the Inner City and the Cartels. Guns in drug wars, gangs. How gun companies targeted young black men with handgun marketing in 1980s. Life and death in the inner city. Drive-by shootings. Interview with Geoffrey Canada, an African-American who grew up in the South Bronx during the era of knives and who now tries to make the inner city safer through his “Harlem Children’s Zone,” which President Obama wants to replicate. When Canada grew up on the mean streets, there were knives but few guns. Life was violent, but there was a predictable pecking order. Now any kid with a gun may kill you. Will include interview with young drug dealer carrying a gun. Will interview Michael Bloomberg, co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Covers gun buy-back programs and their impact. Will interview Frederick Bealefeld, police chief in Baltimore, Maryland, which is sometimes called Bodymore, Murderland, because of its numerous homicides. Bealefeld is focusing on prosecuting illegal gun use and possession rather than the unwinnable war on drugs. That war is killing thousands (with guns from the US) in Juarez, Mexico, and threatens to spill over the border.
Chapter 11: The Public Health Price of Guns: In 1996 the Republican Congress passed a bill eliminating the $2.6 million Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget for firearms research and ordered the CDC never to advocate gun control. Yet this is a major public health issue. A 1999 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that the costs of gunshot injuries nationwide exceeded $2 billion a year. When lost productivity, lost quality of life, and pain and suffering are added to medical costs, estimates of the annual total cost of firearm violence range up to $100 billion.
Chapter 12: Rampage. Who goes crazy and starts shooting random strangers in a school, a movie theater, a political rally, or a military base, and where do they get their guns? The latest mass killing occurred on July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado, when 24-year-old James Holmes opened fire with a 12-gauge Remington shotgun, then a Smith & Wesson semi-automatic rifle that could fire 100 rounds at a time. When that jammed, he switched to a Glock handgun. Holmes, a quiet, solitary, and otherwise unremarkable science student, had purchased all of the guns legally at local gun shops, and he had bought nearly 7,000 rounds of ammunition on-line in the 60 days before his shooting spree. It may be that Holmes has developed paranoid schizophrenia, which often has an onset in the early 20s. He dyed his hair orange and called himself “The Joker,” after a character in the Batman movie that was being shown in the theater. Apparently, no one could have predicted this rampage. Many similar random shootings have occurred in the United States in Tuscaloosa, AL (2012); Tucson, AZ, Carson City, NV, and Seal Beach, CA (2011); Binghamton, NY, Carthage, NC, Bridgeville, PA, and several towns in Alabama (2009)…. The list goes on, back to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School and more before that. The subsequent media-fest is predictable, with interviews of heroic victims, traumatized survivors, and local ministers. President Obama flew out to Aurora to offer sympathy to families, but he never discussed the guns or how Holmes got them. That would be political suicide in an election year. So we get pieties without any action to prevent future tragedies, which will inevitably occur.
Chapter 13: Parting Shots. Conclusions. Guns are indeed big business, enmeshed in our culture and economy. Americans have a long-term love/hate affair with guns. We will never get rid of them, since our identity is too wrapped up with these killing tools. But we can tax and regulate them so that they are used more wisely. I conclude that guns should be regulated in a way similar to cars. People should be required to pass a “shooting test” before being granted a license. Young people could also be granted a “learner’s permit” to be used under adult supervision. Handguns and semi-automatic rifles should be regulated more heavily than other weapons. All guns should be registered and should be required to pass an annual inspection. Gun sales should be treated similarly to car sales. Ammunition should also be identifiable and sold only to those with proper licenses. And a computerized system should be in place to identify people who are stockpiling weapons and ammunition.