Terms of Revilement

By David B. Kopel

Chronicles. February 2000.

Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America, By Tom Diaz (N.Y.: New Press, 1999) $25.00, 258 pages. More by Kopel on the American firearms industry.

Making a Killing, which may be the most influential anti-gun book ever written, could not have been better timed to the current wave of lawsuits against gun companies, since many of the claims in the suits closely resemble the charges that Tom Diaz presents against the gun industry. Moreover, the book will help shape public opinion about the gun issue in general and gun companies in particular, thereby reducing the prospect that state legislatures or Congress will enact legislation to prohibit the lawsuits.

Yet Diaz's work will also be of interest to persons who are not much interested in do not care about the gun issue. Making a Killing, for one thing, is the first book to analyze the American firearms industry, previous ones having concentrated on a single company (e.g., Winchester), its products, and the evolution of firearms design, rather than on the business decisions faced by company leaders. For another, this book will be of interest to political scientists as an example of changing styles of political rhetoric and, in particular, for the important step that Making a Killing represents in the tactics of gun control advocates. In the past, the debate has been over "gun control"--a term which resonates very negatively with a large segment of the voting public. (Americans do not like being "controlled.") The "gun control" debate has been about restrictions on gun possession by law‑abiding citizens, and about whether these restrictions can reduce misuse of guns both by law‑abiding citizens and by criminals. Yet the very terms of the debate, serving as they do to remind people that gun crime is caused by criminals with guns, put gun-prohibition advocates such as Diaz at a disadvantage. Moreover, the fundamental premise of the gun control movement‑‑that the average American citizen lacks the maturity, intelligence, and emotional stability to possess a handgun and to use it for personal protection‑‑has not proved very popular. Thus, in recent years, advocates of gun prohibition have begun to shift the emphasis of the debate away from gun crimes toward "protecting the children": a rhetorical device intended to promote the same controls they advocated previously. And when a loaded phrase like "the children" is coupled rhetorically with "gun safety" (people who react badly to "control" may respond favorably to "safety"), the tactical advantage becomes all the greater.

Diaz's book seeks to change the moral thrust of the anti-gun argument: "Gun manufacturers are evil and therefore the government should regulate their products." Making a Killing presents what Diaz considers an exposé of the sins of the firearms business--among them its profit motivation in wanting to sell more and more guns. If, however, firearms are a legitimate consumer product (and American law very clearly says that they are), then making a profit by manufacturing guns is no more immoral than making a living by selling books. Diaz asserts that the firearms industry enjoys "incredible profitability" but he neglects to provide serious evidence. Instead, he shows that Bill Ruger, the founder of one of America's most successful gun companies, is personally wealthy, and belongs to some fancy clubs, and repeats--three times!--a 1959 statement by Bill Ruger: "We have a little moneymaking machine here."

The implication is that the rest of the American gun business is as profitable as Ruger, which is simply not the case. Ruger is the only firearms company which is publicly traded, from which we might infer that other firearms companies did not believe that they were profitable enough to be taken public. [Correction: Smith & Wesson is also publicly traded.] Indeed, as anyone who knows anything about the industry knows, the gun companies as financially healthy as Ruger are few and far between. Colt, the most venerable name in American firearms, has survived bankruptcy only because of corporate welfare from the state of Connecticut and from the federal government (in the form of research grants to invent a "smart gun" which can only be fired by its owner). Significantly, lawsuits filed against handgun companies are predicated on the common knowledge that hardly any of the companies have enough money to pay the costs of legal defense in over two dozen courtrooms.

The heart of Making a Killing is an analysis of changes in the handgun market over recent decades. As of 1974,the majority of handguns sold in the U.S. were revolvers. Today, the majority are self‑loading pistols. Indignantly, Diaz describes how the American firearms industry, in recent decades, has attempted to deal with the problem of market saturation (i.e., most men who want to own gun already own a gun) in the way any rational industry would--by trying to sell its product to people who do not currently own it and to sell new products to people who already do. Gun manufacturers have implemented the first strategy by pitching firearms to women and by promoting youth interest in the shooting sports. This program for market expansion is heartily disapproved of by Diaz., who appears not to like anything that people do with guns. He bashes not only ownership of handguns for self-defense, but sports such as Cowboy Action Shooting. He criticizes American shooting ranges which cater to foreign tourists are for seeking to satisfy something he calls "gun lust."

Diaz regards the shift from revolvers to self-loaders as a result of pernicious advertising touting "firepower" as the dubious advantage of the new pistols. He overestimates the role of advertising. Ads obviously affects consumer decisions; otherwise companies would not bother to advertise. Whether advertising can create and sustain demand for a product type which, in the absence of advertising, consumers would not want, is questionable. To acknowledge this point would be to put the blame for increased firepower on the consumer, rather than on the gun manufacturer. And this in turn would move the gun debate back to the "gun control" paradigm, with its associated political perils of criticizing tens of millions of consumers, rather than a few dozen handgun companies.

Despite what Diaz implies, for many decades gun companies have offered consumers a choice between revolvers and self-loading pistols. The self-loading mechanism was invented in the late 1890's; the best-known American firearms model--the "Colt .45", a self-loading handgun--was first sold in 1911. The "high-capacity" pistol been available to consumers at least since 1935 with the introduction of the 13 shot Browning Hi Power. Before the 1980's, moreover, in that allegedly golden era when revolvers outsold self-loading pistols, firearms manufacturers worked just as hard to sell as many revolvers and pistols as they could. That the companies sold more shotguns or revolvers than pistols was the simple result of consumers being more interested in shotguns and revolvers. Clearly, changes in consumer preferences 1959 to 1999 are the result of consumer decisions, not of a publicity scam waged against consumers by gun companies.

Along with the complaints about an industry‑driven shift in handgun type come diatribes against more powerful ammunition. These is nonsense, and Diaz's propagation of them undercuts his claim to be a former "gun nut." The most popular type of ammunition for modem self‑loaders is 9mm. This ammunition is not new (it was invented in 1895 George Luger) nor is it more powerful than revolver ammunition; in fact, 9mm happens to be the same size as that for the "old‑fashioned" .38 Special revolver. The most powerful handgun ammunition in common use is the .44 magnum, which is for revolvers, not pistols.

Diaz, who considers the gun industry evil for selling guns that are too big, considers it as well for marketing others that are too small. There have been increased sales of small guns in the 1990's. But consumers who want small guns have had them available since 1852, when Henry Deringer patented his first gun. Indeed, "Derringer" became a generic (and misspelled) named for literally hundreds of brands of small handguns which achieved mass consumer popularity as urban defense weapons in the 1880's and 1890's. The fact that sales of these guns waned, relative to the rest of the handgun market, between 1890 and 1990 tells us more about consumer behavior than it does about gun companies forcing products on consumers. And that small handguns in 1999 can fire larger bullets than their 1899 ancestors tells us only that metallurgy has improved in the last century.

A second cause of increased popularity for small handguns was President Clinton, who in 1994 successfully fought for a crime bill banning the manufacture of new magazines holding more than 10rounds. This design restriction inevitably led gun consumers and gun designers to express greater interest in handguns which hold ten rounds are less. Of course, the lower the ammunition capacity, the smaller the gun can be. Some companies, such as Kahr, were introducing new small handgun designs even before the Clinton crime bill passed, but unquestionably the Clinton ban accelerated a trend. The legislation also helped spur a massive backlash 1994 general elections. The result was not only a Republican-controlled Congress but enormous "pro-gun" gains in state legislatures and governors' mansions. The tidal wave of legislation that followed in the next year gave America 31 states in which ordinary law-abiding adult who pass a background check and (in most states) attend a safety class may obtain a permit to carry concealed handgun for their lawful protection. No wonder small handgun sales are rising. Like most professionals in the gun control lobbies, Diaz nowhere acknowledges the morality of defensive firearms ownership.

Diaz concludes by calling for a federal agency to be given the authority to regulate firearms design. The agency would have the power to "phase out" handguns, which Diaz has elsewhere said would eventually mean handgun confiscation with compensation paid to the owners. This section of the book would be stronger if it addressed some of the potential problems with the proposal. Even if we skip over the constitutional objections, what about the tremendous enforcement and black market problems? The federal government once outlawed alcohol, and now outlaws various drugs, in the name of consumer safety. Whatever one thinks about the cost/benefit result of these prohibitions, the costs (both in dollars and in diminished constitutional rights) have been enormous. At least a short discussion of the similar costs which would arise from handguns prohibition seems in order.

Making a Killing is already making a major contribution to the American gun policy debate. The book will be appreciated by people already share Diaz's premise about the immorality of making guns and sales to people for their own self-defense. (One such reader calls the book "An astonishing picture of depraved indifference that will leave you gape-mouthed.") It will not be convincing, however, to readers who do not start with Diaz's premises, particularly if the they have some independent knowledge of firearms, firearms policy, or the firearms business. The self-righteous moral indignation (based upon moral principles that are very far from universal) detracts from the book, as does Diaz's unwillingness to say anything positive about the firearms industry, and his insistence on imputing wicked motives to everything the industry does. It is unfortunate that Tom Diaz has seen fit to overlay the rhetoric of moral panic on the results of his large and serious research about an important American commercial enterprise.

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