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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008

What the Gun Industry and the NRA Don’t Want You To Know

A Shepherd Q&A with Tom Diaz of the Violence Policy Center

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The gun industry and the National Rifle Association (NRA) don't want you to know that gun sales have stagnated for years, and their campaigns to legalize concealed carry and fight restrictions on the sales of highly lethal weapons are part of their strategy to boost stagnant gun sales.

Tom Diaz, senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center, argues that this business strategy does a disservice to the sport shooters and hunters who make up the bulk of the NRA's membership, and has resulted in turning the United States into the "last great market" for cheap and highly lethal weapons. Diaz, the author of Making a Killing and the forthcoming No Borders: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement, spoke to the Shepherd about the true motives of the gun industry, how President George Bush allowed assault-style weapons to be imported into the United States, and what President-elect Barack Obama should do about gun violence.

Shepherd:You're a gun-control advocate, but you are also a gun nut?

Diaz:I'm a former gun nut. Prior to 1994, I was a member of the NRA. I owned multiple firearms-handguns and assault rifles. I shot in pistol competitions. I favored the use of firearms. I even testified against the Washington, D.C., gun ban in a sort of NRA robot manner. I thought, "I'm a good person. Why should anyone take my guns away from me?"

Shepherd:So what happened?

Diaz:I was an attorney on the House of Representatives' crime subcommittee. I was hired to work on terrorism, but I ended up working on gun stuff. I put together some hearings for pending legislation. Now, remember, I'm from a military family. I learned how to shoot in the Boy Scouts in Mississippi. But these larger gun issues were sort of abstract to me. So I put together a hearing on kids and guns and began investigating it. I heard the kids' stories firsthand, from all over the United States, and from all socioeconomic groups.

What I realized was that the gun industry and manufacturers had changed the profile of who their target market was. It was not about self-defense or the right to bear arms. They were hyper-marketing very lethal guns and they flooded the U.S. with them. The NRA doesn't represent sport shooters and hunters. They were selling these killing machines. I was shocked and tormented by these kids' stories. One girl told a story of a friend literally dying in her arms from a stray bullet.

Shepherd:The average person, even the average gun owner, may not know how the gun industry is marketing to new groups of people. What exactly are they doing?

Diaz:This is something that a lot of sport shooters and hunters don't realize. Firearms are very durable products. They are not going to wear out if you take care of them. So how do I, as a gun manufacturer, get you to buy more guns? They recognize this problem. They discuss it. This is their innovation: In the past 25-30 years they have come up with new designs that are more lethal. They push them through magazine articles and gun shows.

Then there is the NRA campaign to allow concealed weapons to be carried everywhere. So the manufacturers started marketing small handguns, so you could walk around with a gun in your pocket. And they are marketing to women and children to broaden their market.

This is not on the radar of most hunters. But then they get hunters and recreational shooters all worked up about people trying to take their guns away. But I don't know any rational person in the gun-control movement who wants to take away someone's hunting rifle. But I am sickened by this proliferation of firearms. And they are inappropriately used when people are angry or depressed. And we are arming up criminals who shouldn't be able to get their hands on guns.

Shepherd:While the NRA is focused on the right to bear arms, you view gun ownership and gun violence as a public health issue. How does this change the discussion of gun ownership?

Diaz:First, adopting a public health perspective would allow us to know more about firearms and death caused by them. The industry has been instrumental in suppressing data on gun violence. Think about it: If you run a tire company that is making defective tires, and the tires cause cars to flip over, there are tracking systems that will alert people if there is a problem. There is data on the safety of every product except guns. That data is suppressed. But if we had it, we could end the debate on guns and crime because we would know the facts.

But the second thing a public health perspective would do is to consider where someone's right should be hemmed in because of the damage it could do to someone. There was a time when cars didn't have seat belts. But people realized that accidents are life-threatening, so now all cars are manufactured with seat belts. So if gun violence was addressed from a public health perspective, guns would not be eliminated. But we could control the types of firearms that are most lethal, like the military-style automatic weapons.

Shepherd:So if the information is being suppressed, who is gathering the data on gun violence?

Diaz:The gun lobby-by that I mean the NRA and the manufacturers-have deliberately shut down the sources of information. There is very little data collected by the federal government. Some data have been patched together from various sources, and much of the research is privately funded. From my point of view, that's insane. And think about it: If the gun manufacturers were so confident about the utilitarian nature of their product, then they wouldn't worry about the data collected on how they're used. The ATF [The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] used to release their list of the top guns used in crimes each year. But legislation was passed and now the ATF can't release this data. We want that changed-we want full data and an open discussion. Even law enforcement has trouble getting this information. And there is no data on the guns being trafficked to Mexico. The ATF information is ridiculous. The Mexican government gave them the information, but the ATF won't break it out according to the types of guns being trafficked.

It doesn't make any sense. Would we try to create an energy policy without reliable information about how much is used, what the sources are, and what demand will be? That is just crazy.

Shepherd:How would you assess the Bush administration's stand on gun issues?

Diaz:This is not my opinion, but it's a factual judgment: This administration has been a disaster for the country. If there were a ratings system, and 1 was excellent and 10 was very bad, I would give them a 15 on gun issues.

The Bush administration has been prime co-conspirators with the gun industry. Secretly, the administration has opened the valve for the import of assault riles into the country. This is something that [current President Bush's] dad was against. His father's policy was that only firearms for sporting purposes could be imported into the country. But the current Bush administration-with no publicity-has opened that valve and the U.S. is now flooded with cheap and lethal assault weapons. The most problematic ones are coming in from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But they're coming from countries that wouldn't allow them to be sold locally-Brazil, some European countries; there's even a Canadian manufacturer of these weapons. The last great market for cheap guns is the United States, and Bush is complicit in this.

Shepherd:If you were one of Obama's advisers, what would you tell him?

Diaz:First, I would tell him to open up the information valve. The Freedom of Information Act means what it means. Information on gun violence should be collected and we should have a full debate. Second, I would tell him to shut down this valve that allows military-style assault weapons to be imported into the country. He can change that easily with an executive decision. Third, I would tell him to renew the debate about assault weapons. The 1994 law was a joke. The gun industry easily got around it because there were so many loopholes.

What's your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com
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