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How guns turned the American dream into a nightmare

On Sunday, a former U.S. serviceman shot and killed 26 Americans in Texas during their weekly prayer service. The next day, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that Japan would best protect itself from a nuclear-armed North Korea by buying U.S. military equipment.

At first blush, these two events are discrete, unconnected. The first, another massacre. The other, a global arms deal worth billions of dollars. But these incidents are, in a profound way, linked – for they speak of a reality in which the profits from the production of arms are intrinsically bound to an all-American view of security and commerce.

To understand how this reality emerged, we must go back to the mid-19th century, when a new invention was unveiled in London. In 1851, the British members of the Institution of Civil Engineers gathered to hear Samuel Colt speak. The American inventor presented a new item comprised of machine-made, interchangeable parts. It was the birth of the so-called “American system” of production, which far bettered, in terms of scale and cost, handmade manufacturing.

That product was the revolver.

Something else was born with that invention. By reducing costs and increasing output, production was in danger of outstripping demand. You could make millions of guns, but unless people were buying, what was the point? Hence the need to create demand.

Advertising was the answer – a skill honed by the Mad Men of Manhattan. Over time, gun companies began to advertise the virtues of owning a sidearm. That evolved into the mantra: You need a gun to protect yourself. Fear led to more purchases, more purchases led to greater profits. Gun massacres are sickeningly good for business.

This is where America’s love affair with the gun really takes off, because these profits are spent in four ways: investor return, research and development, more marketing and – crucially – lobbying. The gun lobby in the United States, over time, has shifted from working with the federal government to limit the traffic in guns (by stopping criminals or the mentally ill from buying them) to being devoted to the right to bear arms across the board. The more customers you secure, the more profits you garner.

Part of that money goes straight into the coffers of U.S. politicians. Paul Ryan, the 54th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, received $171,977 (U.S.) in 2016 campaign contributions from the gun lobby. At least $5.9-million was given to Republicans in the 2016 election cycle. In all, more than half of House members – 232 out of 435 – have received gun money.

So the gun industry has produced a seemingly unassailable scenario in which guns make profits that in turn line the pockets of the very politicians who are in charge of gun laws. It’s no surprise the country that made the world’s first mass-produced gun is also the only country that has loosened its gun laws following a massacre. No surprise, too, that in February Mr. Trump revoked gun checks for people with mental illnesses (despite blaming the Sunday mass shooting on mental-health issues) – because why limit your potential market to sane people?

Why is this situation unassailable? The alternative – fewer guns – does not sit well with capitalism. Any argument for no guns is one that will make no profits, and no profits means no money for gun-control lobbyists (that has to come from the donations of shocked citizens). As King Lear said: “Nothing will come of nothing.” Armed capitalism, supported by a constitutional right and a cultural might, is a potent force indeed.

That is why Mr. Trump selling arms to the Japanese is telling: It is the military-industrial complex at work globally. He has taken the defensive and profitable logic enshrined in both capitalism and the Second Amendment and is exporting it. Fear the North Koreans, he says to the Japanese, and make your people safer by buying U.S. arms. It’s good business: In 2017, U.S. arms sales notifications increased over 2016 by more than $42-billion.

But just as the U.S. seeks to export the American dream, it exports its nightmares too. Arms races all too often end in terrible bloodshed. Lax guns laws lead to more massacres. Politicians bought by corporations end up being revealed as the people they truly are: bought.

There is no easy answer to America’s love affair with weapons. Democracy and freedom have become synonymous with capitalism and production – and the gun lies at the very heart of that. To break that bond would require massive economic and cultural shifts in the U.S. body politic – and this will not happen under Mr. Trump. But the international community does not have to buy into this – we can say no to violence and the means of producing it. To some that may seem naive. To others it’s the only way toward peace.

This article first appeared in Canada’s Globe and Mail.