Advertisement
Features

Disarming America's gun lobby

Support for stricter gun controls in the US has never been higher. The usual political barriers to reform remain, but campaigners have a new trick up their sleeve, says Matthew Partridge.

888_MW_P12_Briefing
The children's crusade: political pressure for gun reform is mounting

What's going on?

Six weeks on from the school shootings in a Florida high school, in which 17 people (mostly teenage pupils) were killed by a teenage gunman using an assault rifle, political pressure continues to build on Congress to tighten America's gun laws. On 14 March schoolchildren across the US walked out of school to call for new controls. At the same time, support for anti-gun groups has grown. Americans are "outraged by their country's mass shooting epidemic" and "appear to be organising at an unprecedented rate" to put a stop to it, says Tom McCarthy in The Guardian.

What do the current laws say?

You have to be over 18 to buy a shotgun or rifle and over 21 to own any other firearm. Apart from fully automatic weapons (that is, machine guns), almost every other kind of weapon is legal, including semi-automatic assault rifles (although these are banned in California). Most other gun laws are decided at the state and local level, although states are not allowed to ban weapons outright due to the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which defends the right of the people to bear arms. Most states allow some form of concealed carry (you can carry in public provided it is concealed) or open carry (you can carry it openly). In theory, a system of background checks exists to prevent fugitives, violent felons and the mentally ill from buying weapons. However, it is largely seen as ineffective, and can in any case be bypassed by buying a gun privately at a gun show (the "gun-show" loophole).

What is the economic impact of guns?

According to the NSSF, the US gun industry's trade body, 141,500 people were involved in making, selling or distributing guns in the US last year. If you include related industries, such as firing ranges, more than 300,000 people depend on the industry for their employment. Total gun sales in 2016 came to $9.87bn, and the wider industry has an estimated economic impact of $51.3bn, and pays more than $7.4bn in business and excise taxes. That said, the costs of gun violence amount to $45bn a year, if you count both hospital charges and lost wages, according to a 2017 study by Faiz Ghani of John Hopkins University.

What do Americans want?

It's an emotive, divisive issue in the US. The gun industry argues that "guns don't kill people, people do" the view being that criminals would obtain guns anyway, and that gun ownership is a legitimate form of self-defence. The quantity of guns at large (according to the US Congressional Research Service, there are roughly 105 guns for every 100 Americans, although an estimated 3% of owners account for half the guns in circulation) also presents practical hurdles to an outright ban, even if most Americans backed one (which they don't). But Americans do seem to want tighter rules. A Politico poll found that support for stricter gun laws among registered voters was 68%, while another, from Quinnipiac, found that 97% support universal background checks, 83% back mandatory waiting periods and 67% would ban assault rifles.

How much power does the NRA have?

The National Rifle Association (NRA) represents around a fifth of gun owners (according to Pew Research Center), and has been very successful at heading off past efforts to tighten gun laws, notes the Financial Times. The NRA was founded in 1871, but became far more politically active in the late 1960s and 1970s. It spends around $250m a year, $3m of which goes directly on influencing gun policy, vastly outstripping spending by gun-control lobbyists. More than half of politicians in Congress today (307 out of 535) have received funds from the NRA, notes CNN, a figure which skews heavily towards the Republicans.

So there will be new laws?

Unlikely. Legislation at the national level will require the support of both Houses of Congress, which are currently controlled by Republicans who mostly oppose gun control. Indeed, notes Business Insider, the 81 members of Congress who have attracted the most NRA funding over their careers are all Republicans. President Donald Trump initially signalled his backing for more restrictions, promising to use his authority to ban bump stocks (an attachment that enables a semi-automatic rifle to fire faster) and endorsing a "beautiful" bill that would expand background checks and place more restrictions on who can buy guns. However, he quickly changed his position following widespread criticism from Republicans. And even if the Democrats take charge of both houses in November's mid-term elections, they too are wary of upsetting voters who oppose gun controls.

So it'll be business as usual then?

Not necessarily, notes the Financial Times. "With the US deeply split on gun control, the NRA now commands less respect and faces a new challenge" from business and investors. Several chains of field-sports and sporting-goods shops, such as LLBean, are to stop selling guns to those under 21; others have stopped selling assault rifles completely. Other firms including United Airlines and car rental groups Avis and Hertz have ended discount schemes for NRA members. And big asset managers such as BlackRock which manages over $6trn are looking into ways to "divest" out of gun stocks to appeal to investors who want only to invest in socially responsible firms. BlackRock is even considering custom indices that exclude gun makers and retailers. The time has come to try something new, says Joe Nocera on Bloomberg View "to try to force change by pressuring the companies that make the guns that mass shooters use. It might just work."

Advertisement
Advertisement

Recommended

How long can the good times roll?
Economy

How long can the good times roll?

Despite all the doom and gloom that has dominated our headlines for most of 2019, Britain and most of the rest of the developing world is currently en…
19 Dec 2019
Why Wall Street has got the US economy wrong again
Economy

Why Wall Street has got the US economy wrong again

The hiring slowdown does not signal recession for the US economy. Growth is just moving down a gear, says Brian Pellegrini.
25 Oct 2019
What will the US central bank do next?
US Economy

What will the US central bank do next?

As the US continues to grapple with the Covid pandemic, the Federal Reserve will meet to decide what to do next on jobs, inflation and the recovery in…
28 Jul 2020
Is it time to buy Europe and sell the US?
European stockmarkets

Is it time to buy Europe and sell the US?

Europe is looking ever more attractive to investors, while the US is starting to look like the riskier bet, says John Stepek.
24 Jul 2020

Most Popular

Don’t despair on dividends – these companies could be set to bring them back
Income investing

Don’t despair on dividends – these companies could be set to bring them back

The value of dividends paid out by UK stocks has plummeted this year as companies “rebase” their payment policies. But things could soon start to look…
6 Aug 2020
Gold hits the big $2,000 level – are Aim miners about to play catch up?
Gold

Gold hits the big $2,000 level – are Aim miners about to play catch up?

With the price of gold shooting through $2,000 an ounce, the yellow metal looks unstoppable. Things are so bullish, even Aim-listed junior gold miners…
5 Aug 2020
Too embarrassed to ask: what is “real return”?
Too embarrassed to ask

Too embarrassed to ask: what is “real return”?

MoneyWeek's latest "too embarrassed to ask” video explains what a real return is and why it's so important for investors.
5 Aug 2020