THE POWER OF THE GUN INDUSTRY

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The gun industry has a powerful influence on policy making in the US as well as in shaping judicial rulings on gun laws and the discussion of guns and gun violence.

Part of the gun industry’s power and influence comes from its size and its ability and willingness to spend on political campaigns and lobbying. It produces roughly 10 million guns per year, resulting in sales revenue of about $12 billion. With profits of approximately $1 billion annually, it has spent $120 million on lobbying over the last ten years. In the two-year 2020 election cycle, the advocacy groups associated with the gun industry spent over $18 million on election campaigns. While the National Rifle Association (NRA) was the source of $5 million of this spending, it has been declining in membership and financial clout. However, other gun advocacy groups have been picking up much of the slack. [1]

For example, the organization Gun Owners of America has been increasing its activity. It opposes the U.S. House passed Protect Our Kids Act as well as the emerging bipartisan Senate proposal to address gun violence. It has “concern” about expanded waiting periods on gun purchases and red flag laws that would allow courts to remove guns from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. It opposes the proposal to ban untraceable “ghost” guns and is spreading misinformation about what it would do. [2]

Another piece of the gun industry’s power comes from its shaping of the discussion of guns and the Second Amendment. It has shifted the discussion from a well-regulated militia, e.g., the National Guard, to an individual right to ownership of any and all types of guns. It also shifted the discussion from the security of the state to personal self-defense. (See this previous post for more detail.) This shift in language, especially to an individual’s supposed right to own a gun (including a semi-automatic assault weapon), is pervasive in the media, widespread in the court system, and even echoed by Democrats and President Biden.

The 2008 Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 decision that created an individual right to possess a firearm, District of Columbia vs. Heller, overturned 217 years of interpretation of the Second Amendment and numerous court precedents allowing restrictions on an individual’s possession of a gun. It was described by former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (appointed by Republican President Gerald Ford) as “unquestionably the most clearly incorrect decision that the Supreme Court announced during my tenure on the bench,” which extended 35 years from 1975 – 2010.

Former Chief Justice Warren Burger (appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon) called the gun industry’s and the NRA’s promotion of this interpretation of the Second Amendment “One of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” These two statements by conservative, former Supreme Court Justices underscore the hypocrisy of the supposed originalism of the supporters of this interpretation, who ignore the first two phrases of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Nonetheless, the media, the courts, essentially all Republicans, and even most Democrats speak of the individual right to bear arms as an unquestioned constitutional right. Questioning this interpretation of the Second Amendment or citing Justices Stevens’ and Burger’s statements about it are almost completely absent from the discourse. Based on this manufactured right, the Supreme Court seems all but certain to make a ruling this month that will find unconstitutional a New York law, in place since 1913, that requires someone carrying a concealed gun in public to have a permit.

It appears that the originalist judicial philosophy (supposedly underlying this interpretation of the Second Amendment as creating an individual right to bear arms) was invented as an intellectual smokescreen to justify this and other radical, reactionary judicial rulings. The originalists claim that the Constitution’s language, including on rights, freedom, and liberty, should always and forever be interpreted with the meaning they had in 1791 (when African Americans were slaves) or in 1868 when the 14th Amendment was passed (when women had no rights and almost all schools were segregated). [3] Such a claim seems ludicrous on its face and the Supreme Court rulings by its adherents are radical, reactionary, and inconsistent. The failure of the media and Democrats to point out these facts is hard to understand.

The gun industry also displays its power on the Internet and social media, which have certainly played a role in fomenting the American gun culture and even gun violence. Given that most TV networks, magazines, and newspapers banned gun ads years ago, digital advertising via Google and other Internet sites is essential to the gun industry’s marketing.

In 2004, based on Google’s corporate value “don’t be evil” and as a matter of ethics, Google’s cofounder Sergey Brin announced that gun ads would be banned. Nonetheless, Google’s ad systems have provided billions of views of gun makers’ ads since then. A study by the independent, non-profit, investigative journalism organization ProPublica found that between March 9 and June 6, 2022 (90 days), the fifteen largest gun sellers in the U.S. placed ads through Google that produced 120 million impressions (i.e., the displaying of an  ad to a viewer). [4] This is an average of roughly 1.3 million views of a gun ad per day.

Every time an ad is viewed, Google earns a small fee. Some of the gun ads have appeared on Google’s own sites, a clear breach of Google’s stated policy. However, the vast majority of them are placed via a long-standing and well-known loophole in Google’s policy. Although Google bans gun ads on its own ad network and on sites it owns, ads sold by partners but placed using Google’s systems are not restricted by Google.

Gun makers and sellers can use Google’s advertising system to place gun ads on websites that allow gun ads. This is where the vast majority of gun ads show up.

Although a website owner can theoretically ban certain types of ads, such as gun ads, Google’s ad systems’ enforcement of such a ban has loopholes. Most notably, if a person has visited a gun maker’s website, Google’s tools facilitate the tracking of that person as they browse other sites. When that person is at another website, one that may ban gun ads, this tracking and targeting tool can display a gun ad. This retargeting (as it’s called) of a person is a loophole Google purposefully built into its advertising system over a decade ago.

For example, although Publishers Clearing House does not accept gun ads, in a recent three-month period roughly 4.6 million views of ads for Savage Arms guns occurred on the Publishers Clearing House website. Gun ads have also been documented as showing up on websites such as The Denver Post, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the Britannica, U.S. News & World Report, Ultimate Classic Rock, Parent Influence (on an article about “How to handle teen drama), and on Baby Games (amid brightly colored kids’ games), as well as on recipe sites and quiz game sites.

Google makes money on each of the hundreds of millions of views each year of gun ads. Note that Google dominates the digital advertising world with 28.6% of total digital ad revenue in the U.S.; Facebook has 23.8% and Amazon 11.3%, giving the big three an overwhelming 63.7% of the market. Therefore, gun ads via Google’s advertising systems are important both to the gun industry and to Google’s revenue.

[1]      Siders, D., & Fuchs, H., 6/10/22, “The NRA isn’t the only group advocating for the Second Amendment,” Politico (https://www.politico.com/minutes/congress/06-10-2022/more-than-just-nra/)

[2]      Giorno, T., 6/14/22, “Gun Owners of America pushes back on bipartisan gun control legislation,” Open Secrets (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2022/06/gun-owners-of-america-pushes-back-on-bipartisan-gun-control-legislation)

[3]      Mogulescu, M., 6/6/22, “It’s time for Democrats to stop agreeing that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2022/06/06/its-time-democrats-stop-agreeing-second-amendment-protects-individuals-right-bear)

[4]      Silverman, C., &Talbot, R., 6/14/22, “Google says it bans gun ads. It actually makes money from them.” ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org/article/google-guns-ads-firearms-alphabet-advertising)

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