Hours after the arrest of the two suspects in the sniper killings last week, a nursing student at the University of Arizona shot to death three professors before committing suicide. The same afternoon, a depressed teenage boy in Oklahoma killed two and wounded eight in a three-town rampage before being captured. This week rapper Jam Master Jay was shot to death in his Queens recording studio.
Seems like a good time for American gun-control activists to make a big push for limiting weapons possession. But that's not so easy. Even this recent wave of gun terror hasn't been enough to create a mandate for change. The best that activists can do is to focus on what gun-control advocate Josh Sugarmann calls "discrete issues" and incremental change.
Sugarmann, the author of "Every Handgun Is Aimed at You," is the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control think tank. According to the National Rifle Association, the organization is "the most effective, and most untruthful anti-gun rabble-rouser in Washington." It's an assessment the VPC wears with pride, even posting it on its Web site.
Sugarmann, talking with Salon from his office in Washington, spoke about the power of the gun industry, the impact of the sniper shootings on the gun-control debate, the Bush administration and the NRA, and one of the best places to investigate the gun industry's impact on youth: your local 7-Eleven.
So there are finally arrests in the sniper case and immediately we see more shootings in Arizona and Oklahoma. Are we witnessing a major new wave of gun violence?
In my office, collecting this kind of news is what we do day in and day out. One thing that has happened as a result of the sniper shootings, because of their grotesque nature, and the length of time that they occurred, is that there's been a renewed focus on the issue of gun violence by the press. But these shootings happen all the time.
That's a sad commentary on the issue of gun violence in this country. Every time there is a truly horrible shooting, it does focus public attention and policymaker attention on the issue of gun violence. You can focus on the assassinations in the '60s to things like Columbine and up to the sniper shootings. In essence, each shooting trumps the prior, but it also raises the bar of what shocks us as a nation, which is one of the disheartening aspects of all of this.
What key issues do you see after this last wave of killings?
First of all, there is a sniper subculture in this country that's a predictable result of gun-industry marketing. [A 1999 VPC report, "One Shot, One Kill," claimed that gun-industry marketing touting the lethality of a single shot from high-tech firearms was helping to create a "sniper subculture" and a new threat to public safety.]
The second issue concerns the weapon that was used by the shooter. Since the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons ban, we've seen a concerted effort by the gun industry to circumvent the intent of that ban, and Bushmaster [the maker of the rifle used by the sniper suspects] is really the object lesson of companies like this.
When you read the news accounts, Bushmaster comes across as so surprised and so upset. That's just not the case. The company was purposely evading the assault-weapons ban. [The company was] thumbing its nose at Congress' intent. Incidents like the sniper attack and others involving Bushmaster, including the rolling gun battle that occurred in L.A. three years ago, are very predictable. Bushmaster has made its living exploiting loopholes in the Federal Assault Weapons ban. Unfortunately, it's not alone.
One thing that will happen between now and the end of 2004 is that Congress has to address the Federal Assault Weapons ban, because the sun sets in 2004. The ban has a 10-year life span. What this incident makes clear is that we can't just renew the ban. We also have to improve the ban, to make sure that bad actors like Bushmaster and others can't continue to make assault weapons that can be purchased by people like the shooters in the sniper case.
What do you mean by "bad actors"?
In the final big picture, the gun industry is the only industry in America besides the tobacco industry that is not regulated for health and safety by a federal agency. Pesticides come under the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], pharmaceuticals under FDA [the Food and Drug Administration], airplanes under FAA [the Federal Aviation Administration]. You name it, there's an alphabet agency there for it -- except for guns. What that means in the real world is that if you've got a little bit of money [in the gun industry], and very little conscience, you can make virtually anything you want as long as it's not fully automatic, meets certain size restrictions, and is not classified as an assault weapon.
We ban products day in and day out in this country. When I was a kid we played lawn darts. It's basically a giant metal dart that weighs about three pounds, and you would throw it in the dark like horseshoes. Lawn darts killed a couple of people and they were banned. But we lose nearly 20,000 Americans to guns every year and yet some people would argue that that is a fair price to pay.
No one is talking about banning all guns. There is no reason to. But specific categories of firearms basically have a degree of death and injury associated with them that is not warranted. We would argue that this includes handguns, assault weapons, sniper rifles, .50-caliber rifles. The vast majority of guns in this country tend to be your traditional hunting rifles and shotguns. The vast majority of guns in this country are not what the problem is. The problem is, a minority of guns are associated with a disproportionate amount of death and injury.
If we had banned handguns in 1983, then we would have never seen these new trends [in weapons]. We wouldn't have seen the move from six-shot revolvers to these high-capacity pistols. You wouldn't have assault weapons on the market. You wouldn't have had .50-caliber sniper rifles. You wouldn't have a new generation of handguns known as pocket rockets -- which are smaller and more powerful weapons.
There's a perception that the gun industry is static. It makes one product, puts it in the market, and that's it. But the gun industry is more like a shark, looking for the next target.
The traditional white male target market is declining. People are getting older, dying off; they've basically purchased all the guns they're going to buy. So the gun industry has done two things. The first thing is that they've tried to reach out, just like any other industry. Probably the best model would be tobacco. They've targeted women, children and even minorities. I say "even" minorities because there's always been an antipathy toward the minority community if you look at some gun publications.
How do you resell the market? It comes back to the issue of lethality. What has defined the gun industry in this country since the 1980s has been increased lethality, the nicotine of the gun industry. That's what drives the gun industry today.
We read a lot of gun-industry publications, and they're very open about the fact that they're shrinking as a group in this country and the culture is changing. The traditional means by which people enter the gun culture -- hunting, military conscription -- are disappearing. There's a lot of new competition for the children. Kids can sleep late, watch TV, go out and play a video game, versus get up at the crack of dawn, go out in the cold, and use your frost-bitten fingers to fire a weapon that hurts your shoulder and makes a loud noise. That's an easy choice for a lot of kids
So the question is, how can the gun industry attract a new market?
What they're doing is to focus more and more on children. We've done a series of studies that have looked at the very open marketing by the gun industry to kids, to children. We're talking 5-, 7-, 8-year-olds. We've seen kids as young as 5, photos of small toddlers with full auto machine-guns, things like that [in gun publications]. It's an overt effort to normalize the idea of kids and guns. Most people would be shocked to see a child smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer. There is an effort to make sure that the idea of a child and a gun is acceptable.
Have you ever been to a 7-Eleven? Have you ever hung around the magazine rack? I do it all the time. Every time I go to one, a bunch of kids come in and display fairly impressive gun knowledge at most, and interest at the very least.
More than when you were a kid?
Oh yeah. When I was a kid -- I don't want to come across like a cross between Rip van Winkle and Methuselah here -- but the gun culture, as defined by the products that the industry sells, was very different. Back then it was traditional hunting rifles and shotguns. Gun culture in America didn't become a handgun culture until the 1960s, when the handgun population tripled in this country, following the riots.
Are guns the only culprit here? Isn't violence endemic to American culture?
I'm sort of in the camp of Mario Cuomo; I'm more concerned about real guns than pictures of guns. American entertainment basically saturates the world, and the only difference between us and Canada or England or other industrial nations is that we have the means to carry out the fantasies as portrayed in film. The difference is not what's being seen on the evening news or in mass-market entertainment; it's the unique access we allow our citizens to a wide range of weapons that is unparalleled in the world.
This aspect of the gun culture is protected by the absolute views of groups like the NRA and the fealty paid to the pro-gun movement by many of our political leaders. One of the striking things is that the NRA has become grass-roots troops for the conservative movement in America. If you look at the gun industry and you look at the NRA, they're all facing the same problem: Their core is eroding. They're getting older, they're dying off. And there has been an effort -- this is since the advent of Charlton Heston -- to basically use gun ownership as a cultural marker for conservative America.
When Clinton was first elected, there was a dramatic shift in the language of the NRA. What we saw for the first time was an anti-government language of the militia movement being repeated in NRA publications. They attacked the FBI and compared them to goose-stepping Nazis. They had a cover that said, "The final war has begun." But then Timothy McVeigh took them at their word. When McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, that was the first shot fired in the NRA's war. And McVeigh was an NRA member.
And that's why you saw the backlash. They retreated from their "final war" language and brought in Charlton Heston to take them back into the mainstream. And Charlton Heston brought all the conservative baggage into the NRA's office. It went beyond guns -- to homophobia, opposition to affirmative action. Heston gave his now infamous speech to the Free Congress Foundation. The speech went after feminists, blacks, gays, gun-control advocacy. Heston is basically the catalyst that led to the change to the NRA that we see today, which is now far more influential than when it represented only a small angry picture.
How influential? What about the NRA's role in the current administration?
I think you can say fairly confidently that there has not been a more pro-gun administration in the history of this country. When you look at the full range of activities that the Bush administration has undertaken, the fact is that the NRA is calling the shots in this administration. And certainly the Bush administration is completely beholden to the NRA ... Look at the comments that have come out of the White House, on any gun issue. The White House treated the sniper shooting almost like it was an act of nature. There was no recognition that it's a man with a gun and that the issue is, how do we stop weapons like this from being used against our fellow citizens?
How do you see this playing out over the next few years?
In the wake of high-profile shootings like Columbine, like the sniper shootings, there's a pretty predictable pattern that emerges. What happens is that people on my side of the debate try to find a discrete issue that is defined by the political reality at this given time. There's never the effort to take a step back and talk about the big picture.
For example, following Columbine, the things offered by President Clinton were things like closing the gun-show loophole [which allows private sellers at gun shows to skip background checks], things like trigger locks, and other limited measures.
Closing the gun-show loophole, now that's a legitimate policy debate, but it's not going to solve gun violence in America. And to take it a step further, if you look at what's now being discussed in the wake of the sniper shootings, ballistic fingerprinting certainly may offer promise as an investigative tool, but once again, it's not going to solve gun violence in America. When people on my side of the issue offer these very limited discrete policy proposals in the wake of truly horrendous shootings, it just reinforces the mistaken notion that gun control can't solve these problems. The fact is that gun control can solve these problems. But we're talking about such limited measures that we don't even get to the point where we can have a real policy debate. The issue in this country is the ease of access we allow our citizens to a wide range of weapons.
Once again, say from Columbine to the sniper shootings, the issue of assault weapons comes into play, and the question is: In this country, are we going to accept things like Columbine, like the sniper shootings, and just say -- as the NRA has said in the past -- that it's the price of freedom? Freedom as defined by the National Rifle Association is: "We can do anything we want and for those who are hurt by gun violence, too bad." I would argue that it's too high a price, and I think that most people would probably agree.