In American crisis, anger and guns

By Bernd Debusmann
March 19, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate
– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

In the first two months of this year, around 2.5 million Americans bought guns, a 26 percent increase over the same period in 2008. It was great news for gun makers and a sign of a dark mood in the country.

Gun sales shot up almost immediately after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential elections on November 4 and firearm enthusiasts rushed to stores, fearing he would tighten gun controls despite campaign pledges to the contrary.

After the November spike, gun dealers say, a second motive has helped drive sales: fear of social unrest as the ailing economy pushes the newly destitute deeper into misery. Many of the newly poor come from the relentlessly rising ranks of the unemployed. In February alone, an average of 23,000 people a day lost their jobs.

Tent cities for the homeless have expanded outside a string of American cities, from Sacramento and Phoenix to Atlanta and Seattle, for people who are living the American dream in reverse. First they lose their jobs, then their health insurance, then their homes, then their hopes. The encampments are reminiscent of Third World refugee camps.

Often former members of the middle class, tent dwellers’ accounts of their plight to television cameras have a common theme: “I never thought this could happen to me.” Unlike the victims of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans, many of the newly-poor are white.

The FBI says it carried out 1,213,885 criminal background checks on prospective firearms buyers in January and 1,259,078 in February, jumps of 28% and 23.3% respectively. Keen demand turned the stocks of publicly-trade firearms companies like Smith & Wesson (up 80% since November) and Sturm Ruger (up more than 100%) into shining stars on the New York Stock Exchange.

There are no statistics on how many guns are bought by people who think they need them to defend themselves against desperate fellow citizens.

But, as columnist David Ignatius put it in the Washington Post, “there’s an ugly mood developing as people start looking for villains to blame for the economic mess.” In November, an analysis published by the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute listed “unforeseen economic collapse” as one of the possible causes of future “widespread civil violence.”

The American economy is down but not out, and in mid-March some experts reported signs that the pace of the decline was slowing. But it hasn’t slowed enough to sweep away the sense of anxiety and fear that comes through in many conversations and commentaries about the future of this normally optimistic country.

While Obama’s approval rating remains high, at 59%, almost two thirds of the population thinks the country is on the wrong track, according to a poll commissioned by National Public Radio in mid-March.

“What is really remarkable about all this is that there hasn’t been social unrest,” remarked an executive with business interests in Latin American countries where riots and street demonstrations in response to economic squeezes are routine. “The conditions for it are all there.”


Anger is building. Just under half of those surveyed in a poll by the Pew Research Center this month expressed anger about “bailing out banks and financial institutions that made poor decisions.” The poll was taken before details became known of the full extent of the bonus-paying spree to members of the very team that brought the insurance giant AIG close to collapse.

The government propped up AIG with close to $200 billion and now owns 80% of the company. The argument that $165 million in bonuses had to be paid under contractual obligations went down particularly badly with workers of the three U.S. car companies whose leaders appealed for support from the Bush administration last year when the economic crisis gathered steam.

One of the conditions for the billions that were dispensed to the car industry was that contracts between auto workers and their union, the United Auto Workers, had to be renegotiated to cut costs. The union agreed, and the question arises: are contracts with blue-collar workers less binding than those with highly-paid derivatives traders?

Some see this as another sign of the inequalities that Obama promised to address. Remember his famous exchange with Joe Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, during a campaign stop? “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama told him.

There’s less wealth to spread around now as trillions of dollars has evaporated with increasing speed in the deepening crisis. In housing alone, more than $5 trillion has vanished. The gap between rich and poor, a gap of Third World proportions, has not changed. A full-time worker, on average, made $37,606 last year, considerably less than in 1973, adjusted for inflation.

While CEOs made 45 times as much as workers in 1973 they make more than 300 times as much today, according to Holly Sklar, author of “Raise the Floor, Wages and Policies that Work for All of US.”

To what extent those gaps will shrink under Obama remains to be seen and the outlook for swift action is not promising. There are, in fact, not many things for which the outlook is promising. Exceptions include Smith&Wesson. They expect revenue to double within the next three years.

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WorldNomad – I think your statement is true for many people, but only because it would also be true to say that “generally far more gun owners are republican than democrat.”

However, I’m on the other side (flaming liberal), and I’ve had a couple handguns for years, but when Bush started to rob citizens of their liberties in the name of national security, I went out and bout another handgun and a rifle – for similar reasons to yours.

Oppressive future governments has always been at least as much of a concern to me than personal protection.

Although I didn’t buy more guns when Obama was elected (by me), I did participate in the run on ammo because I was concerned about his ownership of both congress and the senate, and his historically anti-gun position.

I wish more liberals owned guns. They are the compassionate people, the vegans (i am one of those too), the vegetarians, the advancers of civil liberties, and those are the people I want armed when the s__t hits the fan…not people like Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove.

Posted by robert | Report as abusive

Wake up people! There are 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights for a reason. Focus only on the guns and let them coopt freedom of the press or restrict freedom of speech, or blithely ignore search and seizure laws and eventually you wind up all by yourself with lots of guns hoping they don’t come after you next. Don’t think the right wing will protect your 2nd amendment rights any better than the left. They will just say they want to take the guns (or any of the other guaranteed liberties) away from the “bad” people, criminals, terrorists, drug dealers, immigrants, the poor. One day you will find yourself on that list with no rights to a free and fair trial.

Posted by Shadowrider | Report as abusive

I have just got to leave a comment on this, I have been reading here and I am just shaking my head. The ignorance I see is unbelievable. First, to the idiot who stated that this is a democracy, well, first of all, this is supposed to be a Constitutional Republic, this is so that 51% of the population doesnt legislate tyranny on the other 49%. Boy did you flunk history class and really hooked up the umbilical cord to the cool-aid tv tube. Your brain has been washed, this also goes to the ones who keep thinking in the left-right paradym, hellooo! The dems and the repubs are working the same policies, they just highlight different aspects of the same plan, and do the same things that the other does, just under the radar more than what they publicised. Obama, who was heralded by the mainstream media (now that should have been a red flag there) who are bought and paid for by the corporate elite, who actually have the money to control this, well, the list goes on with them. But, the old devide and conquer, give the illusion of separate parties, own the “opposing” mouth pieces, and keep the sheep distracted while taking everything from them one piece at a time. Have you ever seen them repeal anything the other party does? I havent, at least nothing of value, they just add onto it and runn with that ball, or bury it. Has the war criminals been indicted? Patriot act repealed? A real investigation into 9/11? NO you havent and you wont, because they work together to accumulate more power for the government and less for you. Left right is a lie and a brainwashing technique, get out of that, it IS us and them, but not the way your thinking, it is the people, and the government now, the police dont protect and serve as much as they enforce “policy” of the “rulers”, and also act as extra tax collection through absurdities. Wake up, as for the idiots who want to twist the 2nd ammendment….heh, maybe you should READ and stop parroting your fox news hero or something, a well regulated militia is a well stocked and maintained militia…what is the militia?….it is the whole of the people, not the collective, but individuals working together which is the “unorganized militia”. Back then, there were no police, there was no military in the time of peace, the people themselves were educated and respected what it meant to be armed, and its primary purpose was to throw off a corrupt government, so if you think the government should be registering and giving permission through permits for a right that was to keep that same government in check is a good idea, you should get some chickens, and find a fox to guard them for you while your sleeping. Idiots.

Posted by RSBL | Report as abusive