Wed. Dec 1st, 2021

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Primary School in 2012, 2.3m rifles were sold © Eline van Nes / Hollandse Hoogte / Eyevine

Fifteen months ago, a teenager with a baby face traveled to a small town in Wisconsin that had been gripped by unrest and used his military-style, semi-automatic rifle to kill two men in the street.

At his recent trial, Kyle Rittenhouse sobbed on the stand and said he needed his gun that night “to protect myself”. A jury agreed with his argument of self-defense and acquitted him on all charges last week. But during his testimony, a prosecutor repeatedly asked him variations of the same question: protect yourself from what?

Fear, guns and money are the subject of two new books on the arms industry and the powerful American lobby group the National Rifle Association. Together, they help explain why guns are so little regulated in the US, even as the government at every level fails to protect civilians from repeated massacres and a daily onslaught of gun-related killings. The second amendment, the US constitutional right to bear arms, is secondary. The crux of the matter, in the opinion of the authors, is that arms companies and the NRA aroused fear among gun enthusiasts because it was good business.

Ryan Busse, author of Fights, grew up on a farm in northwest Kansas. Hunting was part of his life; one year he and his brother received shotguns for Christmas. As an adult, he helped build Kimber Manufacturing into a major American rifle maker over two decades, and he often joked that he chose his career as a senior sales manager “to be paid to hunt and fish. “.

But buses, whose disillusionment forced him to leave Kimber last year, describes an industry that looks at school shooting and calculates how it will affect gun sales. Sales skyrocketed after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, as arms buyers feared the Democratic administration would try to pass gun control legislation, a pattern that would largely apply for the next two decades.

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s chief executive, allegedly gathered the crowd at the group’s 2012 convention and said then-president Barack Obama had “been involved in an insidious attack on your right to bear arms and carry them”. Re-election in that year’s White House competition meant that Obama would be “immune to elections and free to abuse his ever-increasing power.”

“He knew that fear sold NRA membership, and we all knew it sold guns,” Busse writes. “I could almost feel my sales forecast increasing with each word.”

When Obama said eight months later that politicians needed to “take sensible steps” to prevent another shooting such as the one that killed 20 elementary school children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary, U.S. stores and dealers sold more than 2.3 million guns. . It was one of the highest months on record.

In the Obama era, arms manufacturers modernized factories and hired more workers to cater to the growing market. The expanded production capacity has increased the pressure on companies to maintain sales volumes. Cheaper, high-capacity rifles are more likely to be used in crime, Buses writes.

They also call for a wider market, especially as the demand for assault style weapons called “black guns” has exploded in the past decade among so-called “bank commandos” – men with no military experience who still like the weapons. Buses writes that Rittenhouse “was a poster child for the new youthful demographics that the industry paid to develop”.

Kyle Rittenhouse acquitted of murder this month © Mark Hertzberg / AP

That love for guns, and the fear that it could be taken away, generated profits not only for arms manufacturers, but the NRA. The organization brings in hundreds of millions a year, and because it is a non-profit organization that is exempt from paying taxes, there are laws that determine how that money can be spent.

In Misbrand, investigative reporter Tim Mak explains how the highest levels of the NRA allegedly spent some of that money. It starts with LaPierre, who, according to former NRA councilor Wayne Anthony Ross, has “the backbone of a chocolate eclair”. Mak describes an indecisive, charisma-free man who was pushed upward by the ranks of the NRA until he and his wife, when he came to the top, fell in love with the lifestyle of the organization’s rich donors.

According to statements by New York Attorney General Letitia James, LaPierre and his inner circle began treating the nonprofit organization like a “piggy bank” that spent luxury hotels, personalized Christmas presents and flights on private jets.

James sued to dissolve the organization in August 2020, claiming that LaPierre and three deputies contributed to the loss of more than $ 64m between 2015 and 2018. In a February court ruling, LaPierre denied exploiting the nonprofit to benefit itself and its closest associates. .

The irony these books reveal is how gun advocates fully understand the danger inherent in the product they are selling, literally or figuratively. At Kimber, personal guns are banned on company property – HR problems are complicated by loaded guns – but an employee was still trying to kill his family dog ​​in the parking lot. Buses note that even NRA employees had stories about accidental discharges at headquarters, and Mak’s report indicates that LaPierre was fearful after his mass shooting for his personal safety.

Rittenhouse testified that he also feared for his safety on the night of the fatal shooting. It is a paradoxical fear, like the fear of regulation that drives arms sales and yet never materializes. For while Rittenhouse said he armed himself for protection, on that night for the men he shot and for many who watched, his fear made him dangerous. He was, in fact, the source of others’ fears.

Misbrand: Within the downfall of the NRA by Tim Mak Dutton, $ 29, 384 pages

Fights: My Struggle Against the Industry That Radicalized America by Ryan Busse Public Affairs, $ 29, 352 pages

Claire Bushey is the FT’s Chicago Reporter

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