How does the gun industry live with itself? The psychology behind inhumanity

Ever wonder how firearms makers can sleep at night? Here's the science behind their moral evasion

Published February 15, 2016 4:59PM (EST)

Excerpted from "Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves"

The gun industry attributes the blame for the escalating lethality of its firearms to public demand. Recall Olberg’s explanation of why Smith & Wesson was selling small lethal pistols that are easy to conceal: “I sell the guns that the market is demanding” (Albright, Alexander, Arvidson, & Eason, 1981). As we have seen, innovative lethality was driven by sagging gun sales and the battle among gun makers for the small-gun market, not by consumer demand.

Another form of moral evasion by selective attribution of blame is to disembody the gun from the shooter in a false dichotomy that places the blame entirely on the shooter. This is apparent in the NRA’s exonerative causal slogan “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Removal of the gun from the mix of causal factors absolves guns—and by extension their manufacturers—of any role in gun violence. This causal detachment is analogous to claiming that it is people, not carcinogenic cigarettes, that are a major determinant of lung cancer. Human agency is executed through means. The gun toter is the agent. The gun industry provides lethal means to achieve desired ends.

Guns vary in killing power. In a mass shooting with a semiautomatic rifle, the size of the magazine and the ease of reloading determine the scope of the slaughter. For example, in the massacre in Fort Hood in 2009, Nidal Hasan was able to exact a heavy toll by extending the 10-round magazine to 30 rounds with easy reloading: “He was dropping his magazines and reloading in a matter of seconds” (Fernandez, 2013). Because of the semiautomatic feature, mass shootings last less than five minutes (Schmidt, 2014). The make of the gun and the size of the magazine in the hands of the shooter determine how many people die and are maimed. For someone intent on killing a lot of people, a semiautomatic weapon with a large-capacity magazine is the means of choice. Its killing power is tragically displayed in the rash of mass shootings. In accord with modeling theory, the recent years have witnessed a sharp rise in the number of mass shootings and the number of people killed in each tragic assault (Schmidt, 2014).

A gun is inanimate, but through its intended firepower it also influences a person’s sense of agency (Selinger, 2012). The agentic transformative power of a gun is captured in an ad from an earlier era for the Colt .45 gun. It was often called the great equalizer that made the little man as big as the largest man in the West. The amount of carnage in a shooting spree is determined by the complex interplay of the psychological makeup of the shooter, the social conditions that drove the shooter to commit mass murder, the nature of the setting, and the lethality of the gun. From a moral standpoint, in addition to the shooter, the gun industry bears some responsibility for developing and marketing guns of ever-greater lethality in the competition for market share. The gun lobby is also a contributor to the causal mix by blocking any gun reforms regarding the lethality of the firearms and bullets being marketed and by staunchly defending easy access to them. Lawmakers beholden to the gun lobby are facilitators as well. In short, mass killing is determined by a complex array of facilitators, rather than solely by the psychological makeup of the assailant.

The causal cliché is widely used for deflecting accountability. William Ruger, a gun manufacturer, argued, “Guns are a matter of individual responsibility. You keep coming back to the fact that people kill people, not guns” (Ayres, 1994). Professed helplessness to do anything about mass killings is another form of moral evasion for opposing any constraints on the gun industry. One lobbyist used this type of evasion in opposing a community’s effort to ban bullets that can penetrate police body armor. In his argument, in which he euphemistically refers to armor-piercing bullets as “objects,” he claimed that you can’t moderate behavior by controlling objects. Quite the contrary. Fewer police are likely to be slain with armor-piercing bullets if they are banned with strict enforcement than if the bullets are freely available.

Claimed Futility of Gun Regulations

Construing gun regulation as futile is a novel form of moral disengagement in gun violence operating at the effects locus of moral control. In a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, one of the weapons was a military-style semiautomatic rifle. As we have seen, this type of assault weapon had been banned for civilian use. However, lawmakers allowed the ban to expire in 2004. Immediately after the mass killing, the governor of Colorado argued against stricter regulation of the gun industry: “If there were no assault weapons available and no this or no that, this guy is going to find something, right? He’s going to know how to create a bomb” (Crummy, 2012).

Recall that the killing power of firearms is heightened by enlarged ammunition clips and semiautomatic firing. The Aurora gunman used a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a 100-bullet magazine. Countless lives were spared because his gun jammed partway through his planned massacre. The governor used the alleged inevitability of mass killings by other means as a justification for exempting firearms from regulatory consideration.

Little attention is paid to the government’s obligation to protect the public’s right to safety. A gunman in a suburban Wisconsin town killed three women and wounded four others in a spa where his estranged wife worked. The mayor of the town repeated the futility justifications that fend off public demands for gun reforms: “Try as we might, these can’t be avoided” (Yaccino & Davey, 2012).

Gun-rights advocates point to the fact that killers obtain guns legally as evidence that regulations won’t stop massacres. They argue that mentally unstable people, not guns, are the problem. A gunman intent on killing as many people as possible obviously can massacre more of them with magazines that hold 30 rounds than with ones that hold 10 bullets. In arguing against a proposed law in Colorado to limit the capacity of ammunition clips, one lawmaker claimed that “it makes no difference to public safety if there are 10 rounds in a magazine, whether there are 15 rounds in a magazine or whether there are 30 rounds” (Frosch, 2013).

Gun advocates who oppose the regulation of firearms on the grounds that they cannot be regulated run the risk of hoisting themselves in their own petard. If a society faces the threat of repeated massacres of innocent people by killers using military-style weapons that no amount of regulation can prevent, society has a moral obligation to protect its citizens by banning such weapons. It cannot be a helpless victim of a gun industry. What the claim of the futility of gun regulations ignores is a fundamental question: What are military-style semiautomatic weapons with unlimited ammunition clips doing as merchandisable lethal products in a civil society?

In keeping with the selective allocation of blame, the solution proposed by the gun industry is to increase the severity of punishment for crimes committed with a gun. This translates into lengthier prison terms, “Harsh sentences for gun criminals,” as Froman (2007) puts it. The massive growth of the prison population is imposing increasing social and economic burdens on society. We turn to the high societal cost of the remedy proposed by the gun industry next.

Types of Public Victimization by Crime

Crimes victimize people in three major ways. The crime itself victimizes them. It also impairs the quality of life in the community at large. A few random shootings can strike fear in an entire community. Fear for their own safety permeates people’s lives. Many people are arming themselves. They live behind bolted doors, avoid most downtown areas, and desert their streets at night. A district attorney describes in concrete terms the life-constricting effects of feared violence: “Gun violence is what makes people afraid to go to the corner store at night” (Ludwig & Cook, 2003). Crime rates have been declining but, paradoxically, fear of criminal victimization is rising. A campaign to arm the populous requires high arousal of public fear. Carrying concealed guns in public places has been legalized by state and local legislatures. The fact that people are walking around with concealed weapons renders more of the public environment threatening. One senator introduced a bill on the Senate floor that would allow individuals from states permitting concealed gun carrying to arm themselves while visiting other states (Collins, 2009). The senator argued, for example, that this interstate gun-carrying license would make Central Park “a much safer place.” The ill-chosen example, which probably contributed to the narrow defeat of his bill, backfired. Introducing guns into Central Park could not make it safer because there had not been a gun homicide in the park for years. Converting Central Park into a gun-carrying zone could only make it a scary place.

The second societal cost of gun violence, which bears on the gun industry’s prescription of longer jail terms, is the heavy drain of prison costs on tax revenues. Lengthier and mandatory prison terms cram the prisons. In California it costs about $47,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate (Legislative Analyst’s Office, 2014). Lengthier prison sentences have a significant impact on how governmental resources are spent. Higher education and prisons compete for money from the same general fund. The public demands that criminals be put away for long stretches, but is unwilling to pay the heavy costs. Indeed, legislators get voted out of office if they raise taxes. As a consequence, prisons are draining funds for higher education. After adjustment for inflation, since 1980 spending has decreased by 13% for higher education but has swelled by 436% for prisons. California now spends more on prisons than on higher education (Sankin, 2012). As university budgets and financial aid shrinks, tuition increases are used to cover the shortfalls. The diversion of scarce resources from education to prisons drives out the neediest students from higher education. The irony of this budgetary diversion is that education provides the best escape from crime and poverty.

In the third public victimization by crime, the huge cost of operating the prison system detracts from educational and developmental programs during children’s early formative phase of life. The enabling guidance equips them with personal resources for a prosocial life path. School failure, accompanied by association with antisocial peers, forecloses many prosocial options in later life (Patterson, 1986). Dropping out of school increases the likelihood of incarceration and joblessness, which incur high social and economic costs (Sum, Khatiwada, McLaughlin, & Palma, 2009). Once youths get into trouble with the law, they cycle through the prison system, with most coming out worse than when they went in. Investment in developmental programs that cultivate children’s interests, aspirations, competencies, and resilient beliefs in their efficacy to realize their hopes pays large future dividends.

Hawkins and his collaborators demonstrate how early efforts to promote academic and social development yield huge long-term benefits (Hawkins, Catalano, Kosterman, Abbott, & Hill, 1999). In this school-based program offered in the elementary grades, teachers were taught how to manage classroom behavior and promote academic development. Parents were taught parenting skills and how to support their children’s academic work. And the students were taught how to manage interpersonal problems and resist peer pressure to engage in transgressive activities.

The effects of this early multifaceted effort were assessed in a six-year follow-up when the students were 17 years old and in high school. Compared with children in matched control schools that did not offer the program, those who had the benefit of this early developmental aid were more likely to remain in school, were less likely to repeat grades, had higher academic achievement, and were less likely to commit violent crimes, take up heavy drinking, father a baby, or give birth to one. The children from poor, crime-ridden areas benefitted the most. Society can provide prosocial guidance for children living in disadvantaged conditions or pay dearly later. Youth violence is better reduced by investment in education than investment in incarceration.

Derogation of Opponents

A poorly regulated lethal product that is shielded from civil liability and incurs high economic and social costs predictably draws heavy critical fire. Challenges to the morality and civic responsibility of the gun industry’s troubling practices are met with infuriated reactions by progun advocates. They see themselves as patriotic defenders of freedom, unjustly attacked by an arrogant, elitist minority bent on banning guns from society. During his presidency of the NRA, Charlton Heston launched the most blistering counterattack. He directed his heaviest fire at the press, especially their coverage of publicly alarming shootings (Heston, 1999). In his portrayal, “[t] his harvest of hatred is . . . sold as news, as entertainment, as governmental policy” as “reporters perch like vultures” and “news anchors race to drench their microphones in the tears of victims” (Heston, 1999). The reason for the “screeching hyperbole leveled at the gun owners” is that “their story needs a villain. . . . And we’re often cast as the villain.” Concerning media requests for interviews after a tragic shooting, Heston said, “The countless requests we’ve received for media appearances are in fact summons [sic] to public floggings, where those who hate firearms will predictably don the white hat and hand us the black.” Heston turned his wrath on political advocates of gun regulation as well. Members of the Clinton administration, whom he called “Clinton’s cultural shock troops,” were his archenemies (Heston, 1997).

With his election to the presidency, Obama drew the heavy fire. Wayne LaPierre likened him to a “South American dictator” bent on eradicating the Second Amendment. In his conspiratorial analysis, LaPierre warned NRA members that Obama was trying to “lull gun owners to sleep to win re-election.” “Lip service to gun owners,” LaPierre warned, is just “part of a massive Obama conspiracy” to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term (Markon, 2012). In his rallying cry at an NRA convention, LaPierre (2012b) beseeched his followers to “save America and our freedom.”

Other members of the NRA also characterize gun policies in terms of repressive police control. For example, gun regulation is called “political terrorism.” Development of a gun-tracking system is “police control,” and federal agents are “jack-booted government thugs.” Proponents of gun regulation are “loony leftists.” It works both ways, however. One former top lobbyist for the gun industry had some uncharitable things to say about the NRA: “You have a situation where you have a bunch of right-wing wackos at the NRA who are controlling everything” (Butterfield, 2003). And the NRA resents being called a “merchant of death.”

The fierce factional dispute is not about guns per se, Heston explained. Rather, it is just one aspect of the larger cultural war construed by progun advocates as between arrogant elitists and rank-and-file Americans who love their country and are courageous guardians of America’s cherished values and freedoms (Heston, 1997). The reframing of the nature of this war is larded with widely used oppressive imagery of “thought police,” “lock-step conformity,” “cultural warlords,” “self-appointed social engineers,” “Clinton’s cultural warriors,” and “apologist for criminals.” Within this wrathful declamation, Heston (1999) incongruously presents himself as a judicious conciliator seeking to restore harmony between the warring factors. “I am asking all of us, on both sides, to take one step back from the edge of that cliff. Then another step and another, however many it takes to get back to that place where we’re all Americans again.”

The mission of the NRA, in Heston’s clarion call to his constituents, is to defend hard-fought freedoms from zealous gun haters. In the emotive discourse, guns are linked to a list of other types of freedoms:

"Our mission is to remain a steady beacon of strength and support for the Second Amendment, even if it has no other friend on the planet. We cannot let tragedy lay waste to [sic] the most rare and hard-won human right in history. A nation cannot gain safety by giving up freedom. This truth is older than our country. 'Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty not safety.' Ben Franklin said that. If you like your freedoms of speech and of religion, freedom from search and seizure, freedom of the press and of privacy, to assemble and to redress grievances, then you’d better give them that eternal bodyguard called the Second Amendment. The individual right to bear arms is freedom’s insurance policy, not just for your children but for infinite generations to come. That is its singular, sacred beauty, and why we preserve it so fiercely.” (Heston, 1999)

Guns are sanctified not only by association with other cherished freedoms but also by linkage to broader sociopolitical matters that resonate strongly with most NRA constituents. This is achieved by establishing one’s moral credentials through past conduct. Having behaved charitably or righteously establishes one as a good person with license to behave prejudicially in the future. This process of self-entitlement to prejudicial conduct is well documented by Monin and his collaborators across diverse areas of functioning (Effron, Cameron, & Monin, 2009; Monin & Miller, 2001). Heston used his march with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights as his moral voucher to courageously champion “white pride” in the nation’s founders, who created the constitutional gun right. This moral self-license spilled over into indiscriminate condemnation of entire categories of people   who, in Heston’s view, undermine the social and moral order, including feminists, homosexuals, African Americans, and new age religionists:

The Constitution was handed down to guide us by a bunch of those wise old dead white guys who invented this country. Now some flinch when I say that. Why? It’s true . . . they were white guys. So were most of the guys who died in Lincoln’s name opposing slavery in the 1860s. So why should I be ashamed of white guys? . . . Now, Chuck Heston can get away with saying I’m proud of those wise old dead white guys because Jesse Jackson and Louie Farrakhan know I fought in their cultural war. I was one of the first white soldiers in the civil rights movement in 1961, long before it was fashionable in Hollywood, believe me, or in Washington for that matter. . . . Mainstream America is depending on you, counting on you to draw your sword and fight for them. These people have precious little time or resources to battle misguided Cinderella attitudes, the fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition, the feminists who preach that it’s a divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with the other, and all the New-Age apologists for juvenile crime, who see roving gangs as a means of youthful expression. . . . Freedom is our fortune and honor is our saving grace. (Heston, 1997)

This call to arms also illustrates the moral engagement subfunction in the mechanism of social and moral justification. Fighting gun regulation becomes a source of patriotic honor, moral courage, and self-pride. Each year the National Council of Teachers of English presents its Doublespeak Award to public figures or organizations employing deceptive, euphemistic, or self-contradictory ways. In 1999, the award went to the National Rifle Association, with special recognition of Charlton Heston for his “artful twisting of language to blur issues,” and the “invocation of patriotism, reverence, love of freedom, and the opposing use of dread words to color the opposition” (National Council of Teachers of English, 1999).

Former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, who cofounded a coalition of mayors and supports grassroots activism for gun reform, has been especially targeted by gun enthusiasts. They have branded him a “nanny statist fascist” and an “anti-gun bigot” (Barbaro & Goldstein, 2013). Their intense hatred went beyond words. One man sent letters to him and the director of his advocacy organization that were laced with the poison ricin. The letters asserted that the right to bear arms is a “God-given right” that the sender would protect to his death.

The NRA’s uncompromising opposition to any restriction on firearms gives gun-regulation advocates a lot to be incensed about. Here are some of the restrictions opposed by the NRA on the basis of the slippery-slope scenario: banning semiautomatic assault weapons, armor-piercing bullets, and easily concealable street crime guns; requiring safety trigger locks; limiting purchases to one gun a month; background checks for purchases at gun shows; requiring gun dealers to examine their inventories for lost or stolen guns; implementing a national system for tracing guns used in crimes; imposing civil liability for egregious sales practices; and banning gun carrying in public parks and recreational areas.

Excerpted from "Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves" by Albert Bandura. Published by Worth Publishers. Copyright © 2016 by Worth Publishers. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura is one of the most eminent psychologists of modern times. He is a renowned scholar whose pioneering research in social cognitive theory has served as a rich resource for academics, practitioners, and policy makers alike across disciplinary lines.

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