Gun violence

In focus: Kristen Rand, Legislative Director of the Violence Policy Center

AOAV:  What is the Violence Policy Centre?

Kristen Rand:  We’re a national non-profit organisation, and we do research and policy development and advocacy to reduce gun violence in America.

AOAV: What is your main role in the policy centre?

Rand:  I’m the legislative director, I handle all of our lobbying and legislative activities.  We are sort of the technical experts on guns, so policymakers rely on us very heavily for technical advice on drafting legislation. We do a lot of research looking at arcane areas of gun law and do policy development from there.

Under federal law, a gun is something that uses an explosive charge to expel a propellant, including shotguns, rifles, and handguns.  There are also other categories that are regulated under the National Firearms Act, which include things like grenades and silencers and certain other types of speciality guns,

We’re really the experts on the gun industry.  Our philosophy is that we should be applying the same strategies of injury prevention that we’ve applied to virtually every other product that’s manufactured in America.  We have a situation where the American gun industry can make anything they want as long as it’s not fully automatic and complies with certain other state laws;  an industry that really focuses on manufacturing the most lethal and highly militarised weapons, which we believe is really contributing to the problems with international gun trafficking.

We’ve worked on banning 50-calibre sniper rifles, which is the most powerful gun that a civilian can buy in the United States..  We provide advice on anything having to do with the guns themselves; we’re really the only organisation that has specific expertise in that area.

AOAV: And how vibrant is the industry in the States? 

Rand:  The gun industry is not very transparent, because it basically consists of one very large manufacturer, Freedom Group – which is now called Remington – that is owned by Cerberus Capital Management.  When there was the big boom in AR-15 sales you saw this huge increase in the number of companies that only make AR-type weapons. They just show up, then they disappear.   Those kind of manufacturers, the “pop-up manufacturers” are probably about 20% of the industry, and then the publicly-traded plus Freedom Group is  maybe 60% of the industry.  And then the rest are companies that make the same thing all the time.

AOAV: How many gun sales are domestically in the US?

Rand:  That’s really hard to know.  The only hard data we have is production data.  In 2011, I think there were a total of 4 million guns produced. But as far as sales, you can only guess, looking at what you get from publicly traded companies.

There’s an assumption on Capitol Hill that they’re somehow equivalent to the tobacco industry.  That’s insane.  The gun industry is very small and dependent on maintaining these kind of booms, scares like Obama being elected and Newtown.  Previous to the election of Obama they were in very, very serious decline.  Freedom Group, for example, took on tremendous debt; their sales were declining quarter to quarter.  Because they claim about a 40% market share in assault weapons, they were essentially saved by Newtown.

AOAV:           It seems quite shocking that a massacre of children would reinvigorate the gun industry.  How did it result in, not on a legislative gun control issue, but in a purchasing issue?

Rand:  Only about 20% of Americans personally own a gun, and that’s been declining significantly since the 1970s.  But of that 20%, maybe around 8% are people whose whole life is organised around guns.  They probably own 10 or 12 of them at least, all their friends have guns, that’s what they talk about.  Those people become fearful that the reaction after something like Newtown is gun bans, and the NRA and the gun lobby feeds that fear.  So that person buying the gun is 90% of the time someone who already owns many others.

One of the main objectives of the gun lobby and the entire  right-wing echo chamber is keeping gun sales up, because that pro-gun percentage of the population is very important to the maintenance of the overall ultra-conservative politically-active population.  The general public doesn’t really understand how much the right wing uses the pro-gun sentiment to keep their base happy.

AOAV: Who regulates the gun industry?  Does it come under federal regulation or state regulation?

Rand:  Both.  At the federal level, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms regulates firearm commerce, which amounts to licensing manufacturers, importers, dealers, and collectors.  They have some limited authority over what can be imported.    Their main goal is to prevent prohibited persons – which includes felons, people with certain mental disabilities and illegal aliens – from getting firearms.  But they have virtually no control over the types of guns that are sold, as long as they’re not machine guns or somehow else might fall under the National Firearms Act.

AOAV: Who would you lobby to, for example, try to get the regulation of manufacturing sniper rifles for civilian use?

Rand:  You would have to go to Congress; that’s part of the problem with gun regulation. If you wanted to ban a pesticide that you decided was unreasonably hazardous, you’d go to the Environmental Protection Agency, because they have administrative authority to do that.  With guns, you always have to go to Congress, that’s why it’s always such a huge battle.  States can have much stronger laws than the federal, and many states do:  California, New York, Connecticut – the whole East Coast corridor generally has very strong gun laws, and then the middle of the country has very weak gun laws.

AOAV: When you enter Congress, what are the issues that you’re up against?  And could you tell me a little bit about the lobby and its funding?

Rand:  The NRA is the primary political arm of the gun lobby and they have very significant funding.  However, their level of success has little to do with the money they spend on political campaigns.  Their power is in their grassroots.  They basically have an army of people who will do whatever, whenever, and they’re obsessed.

The primary hurdle right now is the House of Representatives. That’s a non-starter at this point in time.  There is so much gridlock, not just on the gun issue, that moving anything in Congress right now is just very, very difficult.

AOAV: We’re very interested in the impact of US arms in Latin America, particularly in Mexico and Central America.  What have your findings been on issues of export controls?

Radn:  We’ve done a big project collecting federal gun trafficking prosecutions, and we’ve found a very clear trend, from when we started looking at this in 2006 through to 2013, that the traffickers who are mostly smuggling to Mexico really honed in on particular makes and models of guns, primarily assault weapons. Over the last three or four years we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of assault pistols that were on the market, with the primary driver being the new Draco AK-47 pistols, which the traffickers find incredibly attractive. Those guns are all imported into the US from Romania.

AOAV: Have you investigated the Romanian connection there, who’s making them and why can they be imported to the US to get to Mexico?

Rand:  The primary problem is that ATF, despite having the authority, has chosen not to exclude imports that are non-sporting. They had such a cosy relationship with the industry throughout the George W. Bush administration that they’re hesitant to say no to the industry.  This is such a huge part of where industry profit is right now.

AOAV: Do you feel that there is an over-arming of America’s military and police?

Rand: We do think that the level of armaments in just police departments is insane. Our concern is the whole gun industry marketing strategy is really oriented towards fuelling a civilian desire to be armed in the same way as the military and the police. It is clearly a big influence on the civilian market, and that’s how every assault weapon manufacturer markets their guns.

AOAV: Are there any restrictions at all on the advertising of guns?

Rand:  The Federal Trade Commission has clear jurisdiction over the gun industry.  However, part of the reason that it’s never been a focus of theirs is that most gun industry advertising is completely under the radar.  It’s mostly in gun magazines, on the Internet, and in catalogues; only people who are really into guns ever see it.  One of the things we’re looking at is how the gun industry started ramping up its marketing efforts aimed at children; we’re exploring whether it might be appropriate to bring some of that to the FTC.

In some states it’s perfectly legal for children to own guns. In order to have an actionable case under the FTC, you would have to show that in some cases, the industry is actively encouraging sales of guns to people who are too young to buy them.

Part of the problem is language that suggests the industry can help people to be armed like the military. That that kind of language helps push people like Adam Lanza over the edge.  But proving that is really difficult.

AOAV: Do you see a trend of people who are arrested in Mexico with guns that are then traced back to American sellers?

Rand:  The vast majority of cases that we’ve identified are straw purchasing cases.  The guns  they have straw-purchased  are identified by the authorities as previously being purchased, and then having been brought to Mexico. We have tracked a few cases involving trafficking to other Latin American countries, but it’s just a few.