In the battle for reducing gun violence in America, Tom Diaz, author of The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It, points to the culture wars of white male gun owners and the firearms industry, which tends to stay lurking in the background, signing the checks.
It is the gun industry, he contends, which has turned the once basic revolver and rifle into a marketing machine for highly lethal militarized weapons.
One recent study found that in the four major mass shootings in the second half of 2012, an AR-15 assault weapon was the single common denominator. The study, published in Art on Issues, concludes: "Assuming no bias in selection, the odds of a member of the AR rifle family being selected simply by chance in any of the individual events amongst all available types of rifles and shotguns becomes about 2.4 in 100 (0.024). The odds of a member of the AR rifle family being selected in all four independent events simply by chance is less than 1 in 3 million."
Those are astonishing odds, showing that the availability of assault weapons - which are a profitable product line for gun companies - does facilitate mass shooting sprees.
This is Truthout's second interview with Diaz about a subject that plagues the United States with no solution in sight: gun deaths and injuries.
(In full disclosure, Mark Karlin has worked with Tom Diaz in the past on gun violence prevention issues.)
Mark Karlin: Before getting to your book, I am sitting here typing this interview. To my left I have an article from an April 30, 1999, Chicago Tribune. The headline is, "In once-friendly climes, NRA now under the gun: Momentum builds for controls across the U.S. in wake of massacre." The massacre at the time was Columbine. You and I and others who have been involved with attempting to reduce gun violence have experienced this same cycle over and over: a national intensity of feeling for gun control after high-profile massacres, followed by the National Rifle Association carrying the day after media coverage dies down. It looks like that is where we are headed now, more or less, after Sandy Hook. How come this cycle keeps repeating itself?
Tom Diaz: The easiest answer is to blame the NRA. Unfortunately, that is not the correct answer. I see three major reasons for our national failure to take control of a problem that is obviously - as your reference to Columbine aptly illustrates - only going to continue to get worse.
The first is the almost total collapse of political leadership at all levels of government. In this era of "micro-politics," embodied by such poll-driven organizations as Third Way and the professional politicians who follow its kind of advice, the right thing to do is no longer defined by substantive factors, such as the morality of saving (or sacrificing) children's lives, or the value of public health and safety measures that we know will work. The right thing to do is whatever, independent of social values, most neatly serves the mechanics of getting reelected. Gun control is a tough nut that requires leaders who will stand up, take the heat and be willing to go down fighting. That breed of leader is virtually nonexistent today.
Second, the news media have become a mile wide and an inch deep, with the attention span of a gnat. Sure, they pull out the stops for a while in the wake of a horrific Moloch's slaughter like Sandy Spring Elementary School. But, with some singular exceptions, they ignore the blizzard of "ordinary" gun death and injury that goes on around us every day. As a result, most Americans have no clue how bad the situation really is in this country.
Finally, the gun control movement - to the extent one call fairly call it a "movement" - has had no grassroots, no "boots on the ground," as does the NRA. The movement has really been a patchwork of foundation babies and well-meaning dilettantes, seeking favor from self-serving professional politicians in Washington. Lately, we have seen some stirring outside of Washington, and one hopes that will turn into a true movement with local power. The case is very much in the balance, however. I think it equally as likely that America will, by default, decide it is willing to live with the occasional slaughter.
Mark Karlin: Your last two books, the prior one being Making a Killing, focus on the gun industry and its marketing practices. Does it serve the interests of the gun manufacturers and its chain of distribution to have the media and politicians focus on the NRA as the primary "front man" obstructing gun control?
Tom Diaz: Absolutely. The NRA acts as a sort of ideological laundry machine for the gun industry. By that I mean, the NRA and the cluster of extremists at its core can say, quite blatantly, the most outrageous things, things that routinely border on racism, incitement to violence and invitations to insurrection. The gun industry would, on the other hand, find itself in an embarrassing spot, even with the weaklings in the Congress today, if it as directly promoted the idea that Americans need military-style guns to protect themselves from their own government, or used the kind of racist, sexist, vile potty-mouth language that NRA board member and has-been "rock star" Ted Nugent routinely uses.
On the other hand, so-called "progressive" politicians need the NRA as much as the NRA needs them. The political dynamic between Wayne LaPierre and the NRA and Sen. Chuck Schumer and Third Way has all the substance and drama of professional wrestling. It is, at best, entertaining theater that plays to the groundling crowd.
Mark Karlin: Speaking of the NRA, you were recently quoted in a Rolling Stone article that basically described how the NRA has been - at the board level - increasingly taken over by the gun industry. Why do you think the mainstream media doesn't pick up on the industry's role that much?
Tom Diaz: The saddest part about the mainstream media is, as I mentioned above, its emaciation. It's common knowledge that the media today are driven by the ruthless economics of downsizing and ratings wars, and the need to fill an infinitely expanding amount of "bandwidth." There is almost no real professional reporting left, and by that I mean, the devotion over time of resources to the mastery of all the intricacies of serious and complex issues like gun violence. I say "almost" because I have had the pleasure of interacting with a handful of "old school" journalists (of all ages) who do their homework and are able to discuss the issues at a meta level. Unfortunately, however, many start out their interview with an apologetic statement like, "I really don't know anything about guns ... "
Another peculiar aspect of today's public discourse is the unwillingness of political and journalistic participants to make independent value judgments about almost anything of social or cultural import. Even if the media and many politicians can describe in exacting detail, let us say, the horror of a classroom full of children being slaughtered within ten minutes by a youth wielding a semiautomatic assault rifle, they seem curiously incapable of taking a side, of condemnation, of drawing ultimate conclusions about the wisdom of allowing such machinery of death to be freely sold. If time travel were possible, one can imagine a gaggle of today's reporters and senators returning from a visit to the genocide in Cambodia some years ago saying, "Ordinary Cambodians are highly critical of the government's program of mass slaughter, but Mr. Pol Pot says one must break a few eggs to make an omelet."
Mark Karlin: In what ways is the gun industry creating more lethal and more exotic guns - and marketing them to increase sales in an otherwise flattening gun market?
Tom Diaz: Today's gun industry is making and heavily marketing weapons that are drawn directly from military designs. Those designs were developed specifically for the modern battlefield, with the intention of making it possible for the individual soldier to inflict mass casualties in a short period of time at short to medium range. The AK-47 and the AR-15 did not just spring from their designers' heads. They were designed and developed in response to specific requests from the military, which in turn were based on the military's study of what actually happens on the battlefield. These studies, which go all the way back at least to those done by Hitler's Nazi army, show that aimed fire is actually less likely to produce casualties in combat than is laying down a mass of random fire over a killing zone. That is the sum and total of the rationale for assault rifles and the high-capacity magazines that feed them. Whatever sense this combination of firepower makes on the battlefield, it is madness in movie theaters, elementary schools, churches, places of work, and even military bases like Fort Hood.
I think most Americans would be shocked, even horrified, if they spent one month reading every popular gun magazine and newsletter to see how far removed the gun industry has become from sports and hunting and into selling combat guns and gear.
Mark Karlin: Is it true that the gun industry factors in "urban after sales," relying on guns being sold that will end up in the hands of criminals and gangs to increase profit?
Tom Diaz: It's an interesting question that at least one late industry insider would have answered yes. One of the main reasons the gun industry and the NRA rammed through the federal law cutting off most tort lawsuits against the gun industry was to stop the process of discovery in litigation, under which the litigants would have been able to get access to the industry's documents. This is, incidentally, the process by which the tobacco industry was eventually shown to be knowingly lying and concealing what it knew for decades about the health risks of its products.
Mark Karlin: The gun marketing campaign has extended in the past years to women - and more aggressively recruiting youth into the gun culture. What are the implications of this in your chapter, "Women and Children Last"?
Tom Diaz: Guns in the home do not make women (and their children) safer. They in fact put them - and indeed everyone in the home - at much greater risk of being killed or injured by the very gun they think will save them. The several serious studies already done by public health scholars leave no doubt about this, nor do the stories I write about in the book. Again, the gun industry and the NRA effectively shut the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention out of doing research in the area of gun death and injury precisely because they knew that the facts would inevitably show that their self-defense marketing is purely hokum.
On the other hand, the industry quite cynically knows that women represent a great potential market and are capable of "bringing along" the whole family. We saw a tragic example of that sort of marketing realized in the case of Nancy Lanza, the mother of the Sandy Hook shooter, who was apparently the sort of fearful "prepper" to whom much industry marketing appeals.
Mark Karlin: What do you say to the argument that gun manufacturers make that they need the civilian market in order to stay in business to be able to arm the military?
Tom Diaz: Ha-ha-ha, he laughed. Look, the defense-industrial complex is one of the two centers of pious greed that are quite capable of taking care of themselves in Washington. (The other is the homeland-security-industrial complex, which has ballooned to shocking proportions since 9/11, much of it judged by scholarly analysis to be pure waste.) If the military truly need or want guns, they can make Congress and the president pay for them. That's a no-brainer in today's era of micro-politics and "heroism." It's also amusing that at least two of the principal suppliers of guns to US military and police markets are foreign companies - Italy and Austria will be able to take up any slack. There will be no gun gap.
Mark Karlin: The NRA may be a front to rally the beleaguered white males who see the gun as their last vestige of power, but they are also an organization that actually impedes law enforcement, not to mention their defense of selling guns to persons on the terrorist watch list. Can you mention some of the more egregious NRA positions that have hampered law enforcement?
Tom Diaz: At the broadest level, it has made sure that the federal agency charged with regulating the industry - the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) - is chronically underfunded, understaffed and procedurally hogtied. This goes so far as to be sure that the criminal law is so weak as to be virtually unenforceable in cases of straw-buying for gun traffickers. ATF has also been blatantly infiltrated by industry shills and moles in several key offices.
The NRA, acting as the industry's handmaiden, has also virtually shut down the release of aggregate data about the tens of millions of traces the ATF has done on guns involved in crimes. This is the procedure by which the ATF traces a given gun from its manufacture through the latest transfer of record. Taken in the aggregate, these records would clearly show, for example, which guns, by make and model, are most often used in what kinds of crimes. The NRA and its ilk know this would be unpleasant news (even though it was routinely released a decade ago).
Related to this is the law prohibiting ATF from computerizing its records or creating national databases. This is pure insanity, driven by the paranoia of the extremist gun zombies who think a national data base is the next step to confiscation and FEMA prison camps. So imagine Amazon, for example, processing all of its online sales orders by then putting everything on paper, and referring to cardboard boxes and boxes filled with paper inventory records, some of which are age- and water-damaged, with an army of clerks sorting by hand through every order. Pretty whacky, eh? That is the almost literal equivalent of what the ATF has to do to help solve gun crime in America. What is even crazier is the chin-stroking, lint-pulling - I dare say cowardly - acquiescence in this madness by "progressive" politicians in Washington.
Mark Karlin: Illinois is the last state in the Union without a law allowing some kind of carrying a concealed (handgun) weapon. Earlier this year, a federal appellate court panel (2-1) ordered the state legislature to enact a carry-concealed law, based on the infamous Supreme Court law striking down the Chicago ban on handguns. The NRA pushed for carry-concealed for many years and is near victory with a clean sweep, once Illinois passes a court-mandated law. How did they do this?
Tom Diaz: It's actually thanks to the "Beyond the Gunshine" state, an epithet in common use even by Florida journalists. The NRA has successfully used Florida as a kind of social biological warfare lab to take down long-standing restrictions on the carry and use of guns and substitute for them drastically weakened laws. Having succeeded in passing waves of such radical laws in Florida, the NRA then worked closely with such right-wing front groups as ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to spread its bacilli across the country. Cheerleading the process was a network of right-wing and so-called "libertarian" front groups funded by the Koch brothers and other wealthy plutocrats. Most Americans, including political "leaders" and journalists, snoozed through this change. Some were roused by the infamous Trayvon Martin case, but apparently not enough to get out of the micro-politics of going along to get along.
By the way, I can't help noting here how droll I find it that so-called free-market, gun-rights "libertarians" have nestled into cozy careers at front groups like the Cato Institute, underwritten by a handful of plutocratic industrialists, instead of actually trying to sell their ideas independently on the "markets" they so love for everyone else.
Mark Karlin: This nation has spent trillions of dollars in the last dozen years on wars allegedly to fight terrorism. But isn't the United States known among terrorist groups as a bazaar for obtaining weapons, including the .50 caliber sniper rifle - not to mention the drug cartels?
Tom Diaz: There is absolutely no question that the United States civilian gun market is the principal armorer for transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking organizations that most people call "cartels." A number of terrorist organizations have also exported guns and other weapons from the United States. I would prefer not to address the potential of terrorist access and domestic use of guns except to say that the potential threat is obviously enormous, and leave it at that. I think we have reached a critical point at which giving bad people any more bad ideas is a bad idea in itself.
I would, however, point out two extraordinarily dangerous trends. One has been the vicious political assault on ATF that has been led by the NRA and California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa (under the guise of exposing the so-called "Fast and Furious" scandal, in which some ATF agents undoubtedly made some poor judgment calls about letting guns "walk" to Mexico in hopes of tracking them to higher-up principals). That scheme ended badly and may, depending on how one interprets the facts, have cost one US agent his life. But the political attack by Issa, his staff, and the NRA was, and is, really aimed at diverting attention from the enormously greater quantum of guns that flow south (and now increasingly north to Canada) by traffickers buying in the US civilian market. What I find fascinating about this shameless travesty is that it is an analog of exactly the strategy that the Sicilian mafia has used to attack, and therefore weaken, law enforcement agencies in Italy. Smearing law enforcement raises public doubt, consumes limited government resources and, obviously, diverts attention from real criminals. Who benefits from this kind of attack?
Another trend is the increase in attacks on law enforcement in the United States, most recently illustrated by the murders of two prosecutors in Texas. In my opinion, what is important here is not simply what kinds of guns may have been used, or the alleged fact that white racists may have been behind these attacks. Those are important questions, but the overriding warning flag, to me, is that we may be at, or approaching, a tipping point beyond which "bad guys" - to use an expression from Wayne LaPierre's analytical poverty - no longer fear killing law enforcement agents. In one sense, this would be the natural and probable consequence of a gun culture that portrays government itself as the enemy, and the passivity of a political culture that can muster the will neither to condemn violence nor to control its most deadly implements.
Make no mistake about it, what protects law enforcement in the United States is not their guns. It is our respect for them and the process of civil democracy they represent. They are outnumbered and outgunned by orders of magnitude. The Los Angeles Police Department found that out, to its chagrin, during the famous Rodney King verdict riots, when it simply could not stop a rampaging population that had lost its fear of, and respect for, authority.
This is precisely what is going on today in Mexico. Anyone who thinks it cannot happen here must already have their prescription filled for that green, medical plant-like substance so many people use to escape reality.