July 30, 2012 / 4:45 PM / 7 years ago

CORRECTED-COLUMN-Guns in America - the business of fear: Bernd Debusmann

(Corrects location in paragraph three to Arizona instead of Colorado)

By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON, July 30 (Reuters) - Mass shootings are good for the gun business. So are dark warnings from the principal gun lobby in the United States, the National Rifle Association (NRA), that President Barack Obama is leading a global conspiracy to seize an estimated 300 million guns now held by private citizens.

Whether this is true or not doesn’t matter. As they say on Wall Street, perception is reality and the fears the NRA has managed to inspire since Obama’s 2008 election have led to a boom for the American gun industry. At a time of misery for much of the rest of the American economy, growth rates for makers of firearms and ammunition have been impressive. Between 2008 and 2011, jobs in the industry jumped 30 percent.

Sales of guns and ammunition have spiked after each of the mass shootings, which have become a familiar part of American life. The latest massacre, the July 20 killing of 12 people in a crowded cinema in Colorado, prompted a 40 percent jump in sales on the day after the midnight shooting. There was an even sharper spike after last year’s shooting in Arizona that killed six and wounded a dozen others, including a member of Congress, Gabrielle Giffords.

Why do people rush to buy guns after such bloody incidents? Two reasons, say experts. One is to defend themselves in case they are caught in a shooting and the second, more important, because the media coverage generated by unhinged killers invariably touches the topic of gun control. Fear of future restrictions, fanned without fail by the NRA, drives people to the gun shops.

No matter what one thinks of the NRA and Wayne LaPierre, its leader for more than two decades, his fearmongering has been effective and benefitted both his organization and the gun industry. When he took over the organization in 1991, it was close to bankruptcy. Now, in the words of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the NRA’s most prominent critics, the organization is “a $200 million-plus-a-year lobbying juggernaut with much of its funding coming from gun manufacturers and merchandising.”

“More than anything, the NRA is a marketing organization, and its flagship product is fear,” Bloomberg wrote in an opinion piece on Bloomberg News.

That fear works on different levels. Gun lovers taking their cue from the NRA fear that any kind of regulation - restrictions on the sale of magazines holding 100 rounds, for example - is a step on the road to the elimination of the U.S. constitution’s Second Amendment, which enshrines the right of citizens to own and bear arms. Politicians in favor of restrictions fear electoral defeat if they run afoul of the NRA.

That’s a boon for the gun industry. Demand for firearms has risen to such levels that Ruger, one of the two biggest publicly traded U.S. gun makers, temporarily suspended taking orders earlier this year because it could not produce fast enough. At the NRA’s 2011 convention, Ruger CEO Michael Fifer said his company’s target was selling one million firearms by the time of the NRA’s 2012 convention, and it would donate a dollar a gun to the association. In fact, the company sold 1,254,000 guns and made out a matching check at the 2012 convention.

FEAR AS A MARKETING TOOL

The share prices of both Ruger and Smith & Wesson, the other big publicly traded gun company (and maker of the semi-automatic rifle used in the Aurora cinema shooting) reached records in 2012. Smaller companies thrived as well.

Which makes one wonder whether the NRA leadership actually believes in its overheated rhetoric - “the gun grabbers are coming, the gun grabbers are coming!” - or sees it as a marketing tool. Far from wading into the on-again, off-again American debate on gun control, President Obama stayed away from the subject and in fact signed into law two NRA-inspired bills - one that allows guns to be carried into national parks and one that lets people carry their guns in checked luggage on trains.

To hear LaPierre tell it, however, this is part of “a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intention to destroy the Second Amendment in our country. When he got elected, they concocted a scheme to stay away from the gun issue, lull gun owners to sleep and play us for fools in 2012.” In a speech to a Republican meeting in Florida in February, he went on to explain that once re-elected, Obama planned to erase the Second Amendment.

LaPierre set out the plan in greater detail in a 3,800-word missive on the NRA website entitled “Obama’s Secret Plan to Destroy the Second Amendment by 2016.” Some of the arguments are recycled from his 2006 book, “The Global War on your Guns: Inside the UN Plan to Destroy the Bill of Rights.”

If you follow that train of thought, that plan came to a head in July when negotiators from more than 170 countries met in New York to work out a legally binding treaty to regulate the $60 billion conventional arms industry and throttle the flow of unregulated weapons to countries under arms embargoes, and to terrorist and criminal organizations. The talks collapsed on July 27 when the U.S. delegation said more time was needed to consider the draft proposal.

That followed a letter, a day before the July 27 deadline, signed by 51 Senators including eight Democrats, to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing “grave concern about the dangers” posed by the treaty to U.S. sovereignty. The letter echoed the arguments and language of the NRA and spoke volumes about the organization’s influence in Congress.

There was no mention of what scholars say is a long-established legal principle - international treaty obligations cannot override the U.S. constitution. It includes the right to bear arms but does not fit into conspiracy theories. (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com) (Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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