In the seemingly endless battle to restore some semblance of sanity to America’s gun policies, Tom Diaz has developed an expertise on the 800-pound guerilla that stays in the shadows of gun control struggles: the American gun industry.
As a former senior policy advisor at the Violence Policy Center and as a US House Judiciary Committee specialist on terrorism and firearms, he has extensively researched the companies and people that profit off an expansive gun market, as free of as many regulations as possible.
“The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It” explores how gun profiteering extends far beyond shibboleths of “self-defense” and hunting into creating a market for highly lethal hi-tech and militarized weaponry. These include assault weapons and assassination/terrorist firearms such as the .50 caliber sniper rifle.
Joshua Horwitz, executive director, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence writes of “The Last Gun”:
Through a gripping narrative that combines plenty of factual data with compelling storytelling, Diaz makes the convincing case that the gun industry is knowingly trading American lives for profits. . . . Never one to pull his punches, he methodically identifies the gun industry’s enablers, including politicians, lobbyists, and members of the media. After the tragedy of Newtown, if you are going to read one book to understand the current political fight in Washington, this is it.
The following are excerpts from “The Last Gun”:
From the Introduction
In the four decades between 1969 and 2009, a total of 5,586 people were killed in terrorist attacks against the United States or its interests, according to a May 2011 report by a conservative Washington policy institute, the Heritage Foundation. This number includes those killed in the terror attacks within the United States on September 11, 2001. By comparison, more than 30,000 people were killed by guns in the United States every single year between 1986 and 2010, with the exception of four years in which the number of deaths fell slightly below 30,000—1999, 2000, 2001, and 2004. In other words, the number of people killed every year in the United States by guns is about five times the grand total of Americans killed in terrorist attacks anywhere in the world since 1969.
Here is another perspective. In 2010, five Americans were killed worldwide by terrorist attacks. In the same year, fifty- five law enforcement officers were killed by guns in the United States—out of a total of fifty-six officers killed feloniously. (The fifty-sixth officer was killed by a motor vehicle.) In plain words, more than ten times the number of law enforcement officers were killed by guns in the United States in 2010 than all of the Americans killed by terrorism anywhere in the world that year. It gets even worse.
Every year, more Americans are killed by guns in the United States than people of all nationalities are killed worldwide by terrorist attacks.
America has engaged in a “War Against Terrorism” at tremendous social and financial cost since the so-called 9/11 attacks of September 11, 2001.The specter of terrorism that drives these costs also has inspired infringements on civil liberties that at least some would have thought unthinkable before the attacks.
Why is there no equivalent “war” against gun violence, which takes and shatters the lives of more Americans than does terrorism by many, many times every single year? Why, when other articles of the Bill of Rights—such as those involving searches, wiretaps, and preventive arrests—are “balanced” against the fear of terrorism, is the Second Amendment fiercely claimed to be “untouchable” by the gun lobby and by the politicians who hew to its line, and is slavishly protected by activist conservative judges? Why do even many who favor some form of gun control continue to focus on “illegal guns” and the prosecution of criminals instead of prevention?
Given the lack of widespread public outcry for a reordering of our national priorities, Americans and their political leaders appear either to be ignorant of, or to have become inured to, the endless torrent of civilian gun violence in the United States. Why? And finally, why has the subject of gun control become, even among influential “moderate” Democrats, the “third rail” of politics?
This book examines and answers those questions. It documents in detail each of the following factors that contribute to the unique position of the United States as the world’s dark archetype of gun violence:
• Levels of gun death and injury that mark the United States as a frightening aberration among industrialized nations.
• Deliberate suppression of data regarding criminal use of firearms, gun trafficking, and the public health consequences of firearms in the United States.
• The almost universal failure of the American news media to report on, even to understand, the continuing hurricane of gun violence in America.
• Aggressive “hypermarketing” of increasingly lethal weapons by a faltering industry.
• Militarization of the civilian gun market as the driving force in that marketing.
• Indifference by policy makers who might be expected to lead on gun control, and widespread acquiescence by elected officials to the gun lobby’s unrelenting legislative campaigns.
The intricate interweaving of these factors is aptly illustrated by an incident that occurred on Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado on November 21, 2011. On that date, at about ten o’clock in the morning, Airman First Class Nico Cruz Santos barricaded himself in a building, armed with his personal handgun. He appears to have been a troubled person, reacting to his imminent discharge from the air force and possible imprisonment after having pleaded guilty in a civilian court to a charge of attempted sexual exploitation of a child. Airman Santos surrendered without violence at about eight p.m.
The building in which Santos barricaded himself was a personnel processing center, a facility in which airmen are prepared for deployment. That fact brought immediately to mind the events of November 5, 2009, when U.S. Army Major Nidal M. Hasan is alleged to have gone on a rampage with his personal handgun in a similar deployment center at Fort Hood, Texas. Hasan left a total of thirteen dead and thirty-two wounded. Major Hasan was subdued only after he was shot several times by police.
The massacre of which Major Nidal Hasan is accused generated a great deal of attention from the news media, policy makers, and politicians. However, most of this attention focused on two points: whether the mass shooting should be classified as a terrorist attack by “violent Islamist extremism,” and where blame should be assigned within the nation’s military and intelligence apparatuses for failure to anticipate and head off the rampage.
Little media reporting and virtually no official scrutiny has been devoted to the singular implement with which Major Hasan is accused of mowing down forty-five of his comrades-in-arms within ten minutes. This was an FN Five-seveN, a 5.7mm high- capacity semiautomatic pistol manufactured by the Belgian armaments maker FN Herstal (FN).
In one significant example, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs issued a report purporting to address the “counterterrorism lessons” to be drawn from the Fort Hood matter. But the committee’s report emphasized that it had not “examined . . . the facts of what happened during the attack.” The word gun or firearm appears nowhere in the committee’s report, much less the make, model, and caliber of the efficient killing machine Major Hasan is accused of using. The committee described the incident itself in two sentences, as a “lone attacker” striding into the center, and “moments later,” thirteen “employees” of the Defense Department “were dead and another 32 were wounded,” all by some unnamed cause. This is the remarkable equivalent of issuing a “lessons learned” report on the notorious 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City without mentioning the truck bomb by which its principal perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, carried out his attack, or presenting a lecture on the implications of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, without addressing the use of commandeered jetliners as flying bombs. The omission is all the more remarkable because the committee chairman and co-author of the report, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, had stated in a May 2010 hearing on terrorists and guns that “the only two terrorist attacks on America since 9/11 that have been carried out and taken American lives were with firearms.” He cited the Fort Hood shooting and the 2009 murder of an army recruiter in Little Rock, Arkansas, as the two attacks.
But according to testimony at a pretrial hearing, Major Hasan himself paid keen attention to selecting the weapon he used. He chose the FN Five-seveN pistol, and the accessories of laser aiming devices and high-capacity ammunition magazines, precisely because they suited his purpose of efficiently attacking a large number of people. Thus, before buying the handgun on August 1, 2009, Hasan asked a salesman at the Guns Galore gun dealer in Killeen, Texas, for “the most high-tech gun” available. Another witness, Specialist William Gilbert, a soldier and self-described “gun aficionado” who was in the store when Major Hasan made his inquiry, testified that the accused also sought maximum am- munition magazine capacity. Specialist Gilbert further testified that he owned an FN Five-seveN himself, and that he had recommended that model to Major Hasan because it met the officer’s stated specifications. “It’s extremely lightweight and very, very, very accurate,” said Specialist Gilbert. “It’s easy to fire and has minimum recoil.” The soldier testified that he gave Major Hasan a forty-five-minute “full tactical demonstration” of the handgun’s capabilities. According to the manufacturer, those capabilities are considerable. “Five-seveN Tactical handguns and SS190 ball ammunition team up to defeat the enemy in all close combat situations in urban areas, jungle conditions, night missions, etc. and for any self-defense action.”
The FN Five-seveN and the accessories chosen by Major Hasan are neither aberrant nor unusual products on the U.S. civilian gun market. They are, rather, typical examples of the military-style weapons that define that market today. There is no mystery in this militarization. It is simply a business strategy aimed at survival: boosting sales and improving the bottom line in a desperate and fading line of commerce. The hard commercial fact is that military-style weapons sell in an increasingly narrowly focused civilian gun market. True sporting guns do not.
It was noted above that the word gun appears nowhere in the report of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs regarding the shootings at Fort Hood. Like much of what goes on in Congress, the report’s drafting was done behind closed doors, but some clue as to why the authors of the report chose not to mention Major Hasan’s wondrously deadly weapon may be found in the words of one co-author, the committee’s ranking Republican member, Senator Susan Collins, in her opening statement at the committee’s hearing Terrorists and Guns: The Nature of the Threat and Proposed Reforms.
For many Americans, including many Maine families, the right to own guns is part of their heritage and way of life. This right is protected by the Second Amendment.
And so this Committee confronts a difficult issue today: how do we protect the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms, while preventing terrorists from using guns to carry out their murderous plans?
One way to “protect the constitutional right” is simply to ignore the consequences of that right. This has increasingly been the choice of the nation’s political leadership. In the words of Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a group distinguished both by its poll-driven policy proposals and its influence among moderate Democrats, “guns seem like the third rail.”
Although Congress and the White House are perfectly prepared to “balance” other constitutional rights in pursuit of the so-called war on terror, neither has even the slightest inclination to do so in the case of gun rights, notwithstanding the massively disproportionate harm guns inflict on Americans. In 2009, for example, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had the temerity to suggest that Congress should reenact the expired federal assault weapons ban, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi swiftly squelched the idea. “Echoing the position often taken by advocates of gun rights,” according to the New York Times, Mrs. Pelosi observed, “On that score, I think we need to enforce the laws we have right now.” The issue is considered “toxic” to Democrats, according to many political observers.
From the Afterword
The landmark  election and the horror of Newtown challenge progressive leaders and policy makers as they have never been challenged before. They must act decisively to address the underlying causes of gun violence in America described in the preceding pages. If they do not, they likely and rightly will be swept aside in favor of new leadership.
This much is certain: the gun industry will dig in as it has always done, and continue to profit from fear and violence—until the very last gun.
Copyright (2012) by Tom Diaz. This excerpt originally appeared in “The Last Gun,” published by the New Press and reprinted here with permission.