Once again, lone gunmen armed with (legally purchased) military-style assault weapons were able to quickly kill unarmed civilians in two mass shootings this past weekend. The fact that the Dayton shooter was killed within 30 seconds of firing his first shot — and yet was still able to kill nine people within that short period of time, injuring dozens more — makes plainly visible what military veterans like myself have long understood: Assault rifles are uniquely lethal because they’re designed to kill as many humans as possible, as quickly as possible.
You might think that the companies marketing these weapons would want to downplay how often their products put the “mass” in “mass killings.” But you’d be wrong.
The gun industry became “more about firefights than field and stream.” But if that marketing approach has been great for business, it has been terrible for the safety of everyday Americans.
The gun industry and their NRA poodles made a revenue-enhancing pivot to their business model some years ago. Instead of just manufacturing and marketing traditional hunting rifles they moved to the tactical self-defense and “black rifle” look — replete with military-like scopes and high-capacity magazines. As this podcast observed, the gun industry became “more about firefights than field and stream.” But if that marketing approach has been great for business, it has been terrible for the safety of everyday Americans.
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The message for consumers is clear: If you want to be a badass, all you need to do is buy a semi-automatic assault rifle with a high capacity magazine. You can pretend that you’re a Navy SEAL or an Army Ranger without suffering the inconvenience of early morning wake-ups, tough training and demanding standards.
Of course, America’s unique gun violence problem is much broader than mass shootings. The vast majority of America’s nearly 40,000 annual gun deaths involve handguns, not assault rifles. But gun manufacturers know what they're doing when they tell aggrieved loners and people looking to use violence to further their message that they, too, can feel the power of being a soldier without having to be a soldier. You can think of yourself as heroic without having to be heroic. You can act like you’re powerful without having any real power. All you need to do is pay us a few hundred bucks, plus an extra $189 for a 100-round magazine.
Those of us who have actually served in the military earned our right to handle the military version of these weapons (the biggest difference between the civilian and military versions is full automatic firing). We understand that assault rifles differ from traditional hunting rifles because their high-muzzle velocity, smaller rounds, modest recoil and high capacity magazines make assault rifles a tremendously lethal tool in a firefight. That lethality has been emphasized by the trauma doctors who treat mass shooting victims.
Most of our national discussion about these weapons has been about whether they should be legal, but even if we assume for the sake of argument that they should, we certainly shouldn’t stand for the way they are being sold.
Not surprisingly, the gun industry has tried to capitalize on as many loopholes as possible to allow consumers to get around various gun laws. A legal “bump stock” device was used by the Las Vegas shooter to circumvent a federal law regarding fully automatic weapons (after Las Vegas those devices were eventually banned). According to the Dayton police, the shooter there used a brace so his pistol was "modified in essence to function like a rifle… to avoid any legal prohibitions."
The gun industry also likes to play with terms to create a smokescreen. For example, gun retailers like to market devices that muffle gunshots as silencers, except when they’re used in a mass shooting — as one was in Virginia Beach — at which point they want to refer to them as “noise suppressors” or “gun suppressors.”
Their duplicity is similarly clear in their obfuscation over the definition of “assault rifle.” In response to calls that the U.S. ban assault rifles specifically, manufacturers claim “assault” is just a term foisted on the rifle by those who aren’t in the know. They say that such guns behave just like any other semi-automatic rifle used by hunters, ignoring the uniquely lethal impact on the human body these particular weapons create due to their tumbling high-velocity rounds. (This kind of round, according to one trauma doctor, "doesn’t create a hole, it creates a cavity in the body.”)
In other words, gun manufacturers are trying to have it both ways. They know they have a dangerous product, and they know their marketing is likely targeting exactly the kinds of people who want to look and feel powerful — a fraction of whom then go on to kill. But instead of owning up to this problem, they are doubling down, arguing that the danger is being blown out of proportion by activists who are trying to curtail law-abiding citizens of their rights. The government has faced down a similarly powerful industry's hypocrisy before, of course: Big Tobacco.
When the enormous financial burden and life-shortening impact of tobacco products became clear, our country got serious. Sure, the tobacco kingpins had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future, but Americans decided it was time to help new generations kick the habit. Yes, there were many cultural changes — no smoking in public places, higher cigarette taxes, etc. — but the government didn’t take anyone’s cigarettes away. What they did do was make sure tobacco companies weren’t hiding their health problems, nor were they allowed to market them as cool to vulnerable and young consumers.
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The gun industry is marketing strength and defiance. Do you want the sort of weapon that delivers “lethality assured”? Perhaps you’d like your weapon to be painted in desert camouflage? Or, as the manufacturer of the gun used by the Sandy Hook shooter advertised, maybe you’d like your “Man Card” reissued? A court recently ruled that the victims’ families can sue that gun company for the way they marketed the weapon used to murder 26 people, including 20 6- and 7-year-olds.
What if every AR-15 and related assault rifle were required to be manufactured in the same blaze orange color that deer hunters wear? Ridiculous? Sure. But security images from the El Paso shooting show a guy with an assault rifle and a high capacity magazine walking into a retail store during back-to-school shopping. We passed ridiculous a long time ago when it comes to Americans and guns.
The vast majority of assault rifle owners are, of course, law abiding. Some have clearly convinced themselves that they need such weapons to repel the coming government hordes, but most own and fire them for the same reason I’ve fired the AR-15: They're fun to shoot.
Today, “it’s fun to shoot” is no longer a good enough reason to keep something around that routinely sends shoppers, students, church members and restaurant patrons to the morgue. It’s painful to watch Republican politicians twist themselves into knots as they point to video games, mental illness, decreased church attendance and God knows what else to explain away what is clear to everyone else: Easy access to highly lethal, military-style weapons is why America suffers these events more than any other developed nation in the world.
The problem, despite what politicians may tell you, is well understood. The good news, however, is that this isn’t the first time we’ve been confronted with totally preventable deaths. We’ve confronted public health crises before — and this is a public health crisis — and frankly we’ve done a pretty good job. Vehicle deaths in this country have plunged to 25 percent of what they were in 1970. During the same time period smoking rates have fallen by 50 percent.
We successfully addressed both of these problems for the same reason.
We decided to act.