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How to Take on the Gun Industry: an Interview With Author Tom Diaz

Gun industry expert Tom Diaz talks about the structure and marketing techniques of the industry.

Author and gun industry expert Tom Diaz talks about the structure and marketing techniques of the gun industry, its use of the NRA as a “language laundry machine” and how the industry has influenced federal and state law and regulation.

Tom Diaz is one of the most knowledgeable experts when it comes to the global industry that manufactures weapons for sale in the United States. In 1999 Diaz published Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America, an exposé of the corporations that make and sell guns in the United States. His book helped shift the debate around gun violence and regulation away from laws targeting individuals and small dealers and toward the source of the problem, the highly secretive handful of companies that dominate the gun industry. Former NRA member and gun enthusiast Diaz has a new book that will be available this Spring from The New Press, The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It. We caught up with Diaz recently while working on a series of articles about the gun industry’s political power. Diaz spoke with us both by phone and several email followups:

Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham for Truthout: How big is the American firearms industry?

Tom Diaz: The gun industry is not that big. It’s no cigarette industry. It also depends on what you count as being part of the gun industry. If you talk about manufacturing, that’s one thing which is rather small and concentrated. But if you’re talking about accessories, magazines, gun-branded clothing, and the whole system of distribution and dealers, it gets bigger.

We looked the gun industry up in the US Census’ Annual Survey of Manufacturers. They estimate it only employs 10,000 workers. So that’s seven one-thousandths of one percent (0.007%) of the current US workforce?

Yes, compared to a lot of other consumer products, the gun industry is not a huge industry. The gun industry describes itself as important when it wants to talk about job creation and how regulations would hurt these jobs, but they don’t actually employ that many people.

Where does the gun industry – companies that make guns in the US and companies that make and import them from abroad – sell these weapons?

There are two types of markets for guns: the civilian market and the military market. Military sales happen all over the world. Civilian sales don’t. The US as a civilian market for guns is a whole different ballgame than anywhere else in the world because of our wide-open gun laws. I think it’s fair to say that we’re the biggest – indeed, we’re really the only big civilian gun market left in the world. In terms of any of the industrialized countries, we’re it. That’s manifest in the fact that the AK-47 models come from Eastern Europe, Brazil, Austria, etc. This is where they can sell their guns. They come here.

In spite of the American people being the last big gun buyers, you’ve described the gun industry as having a continually shrinking market for their product. Can you explain this?

In the last several years there has been undeniable evidence that sales have gone up. But if you look at the long-term prospects for the gun industry, sales have been falling for decades. If you look at the video game industry, or other recreational industries, compare them to guns, and look at overall population growth, these other entertainment industries exceed the rate of population growth, which is a sign of a healthy, growing industry. If you look at the gun industry, its sales rate has always been below the rate of population growth, and the line sort of declines except for the recent blip upward.

Because of these declining sales, you say that the gunmakers need to create new products for their dwindling consumer base in order to keep profit rates up. Is this the origin of the military-style assault weapons on our streets today, the marketing schemes of the gun industry?

That’s the direction they’ve gone. In Making a Killing, I quoted William Ruger (founder of Sturm Ruger, the largest gun company in the United States) who describes the totality of US gun laws, and the industry’s design and marketing efforts as a “little moneymaking machine.” If you step back from the gun industry, that’s what all consumer-product industries do. Innovation and design changes drive these markets to convince consumers to buy what you’re selling. The problem for the gun industry is that guns are extremely durable. They last for many years, so if you buy one you don’t need to replace it.

So in order to sell more guns you have to convince consumers they need to own “the new thing,” not just a replacement?

The industry has moved in a direction that emphasizes lethality, and in the last 20 years it is increasingly fascinated with military-grade weaponry.

We know if you’re trying to sell Justin Bieber’s music you target teenage girls. If you want to sell minivans you target soccer moms and dads. Who are the gun industry’s target consumers?

If you look at where these guns are sold, this is primarily a Red State phenomenon. People are driven by a fear of the other. NRA President Wayne Lapierre talks often in terms of race and ethnicity. The gun industry’s consumers are afraid, the world is changing around them, and they think guns will protect their way of life.

What role do race and gender play in (gun) politics?

The whole gun obsession and insurrectionist ideology is basically an old white guys’ thing. These are people threatened with change. In the 1960s and 1970s the growth of the gun industry’s market was associated with a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Today’s pro-gun manifestations are essentially the same. Immigration is one igniter of this feeling, perceived in racial terms. Changes in our society related to gender and sexual orientation are producing a similar backlash among white men. These changes are very threatening to people who think that the old ways should prevail.

But doesn’t the NRA claim to be a “civil rights” organization?

In the American Riflemen, the NRA’s magazine, probably the most widely circulated pro-gun publication, the NRA claims to be the first civil rights organization. Years ago I was looking through back issues of American Rifleman from the early 1940s because I was interested in the question of where NRA stood on the internment of Japanese-Americans. Predictably, the NRA favored that. I also just happened to find a cartoon, probably one of the most racist cartoons I’ve ever seen, of a black American soldier with all the exaggerated characteristics, big lips, bug eyes, heavy brow. He’s trying to clean an M1 rifle, and mumbling to himself in a stereotypical dialect about how confused he is.

So the implication there was that African-Americans can’t be trusted with guns?

Yes. The NRA reflects a certain part of American culture. It’s conservative and they’re frightened by all the demographic changes of the past half-century. They see guns as a way to fight back against people who are different. It’s not a civil rights organization.

The NRA is obviously the pre-eminent pro-gun lobby, and they’re often portrayed as a genuine grassroots organization. However, as a recent report from the Violence Policy Center shows, there’s lots of industry money, upwards of $52 million since 2005, financing the NRA’s political campaigns. What can you tell us about the gun industry’s relationship to the NRA?

The gun industry and the NRA now have an interesting symbiotic relationship. The gun industry probably is smart enough to know they can’t promote the insurrectionist theory: They can’t talk about shooting back at government, about the ‘jackbooted state thugs’ and ‘black helicopters,’ and so on, that many NRA-types talk about in defense of owning firearms. I see the NRA as a language laundry machine. They can say things the industry can’t, for diplomatic reasons. The more extreme stuff doesn’t come directly from the gun industry. Instead, the corporations that make firearms emphasize the military pedigree of these weapons, but otherwise they leave the ideological heavily lifting on “resisting government” to the NRA.

So the industry has seen declining sales, and in order to keep making money they have marketed much deadlier weapons, smaller pistols, high caliber handguns and assault rifles. But to do this the industry has had to change state and federal laws, and undermine regulations that apply to virtually all other consumer products. What are the major legislative and regulatory victories of the gun industry? How did they accomplish them?

You can go back as far as the purported victories of the gun-control lobby. The 1994 assault weapons ban was so compromised that it amounted to almost nothing. The law was meaningless. All this political capital was expended. It didn’t work and now it’s expired. We wasted ten years.

The industry and the NRA got a fright in the middle 1990s with the filing of multiple class-action lawsuits against the gun industry. Because the industry isn’t that big, it’s not like the plaintiffs were going to win huge awards, as was done with Big Tobacco. The money just wasn’t there. However, the industry realized the danger of these lawsuits. One of the bigger problems for the industry is that once you start getting into litigation, you have the process of civil discovery. People suing the industry were going to drag out the files, memos, all the information that would have been extremely damaging and embarrassing about weapon design, marketing decisions and the like.

For example, Robert Ricker gave a deposition in one of the bigger class-action cases against the gun companies in which he said the gun industry took into account the illegal market in production and adjusted their manufacturing schedules upward accordingly, which was a bombshell revelation that could have led to change.

Ricker was one of the gun industry’s main lobbyists and a lawyer for the NRA for decades until he was fired for meeting with President Clinton after the Columbine massacre, right?

Yes, he was an insider. So in response to that, the gun industry lobbied Congress and managed to pass a law that stands today as one of their biggest victories, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005. This law shut down any meaningful civil litigation against the gun industry.

How so?

For example, the parents in Newtown have found they can’t sue Bushmaster, the company that manufactured the assault rifle used by Adam Lanza. That’s a huge victory for the gun industry.

Another major victory of the gun industry is the Tiahrt Amendments. Back in the late 1990s when I was writing Making a Killing, I had information on the top types of guns used in crimes, which were routinely released by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). ATF have millions of discrete cases where they have traced the origin of guns they’ve found at crime scenes across the nation. It’s the best database there is of the make, model and caliber linked to gun crimes. If you ask the ATF, how many Bushmasters have been used in crimes in last 20 years, ATF could produce that data, but they’re forbidden by the Tiahrt Amendments to do so. Some law enforcement agencies can get this type of data, but mostly that has been cut off. It’s completely cut off from the public. It’s difficult for people on the gun-control side to document how many of what guns are used in crimes. What we’ve been driven to do is to use anecdotal evidence, mainly press clippings. But we can’t go to the most obvious source of information because of Tiahrt. That’s a major informational victory for the gun industry.

If ATF can’t do something as basic as produce crime gun-trace data, what can they do?

ATF is starved of resources. The gun industry wants to keep it alive, they don’t want to shut it down because they need the scare factor to motivate their base. But it’s the most ineffective federal law enforcement agency. The suits in Washington are totally useless. ATF could disappear tomorrow, and except for the fact that the NRA would have to find some other bogeyman to focus on, nobody would notice.

These are all major victories for gunmakers in Washington. What about at the states level? We know the industry has lobbyists deployed to attack gun-control laws in various state capitols, right?

Outside of Washington there have been two or three waves of state-level laws, most recently driven by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Committee), to loosen gun regulations and create bigger markets for new types of weapons.

The first wave started in Florida in the mid-1980s. The industry and NRA sought to loosen concealed-carry laws from discretionary issue to “shall issue,” meaning if someone applies for a concealed-carry permit the state must give them one. The gun lobby went national with this law shortly after. For the gun industry this is wonderful: the more reasons you can come up with for the concealed-carry of guns, the more designs they can come up with. So they sold millions of smaller compact pistols. From the gun industry’s view, this is a whole new market – small arms designed to be carried in a concealed manner.

In the 2000s the gun industry and NRA went around with these “Stand Your Ground” laws, and pushed them through ALEC. Now, in Indiana, they have this law that says you can shoot back at cops if you think they’re unconstitutionally entering your home.

What’s it going to take to turn the tide on the gun industry?

The impression that the NRA has successfully created is that guns are the third rail of politics and so everyone’s afraid to touch it. That counts as a victory because it has so cowed career politicians who would otherwise do something to curb the violence. I don’t think the NRA’s power lies in its campaign contributions or lobbying money. Its strength ultimately lies in its grassroots organization. The gun-control side does not have a grassroots organization that can match the zealousness and focus of the pro-gun lobby. That’s changing in the wake of Newtown. Historically, the gun-control lobby has always been an elitist, East Coast clique. The Brady Campaign, the Violence Policy Center have done great work, but it’s like building a fire engine without wheels. We haven’t been able to counter the NRA’s grassroots organization. We’re not going to do anything in Washington until we get people in the country mobilized. This whole image that the NRA can’t be beaten on Capitol Hill is based on faulty political science. They don’t really affect elections.

Do you think there’s going to be meaningful gun-control legislation any time soon?

I am optimistic in the long term. The turning point in my thinking was when I watched the press conference that President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden held following the Sandy Hook massacre. They weren’t just paying lip service to gun control. They knew what they were talking about. It struck me they have done their homework. They had actual survivors and victims there, they looked them in the eye, and they said we’re going to get this thing done. The White House gets it that change is not going to happen in Washington. Congress is going to do what it does and is still operating in the mode of hand-wringing and making excuses as to why they can’t change anything.

Sandy Hook is unlike any other episode, stretching back to the Long Island Railroad shooting in 1993. Usually when something horrible happens and someone uses military-style weapons to kill, there’s a flurry of attention and then it recedes. This time I’m impressed that media and other organizations aren’t letting go of this. Something about a room full of first-graders getting slaughtered grabs Americans by the gut.

Ultimately, the pressure is going to be very great. Politicians that don’t stand up to the gun industry are going to get some heat. Progressive politicians have been getting a free ride for too long. They talk big, but really don’t do anything. It’s time for progressive politicians to stop blaming the NRA. As I’ve said, the NRA isn’t really as powerful as it is commonly thought to be. It’s time to put the blame on the politicians who don’t do anything.

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