Not just NRA money: How the gun industry avoids regulation

Seriously. Who needs a gun this big?

The aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 and injured nearly 500 people attending a country music festival spurred the same partisan divide as any other horrific mass shooting. Republicans trot out the tired “too soon” memes while repeating talking points supplied by the National Rifle Association. Democrats try — usually in vain — for any kind of regulation that would cut down on killing.

It’s no secret that too many (mostly Republican) lawmakers receive campaign contributions from the NRA. The gun lobby and its contributors also fund attack ads against candidates likely to be sympathetic to gun safety laws. In all, the NRA has an outsize influence on the nation’s gun laws. But it’s not just generous NRA money. The campaign to escape government regulations is the result of decades of preemptive work by gun manufacturers to head off anti-firearm rules.

A resurrected analysis from Think Progress, originally written in 2015 after a mass shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic and republished after Stephen Paddock’s 11 minutes of slaughter from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, demonstrated some points that are hard to refute.

Another industry that causes harm has laws on the books that mitigate its deadly effects. In many areas, taxes on cigarettes have been raised to the point where many can’t afford smokes (there is a federal tax of $1 per pack, with state taxes as high as $4.35 per pack in New York). Ads for cigarettes have been banned on TV since 1971. Twenty-five states have banned smoking in indoor workplaces, restaurants, and bars (it’s no surprise that indoor smoking is still allowed in the reddest states). Cigarette packs must have health warnings on each pack, and, even though the tobacco industry went through decades of denial, the harmful health effects of smoking and inhaling secondhand smoke can’t be refuted. As a result of all of these efforts, smoking rates in this country have plummeted, from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 15.1 percent in 2015, and significantly fewer teenagers take up smoking today.

So what does the gun lobby know that the tobacco lobby didn’t? Why are so many places in this country off-limits for smokers but accessible to someone openly carrying a gun?

The short answer is: The NRA learned from the lesson of Big Tobacco. After that, it all came down to money—and finding successful ways to stop lawsuits and regulations.

The Second Amendment right to own a gun was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008. But Justice Antonin Scalia, supplying the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, wrote that “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited,” and that “longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” were still constitutional.

Glad we cleared that up. Because gun lovers and Second Amendment advocates pass over Scalia’s qualifiers and quote only the line from the amendment itself: “shall not be abridged.” The NRA has backtracked on any gun limits whatsoever.

Here’s how the NRA found success against rules and lawsuits.

A big part of the answer is that the gun lobby preempted the sort of tactics that anti-smoking activists successfully used to reduce cigarette consumption. After seeing class action lawsuits that forced the tobacco industry to change the way it marketed its product, research by the Surgeon General and the U.S. government helping both discourage use and assist cessation, the creation of smoke-free public places, increased taxes on tobacco deterring use, and many medical professionals helping their patients quit, the gun lobby spent tens of millions to make sure they avoided the same fate. And by changing federal and state laws, it found ways to block every single one of those approaches from being used to undermine the firearm and ammunition industries’ bottom lines.

The 1998 settlement between 46 state attorneys general and the four biggest tobacco companies was a huge win for anti-smoking forces and for public health. Cigarette manufacturers had to drastically change their marketing practices, and they were forced to pay billions of dollars to states to set up anti-smoking efforts. Given that big win, gun safety forces were gearing up the same kind of approach, and the Clinton administration was set to join the battle. They scored an early victory in a settlement with Smith & Wesson, which agreed to “provide safety locking devices, invest in smart gun technology to limit use to the proper owner, limit magazine capacity for its new firearms, cut off dealers and distributors with a history of selling to criminals, and prevent authorized dealers from selling at gun shows where any arm sales are permitted without background checks,” according to Think Progress.

The NRA and its allies saw the danger. First, they undercut Smith & Wesson.

Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, told ThinkProgress that the NRA was “very afraid of the parallel between gun litigation and tobacco litigation, so it preempted that.” Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — the secretive free-market lobbying group that brings together conservative politicians and major corporate interests including the tobacco and gun lobbies — it pushed a “Defense of Free Market and Public Safety Resolution” to hurt Smith & Wesson’s ability to sell to law enforcement.

“ALEC helped to try to punish the one component of the industry that agreed to these measures,” Graves recalled, discouraging local police “from buying guns from Smith & Wesson — for daring to go along with safety [measures] designed to keep kids safe.”

George W. Bush won the 2000 election (albeit with Supreme Court help), and the federal government quickly dropped out of the multi-state gun safety lawsuit. With a Republican president and Congress (the Senate was split 50-50, with some topsy-turvy party switching, but ultimately had a GOP majority), the NRA started racking up more victories.

ALEC and the NRA pressured states into prohibiting the kind of lawsuits against the gun industry that had been so successful against tobacco. Congress let the assault weapons ban expire in 2004, despite the fact that there were fewer mass shootings while the ban was in place. Gun advocates point to research claiming that the ban had little effect, but isn’t any attempt to cut down on killing worth it?

The big win was in 2005, when Bush signed a law that shielded the gun industry from legal liability when guns are used in criminal activities. Throw in the fact that the federal government no longer can spend money doing public health research on gun violence, and you’ve got a trifecta. Just as important, ALEC and the NRA were successful in getting many states to pass laws prohibiting local communities from enacting their own gun safety legislation.

“I think that, had the really powerful litigation run its course, we would have had the same success on guns” as on tobacco, Graves said. “That tobacco litigation was historic… They were able to make some substantial progress and change the future — having information out there, showing how evilly the tobacco companies were behaving. So there was an effort to stop that for guns, which have huge number of deaths and injuries. We haven’t seen the same progress as you would have had these been allowed to go forward.”

So where are we today? There is still widespread support for common-sense gun safety laws such as universal background checks, bans on gun sales to the mentally ill, and even bans on the sale of assault weapons, among people of both parties, including a majority of gun owners. But to say that such legislative efforts face an uphill climb is stating the obvious.

One small ray of hope might be the bills introduced by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David Cicilline. The legislation would ban the sale or possession of bump-fire stocks, or bump stocks, that can increase the shooting rate of a semiautomatic rifle to mimic that of an automatic weapon. Several Republicans, probably realizing that a white shooter and a huge number of dead and injured country music fans meant that they had to at least pretend they were concerned, said they were open to the idea. After all, 12 of the semiautomatic weapons Paddock had in his hotel suite of death were fitted with bump stocks.

Both the House and Senate version of this bill are picking up co-sponsors from both parties. The NRA, no doubt seeing the writing on the wall, has released a statement saying that “devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.” Hey, it’s a step.

But I’m not going to get my hopes up; they’ve been shot down too many times. If 20 dead children in Newtown, Connecticut, weren’t enough to pass any meaningful gun safety legislation, 58 dead country music fans probably won’t be enough, either.

America has 323 million citizens, and those citizens own 300 million guns. About one-half of those firearms are in the hands of just 3 percent of Americans who have large collections, as Paddock did. Many of those guns are semiautomatic assault weapons that have no place except in the military. There are already enough AR-15s out there to repeat the carnage of Las Vegas many times over—at least 5 million, and they’re sold by multiple gun manufacturers. Even if an assault weapons ban were passed, the guns are already too widespread.

No doubt, many owners of semiautomatic assault rifles already own bump stocks, too. An NPR report stated that Americans had spent about $10 million on the devices since they started being sold seven years ago. The price can be as low as $40 each; other reports listed the price as $100 to $300. Whatever the price, that could be anywhere from tens of thousands to as many as 250,000 bump stocks already in the hands of gun owners. And gun owners are now rushing to buy them just in case any law is passed.

Efforts aimed at legislation limiting ammunition would be a better strategy. Ammunition, once spent, must be replaced, while guns can be used again. Yet ammunition purchases remain largely unregulated, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. You can easily buy ammo online, and the lack of regulations means a lot of it can be trafficked to other states and other countries like Mexico. The “silencer” bill that House Speaker Paul Ryan put on hold (temporarily) also contained a provision removing controls on armor-piercing bullets.

High-capacity magazines are the main problem. Only eight states ban the sale of 30-round magazines, but they are widely available elsewhere. Some high-capacity magazines—perfectly legal to buy in many states—can hold 60 to 100 rounds. An analysis performed for CNN showed a correlation between restrictions on magazine size and a lower number of mass shootings.

With a fitted bump stock, there’s no stopping a shooter until the gun overheats. As Stephen Paddock showed us, all he had to do was switch to another gun in his deadly arsenal. Nevada has no regulations on sales of high-capacity magazines, and thousands of rounds of ammunition were found in Paddock’s home in Mesquite, Nevada. Says the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence:

While none of these provisions has been reenacted by Congress, several proposals to regulate ammunition, including some that would require background checks, impose taxes on ammunition sales, or require sellers to report the sale of a certain volume of ammunition to a single purchaser, have been introduced over the past several decades. In the wake of the Aurora shooting, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) introduced legislation to restore federal regulation of ammunition sales. The Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act would require ammunition dealers to be licensed and to maintain ammunition sales records. Under the proposal, dealers would also be obligated to report large volume sales and buyers would be required to present photo identification when purchasing ammunition. At present, however, federal law governing ammunition is limited to a prohibition on sales to and purchases by certain categories of persons, and a prohibition on the manufacture, importation and sale of armor-piercing ammunition.

That act has been introduced multiple times. It was fiercely fought by the NRA and never passed.

When a shooter has to stop to reload, there’s a pause. And during that pause, it’s at least plausible that someone could stop the shooter from killing others. When Jared Lee Loughner shot then-Rep. Gabby Giffords and killed six others during her constituent event near Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, further carnage was avoided when Loughner stopped to reload his semiautomatic pistol, and he was taken down by unarmed bystanders.

Obviously, no “good guy with a gun” could aim at a shooter inside a hotel suite on the 32nd floor. But extra time between shots might have given police the opportunity to find Paddock more quickly before he could reload.

And a lot more people would still be alive.

Originally published on Daily Kos on Oct. 8, 2017.

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