On the Economics and thus the Politics of Guns

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This is a guest post by Grant Petty.

Unlike cars, TV sets, washing machines, and cell phones, guns rarely wear out, break, get lost or become obsolete. A typical handgun can easily fire tens of thousands of rounds with no decline in usability or lethality. The vast majority of privately held guns, owned for self-protection, hunting, or occasional target practice never even come close to this kind of usage.

Guns are thus one of those rarest of beasts: a non-perishable, non-consumable commodity. It follows that the vast majority of guns manufactured in at least the past 30 years or so are still in circulation and in working order, waiting patiently in someone’s drawer, cabinet, glove compartment, or jacket pocket to be pulled out and either used or passed on to someone else.

In any manufacturing business, non-perishability of the product you sell poses a huge problem. In particular, if you want to stay profitable as a manufacturer and seller of new guns in a nearly saturated market, you basically have two possible strategies: 1) seduce existing gun owners into buying ever more guns and, especially, fancier and more expensive guns; 2) try to convince current non-owners that they just aren’t safe without a gun.

Of course, the first of these strategies requires there to be as few restrictions as possible on fancier (read “assault style”) guns. And the second benefits from the perception that everyone else is—or at least could be—packing heat.
Guess what the primary political efforts of the NRA have been devoted to achieving? And guess which industry largely finances those efforts to the tune of tens of millions of dollars?

It’s time to recognize the NRA for what it is, a corporate-backed lobbying organization whose primary raison d’être is to keep gun manufacturers from running out of customers. It does so by deliberately fostering a fetishistic fascination with firearms, an irrationally exaggerated fear of criminals, and an extreme and legally questionable interpretation of the Second Amendment.

In that sense at least—and this is my major point that I think has been overlooked to date—the gun “debate” is no different than the “debate” about global warming, about health care, about GMO foods, about pollution controls, and, in years past, about meat inspections, seat belts, and cigarettes. It’s about protecting a still-profitable industry at the expense of the health and security of ordinary citizens. For that matter, it’s undoubtedly also about justifying the existence of the NRA.

I believe the single most important thing we as citizens can do to regain control of the gun “debate” is to focus not just on resisting self-serving pro-gun propaganda but also on confronting the unfettered ability of deep-pocketed special interests–often, but not always, corporations–to buy or extort the cooperation of American politicians. This means, among other things, overturning the disastrous Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court and restoring stringent regulations on, and public disclosure of, all political spending.

It also arguably means not dissipating all of our precious time and energy trying to beat out every trash fire that pops up in statehouses around the country, whether it’s “stand your ground,” concealed carry, or some other NRA/ALEC-promoted insanity.
Rather, it’s time to turn a metaphorical fire hose on the guys with the matches.

Shows a huge table of handguns at a gun show in Houston, TX. Image appears courtesy of M Glasgow of flickr. Creative commons license.

A gun show in Houston, Texas. Image appears courtesy of M Glasgow of flickr. Creative commons license.

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