Gun Violence is a Global Commodity

By Lion Summerbell

In October, the Trump administration was expected to announce the loosening of regulatory restrictions on the sale of small arms. In practice, this would mean Commerce taking over licensing of small arms sales from the State Department. Under the Obama Administration’s Export Control Reform, the Commerce Department was meant to assume sole supervision of defense exports. Small arms would have gone over to them in 2013, but then Sandy Hook happened, and White House scuttled its plans in the face of a potential public backlash.

By November, no announcement had yet been made. Stephen Paddock murdering 59 people at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on October 1 may or may not have had something to do with that. If so, this will be the second time that the only thing stopping a new wave of small arms proliferation turns out to be a lethal abundance of small arms. 

And lethal it is. At least two hundred thousand people are shot dead each year by pistols, rifles, and machine guns, and that’s a partial statistic at best. October 1st may have been the worst mass murder by a single individual on United States soil ever recorded, but statistically, it was par for the course.

Nearly 20% of all guns sold worldwide are sold by the U.S., which has been the leading exporter of small arms for decades. The arms trade isn’t a uniquely U.S. endeavor, of course. The next four runners-up are Italy, Brazil, Germany, and South Korea; taken together, these five countries represent more than 50% of total sales. And the Soviet-designed Kalashnikov has been endemic in violent conflicts across the developing world for decades–particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Russia and its former Warsaw Pact satellites, having embraced capitalism with gusto, have rushed to cash in on their old stock.

The reasons for their doing so are clear: small arms are essentially a license to print money. The market is worth nearly $6 billion, the manufacturing processes are simple and well-established, and with an abundance of violent conflicts or of regimes paranoid about falling into them, there’s no end of buyers in sight. As a result, the world is now flooded with guns: Small Arms Survey puts the number at 875 million, with 500,000 more added each year.

But there is a major difference between the U.S. and elsewhere. It’s one that is best measured in degrees of cynicism, as I think the chart below amply demonstrates:

Other major exporters may give themselves a free hand when it comes to the rest of the globe, but domestically, there is active intolerance towards proliferation. Only in the U.S. is there no distinction between the two spheres. In a grim sort of way, you could laud U.S. citizens for their universalism. But only in a grim sort of way.

And speaking of grim: Las Vegas. If no one else had been shot there this year, those 58 people would count for 9.1 homicides per 100,000 people–roughly double the average in New York City from 2000-2015, and low in comparison to other U.S. cities. Except that the Route 91 massacre didn’t happen in isolation. 168 people were murdered in Las Vegas last year, and 80% of them were murdered with guns. 2016 was a record year for killings in the city, which has seen its murder rate double since 2012.

Assuming 2017 keeps pace and Paddock’s victims are added onto the total, that would put the city at 227 murders, roughly 35 per 100,000.

Which–and this is the kicker–would make Las Vegas only the fifth deadliest city in the U.S. Take time to think about that. A man can murder 59 people in the span of several hours in a city that is already overwhelmed by gun violence, and still, you’d be 30% more likely to be shot and killed in certain neighborhoods of New Orleans on any given night.

As for why, well, I think we know why. The U.S. political class is not in the business of working for its citizens. How else could it be that there is no domestic anti-trafficking legislation in the U.S. ? Federal law prohibits so-called “straw purchasing,” meaning to buy a gun on behalf of someone who is legally disallowed from doing so. But trusting this to dissuade traffickers in any meaningful sense is naive at best. One ATF study found that nearly half of the 1,530 cases it surveyed involved a straw purchaser. That’s because judges routinely impose extremely light sentences on them: a little probation, a little community service, but rarely time behind bars. And that is itself because the only crime being committed is lying on a federal form. ATF 4473, required for firearm purchases from a licensed dealer, asks the buyer to certify that they are in fact the intended end user of the weapon. If you say yes, then sell the gun to a known criminal, you’re no more guilty than someone who cheats on their taxes.

In other words, there’s very little to stop someone buying caches of assault rifles in poorly regulated states (say, Nevada, where Representative Cresent Hardy (R) took $9,900 from the NRA in 2016, and where you don’t need a license to own a firearm, nor do you need to register it) and shipping them up to states with much stricter gun laws. Illinois, for instance, gets a B+ from the Center to Prevent Gun Violence (grade inflation is at work here, of course: a B+ in America means that assault rifles are still not prohibited and gun registration is not required), but it’s also where the city of Chicago is, which has seen 59 murders in a single month. Would you be surprised, then, to learn that the majority of firearms used in those crimes and in others across the state were imported there from elsewhere?

Nor is there anything to stop someone from putting those guns onto a boat or in a truck and shipping them to other countries. The drug war in Mexico is overwhelmingly fought with illegally purchased U.S. weapons, for instance. As many as 2000 a day have been crossing the border over the past few years, with unspeakable consequences for the citizens of Mexico, for the U.S., and for the world. After all, that violence became fodder for Trump to peddle a tough guy image with the more hysterical (and motivated) among his voters. And he did the same thing with gun crime in U.S. cities. Now here he is, the President of the U.S., ready not just to turn on the taps but to pull them clean out of the wall and let the pipes flow free.

Violence, like everything else, obeys the second law of thermodynamics. Unless we remove the initial force from the equation, we’ll never bring the system to a resting state. Trump is proof of the transfer of energies in between parts of that system. But equally so is Paddock. People are still tearing their hair out trying to figure out why he did what he did, what could motivate a seemingly normal man, etc. Cf. Occam’s razor, let me offer the simplest explanation: he did it because it was a perfectly normal thing to do, in a world where the lives of 200,000 people are ended that way every year. 

The Left should learn something from the U.S.’s ecumenical stance on foreign and domestic firearms sales. We must be equally universal, and equally unequivocal. Only a complete ban on all arms sales here and abroad can begin to stop the Paddocks and the Seventh Wards and the Sinaloas. Until then, each unspeakable act of cruelty will be prologue for the next.

Lion Summerbell is a member of New York City DSA

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