Corporate Accountability

Gun Politics

The NRA's pro-gun competitors; the rise of concealed carry; and disturbing gun violence in the birthplace of the gun industry are the subjects of these sidebars to “How the Gun Industry Got Rich.”
Smith & Wesson revolver | Credit: BK1BENNETT
Smith & Wesson revolver | Credit: BK1BENNETT

These sidebars, along with Are New York City Gun Laws the Next to Fall?, were published onCity Limits and accompanied Jarrett Murphy's Investigative Fund story in The NationHow the Gun Industry Got Rich.

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1. Beyond the NRA: Pro-gun Groups Aren't in Lock-Step

Are you a liberal who likes guns? Or a conservative who feels the NRA shows too much willingness to compromise? Chances are there's a gun group out there for you.

Mark Roberts doesn't like to say what state he lives in because people have threatened his life. He can't be entirely sure what end of the political spectrum his enemies come from. As the founder of The Liberal Gun Club, Roberts has probably offended people on the right and the left.

Roberts is a biologist in his 40s whose father used to take him shooting. To him, guns are expensive toys; he has a permit to carry a weapon, but really only uses it to transport guns without running afoul of the law — he does not carry concealed. He started his group, which now has a few thousand members, in 2008 when he tried to join a local gun range and was told he had to be a member of the NRA.

To Roberts the NRA seems like “a mouthpiece for the Republican Party.” As a pro-gay rights, pro-choice, pro-labor voter who doesn't think President Obama's healthcare reform went far enough, joining up with the NRA was a problem, and he wasn't alone. “I know lots of people who are very, very liberal but own guns,” he says. For them, the usual gun groups “don't reflect our thinking on the second amendment and, even if they do, they are deep into other right wing causes.” Indeed, the NRA's website now weighs in on everything from Obamacare to Mayor Bloomberg's proposed soda ban. So Roberts launched his group “for people who are hesitant to seek out proper training because of the atmosphere that surrounds gun clubs and gun ranges.”

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If you're having trouble viewing the image, you can see the graph here: 2010 Expenditures by Gun-Issue Nonprofits

The NRA is the richest and highest profile organization on either side of the gun issue, with a nine-digit budget and a network of affiliated organizations (including its PAC, the NRA Political Victory Fund, and a set of smaller nonprofits like the NRA Foundation and the NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund). But its 4 million or so members are but a fraction of the 70 million to 80 million Americans who are believed to own guns. Some of those nonmembers probably agree with the NRA and are just not joiners. But many gun owners don't feel the NRA represents them.

“As far as being a steward of the sport, they've been wonderful,” says Gerry Souter, a lifelong shooter who recently penned a book called American Shooter: A Personal History of Gun Culture in the United States. He loves guns and admires the NRA's role in promoting hunting and gun safety. But he isn't a fan of what he calls, “this testosterone-based atmosphere of them vs. us.”

On the other side are gun owners who believe the NRA is too willing to compromise with gun-control advocates. Some of these are small splinter groups like Armed Females of America, whose website includes a screed slamming the NRA for, among other things, accepting laws that require the registration of “machine guns, short-barreled rifles and sawed-off shotguns.” But Gun Owners of America is a major lobbying group with a $2 million annual budget, and it consistently runs to the right of the NRA; its director, Larry Pratt (whose links to the militia movement were detailed here) wrote to the ATF in 2011 complaining about an agency study on sporting shotguns that found bayonet lugs and grenade-launcher mounts to be problematic.

As Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist, recalls in his book “Ricochet,” the internal history of the NRA is dominated by a struggle between moderate and hardline factions. “They get the shit kicked out of them by their own membership when they engage in something that looks like a compromise,” he says of the association.

Beyond the ideological factions, there are a slew of smaller gun groups that appeal to particular factions in the gun community, like Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, Second Amendment Foundation, Liberty Belles, Second Amendment Sisters, Citizen's Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, Women Against Gun Control and Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

Mothers Arms, a women-centered self-defense advocacy organization that claims several thousand members, was launched more than a decade ago by Alicia Wadas, a mother of three living in Phoenix who at around the time of the Columbine tragedy noticed her youngest son walking around the house using his index finger as the barrel of an imaginary gun. Her kids had never been allowed to have toy guns, but Wadas began to feel that keeping her children safe required giving them an understanding of how to safely handle (or not handle) firearms. She began going to a range, and became a certified firearms instructor. At one point, she began taking her son to the range. She knew she'd succeeded, she says, the day he said he'd rather ride bikes with his friends than shoot. “I demystified the whole bang bang bang.” Her daughter was less enthusiastic about shooting but still knows how to disarm a weapon. “I just didn't want my children to be like lambs to the slaughterhouse,” she says. “I drive a minivan, for crying out loud. I'm not the knuckle dragging stereotype.”

Groups advocating restricted access to guns are fewer and, taken together, have less money than the pro-gun side. The Brady Center, Violence Policy Center and Mayors Against Illegal Guns spent a mere $6 million in 2010. Together, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) — which represents the gun industry — Gun Owners of America and the NRA spent more than $300 million.

2. Packing Heat: Meet a Concealed Carrier

More and more Americans are carrying concealed weapons, fueling a steep increase in sales of small — and increasingly powerful — handguns.

Shawn Dodson carries a gun in part because he doesn't ever again want to have to defend himself with soup, as he did several years ago. He was at a grocery store with his family when he saw a fight break out. He intervened, angering one of the participants, who left the store and returned with a group of friends. “Next thing I know I have half a dozen guys in my face. The police were so slow to respond. I was about to get my ass kicked,” Dodson recalled. “I actually armed myself with a couple cans of soup.”

Nowadays Dodson, a Florida resident who used to hunt with his father and worked in military law enforcement during his time in the Navy, packs something more powerful than Progresso or Chunky. Like hundreds of thousands of Americans, he carries a concealed handgun. “I carry as often as I can,” Dodson says, “I don't like to leave it in my car because I think that makes it vulnerable. To me it's like a seatbelt. It's like if you're going to carry, you carry all the time.”

It's hard to say whether Dodson is representative of the typical concealed carrier. It is, however, very easy to conclude that the ranks of people who pack heat are growing.

A City Limits survey of the 45 states that permit concealed carry (Illinois does not) and require a permit to do so (Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming do not) finds the number of concealed carriers swelling — although differences in the manner and timing of reporting among states make it difficult to generate national statistics. Florida boats 956,000 permit holders, Utah some 380,000 and Washington 233,000. Other states report smaller totals but significant growth in their concealed carry population. New applications in Arkansas tripled from 2005 (4,800) to 2011 (16,000). Iowa saw the number of permits leap from 40,000 to 95,000 from 2010 to 2011. Ohio had 22,000 new issuances in 2007 and 50,000 last year.

Retailer surveys by the National Shooting Sports Foundation indicate that 25 percent of gun-store customers last year were first-time buyers and that those newcomers were most likely buying handguns which, unlike rifles or shotguns favored by hunters, are overwhelmingly bought for self-defense. That was up from 20 percent in 2010, perhaps reflecting concern — which the gun lobby has fed — that President Obama is plotting to radically restrict civilian access to firearms.

Ironically, some gun-rights supporters credit gun control laws for facilitating the concealed carry movement. The 1994 federal assault weapons ban limited how many bullets a gun magazine could hold. This impacted not just rifles but also handguns with large-capacity magazines. Forced to make smaller magazines, gun makers decided to make smaller guns.

The increasing popularity of concealed carry has reshaped the gun marketplace. The number of pistols manufactured in the U.S. has grown by an average of 19 percent over each of the past seven years.
But even as more Americans have been buying guns to hide in their waistband or on their ankle, more powerful handguns — those firing bullets .38 caliber or larger — increased their market share from 49 percent in 1989 to 73 percent in 2009.

domestic-sale

If you're having trouble viewing the image, you can see the graph here: Packing Heat: Meet a Concealed Carrier

Gun-rights groups credit gun-toting citizens with stopping thousands (by some questionable measures, millions) of crimes, figures that gun control groups strongly dispute. The NRA points to falling national crime rates as proof that increased concealed carry does not increase crime; needless to say, the association does not examine the possibility that decreasing crime might erode the rationale for carrying a self-defense weapon in the first place.

But as the Trayvon Martin murder illustrated, having an increasing number of citizens armed with increasingly powerful handguns can have tragic effects. Dodson runs a gun training school called Firearms Tactical that tries to create realistic scenarios for people learning how to handle their weapons. He emphasizes “high-stress” scenarios so each student “can recognize when the fight is on and you can take defensive measures to protect yourself.”

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If you're having trouble viewing the image, you can see the graph here: Death rates for gun homicides

This is harder than it sounds. When an encounter suddenly takes on the potential for violent confrontation, physiological reactions can make mental decision-making difficult. Time slows down, tunnel vision kicks in and fine motor control can be hard to achieve. The latter is particularly troublesome for people carrying small but powerful handguns because, Dodson says, these guns recoil violently and can be very difficult to shoot accurately. He recommends that concealed carriers visit a range at least once a month to practice using their weapon, “So you don't crumble under the moment.”

The people who visit Firearms Tactical for training do so voluntarily. Most states require a background check for a concealed carry permit, and some mandate a class in self-defense law, but as former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman points out, “Texas is the only state that actually mandates that you get some training in the use of deadly force.” Feldman adds: “Most states, New York included, have no requirement that you learn shit from Shinola about the use of deadly force.”

3. Gun Violence in the Birthplace of the Gun Industry

Springfield, Mass. is where basketball was invented and Dr. Suess was born. It's also where one of America's largest gun-makers is located, and where gun violence is a growing concern.

Springfield, Mass. has more than one claim to fame. The game of basketball was invented by a local college professor in a college gymnasium at the corner of State and Sherman streets in 1891, and the National Basketball Hall of Fame anchors the city's Connecticut River waterfront. Dr. Suess grew up here: His book “If I Ran the Zoo” was likely inspired by his father's job as head of the zoo in Forest Park. And even though Matt Groening claims a different Springfield is the setting for his long-running prime-time TV show, many locals insist that their Springfield is the true location for “The Simpsons.”

But this city of 150,000, known as the City of Homes for its abundance of stately houses, is inextricably linked to America's gun industry. The Springfield National Armory off Federal Street, now a National Park Service site, is where large-scale gun-making began in earnest on the American continent. While the armory stopped producing guns in 1968, the Smith & Wesson factory a few miles away continues to churn them out — manufacturing more than half a million pistols and revolvers in 2009. The company employees some 1,200 people, making it a major player in a city that lost 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1985 and 2000. In 2010, calling Smith & Wesson “a globally recognized manufacturer of quality firearms for safety, security, protection and sport,” the state gave the company a $6 million tax break in exchange for moving 225 jobs from New Hampshire to Springfield.

But Springfield is also no stranger to the human impact of guns. The town recorded 20 murders last year — good for a murder rate twice as high as New York City's.

Natives Chelan and DeJuan Brown, a married couple with four children, helped to start an anti-violence group called AWAKE eight years ago. Since then, they haven't had to look far to feel the effects of gun bloodshed. One of the other founders, a mayoral aide named Stephen Pegram, was shot dead in 2005 by a serial killer. A mother that the group has worked with buried one twin and then another to gun violence within a six-week period.

Another member, Jessica Negron, had a 23-year-old son named Darren who had dealt drugs in the past but was trying to get his life in order after a few run-ins with the law. He sometimes carried a gun; his mother found this out when she tried to mediate a dispute between Darren and another guy who said he was afraid Darren would shoot him. But he was apparently not carrying the gun when he visited an illegal liquor store on a January night in 2011. He was shot once and died. Afterwards, Jessica says, “I went into the basement and I did find a gun, but it was all broken up.” More recently one of Negron's nephews was shot in front of his house, presumably by members of a gang who believed his family was involved in a 2009 shooting at a McDonalds where a man was killed and a 12-year-old wounded.

Francena Brown, who is not related to Chelan and DeJuan, lost her son five years ago. He was on his way to a graduation party when someone in a passing car shot him in the head. Since then she's worked with Awake to help other victims of gun violence, including family members she meets when one of the group's response teams is called to the emergency room at Bay State Medical Center to counsel families and friends after a violent incident. “It got numb to the point where it didn't even bother me,” she says.

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If you're having trouble viewing the image, you can see the graph here: Gun Violence in the Birthplace of Gun Industry

While the killer of Ms. Brown's son has not been caught, Brown does know he was shot with a 9mm. Which manufacturer made the gun is not known. Indeed, it's impossible to say how many gun crimes in Springfield or anywhere else involve a particular make or model of gun, although the Smith & Wesson .38 has traditionally been among the top 10 crime guns in the country. (Smith & Wesson declined to comment for this story.)

Members of AWAKE believe that guns purchased legally are then sold to criminals in Springfield. Local law enforcement records reflect other ways guns get into the wrong hands: The local U.S. attorney earlier this year prosecuted a Worcester man for stealing 50 guns from a sporting goods story. Springfield's City Council is considering a proposal to establish a gun court and a special police gun squad and give cops wider powers to seize vehicles in which illegal weapons are found. A proposed Massachusetts law restricting gun owners to one purchase per month died in July amid opposition from local gun-rights activists.

A few years ago, Chelan Brown helped to facilitate the arrest of a violent criminal and believed he intended to kill her in retaliation (he later admitted he might have). So she got a permit to carry a firearm and bought a gun. But she notes, with displeasure, that no one has ever checked to see whether she still has it.

“There's no accountability,” says DeJuan. “It's crazy.”

Research assistance for this project was provided by Arielle Concilio.

These articles were reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. 

About the reporter

Jarrett Murphy

Jarrett Murphy

Jarrett Murphy is the executive editor and publisher of City Limits.