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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I am a gunsmith and almost all of my customers (recently there have been a lot more of them) are hard line Republicans who do this “buy all we can” every time a Democrat takes office. I do hear the occasional “stock up on canned goods and water”, but not because of the economy, but because “Democrats are going to run this country into the ground.”

Posted by Vector | Report as abusive

This is about the conservative movement, the Christian GOP, their media, politicians and rank & file and their egregiously inciting and driving to violent anger the extremist lunatics among them…..
……..whom they know full-well are listening……
Their numbers include the Christian White Supremacist militia movement… These irrational extremists are convinced that drastic measures are in order…by the likes of Limbaugh, the entire corporate media, GOP and their politicians, Beck, Hannity and company….and they strike!!…hard!!
And many people have been murdered, maimed and had their lives destroyed by them.
But the conservative culture in America is behind them 100%.

Posted by Tom | Report as abusive

“But the conservative culture in America is behind them 100%.”

-Posted by Tom

No its not. Not every conservative is religious. I’m an atheist and I despise Obama’s domestic policy. Wake up. The liberal movement is fueled by old theories recycled from anarchists movements from the 70s. Each successive president swings further and further from the middle, and wields more and more power. Stupid debates about gun rights,abortion, and capital punishment are clearly spelled out in the constitution. The right to life. And rule #2. Its not rocket science. I would love to jump into the TV argument, but unfortunately the people I would be talking to are watching something completely useless instead of reading the news or book or even interacting with their families.

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive

Interesting article. I think the gun issue–always flammable when people in the US begin talking, illustrates the great divide between Europeans and Americans, and regardless of which side you fall upon, it is not a simple issue to solve (unless, perhaps, you are simple yourself). The writer seems to be fairly ignorant of some basic facts about the US–outside of metropolitan areas much of the land is remote from law enforcement, so for many people gun ownership is just pragmatic–the sheriff might take upwards of an hour to get to my home, as an example. It is true that there are a population of paranoids who cache guns and walk around in camouflage, expecting an apocalypse courtesy of the Democratic (or Republican) Party, but I think most Americans find this thinking a little simplistic. Also, holding up Canada and Europe as examples of low crime areas for us to follow are a bit of an apples an oranges argument–Canada is still basically culturally homogenous (I know, I know, the Quebecois are a distinct cultural group) but the US is a true melange of people, and more so every year. By the way, I’m not sure what part of Canada you’ve travelled in, but having travelled extensively there in my life, I can think of quite a few very down and out places in Canada that are full of gun toting rednecks–it’s not a uniquely American experience. And as to shameful poverty, go talk to some of the tribes in northern Ontario and ask them what they think of the majesty of Canadian justice. The British, by the way, can take great pride in laying the foundation for much of our strife by their enthusiastic promotion of slavery for about two hundred years of our history, so English moralizing is a little bit disingenuous. It’s one of those eternal legacies of our birth nation, right there with the Magna Carta and Yorkshire pudding. It’s also ironic that many people who are so passionate about wanting to understand the nuances of societies around the world are so tone deaf to that concept when it pertains to the US. I had to laugh when I read about clean and safe European cities that we should emulate. That one falls under “another good story ruined by an eyewitness”. The description of “tent cities” of homeless makes it sound like there are Darfurs all over America. Yes, I’ve seen the encampments, I’d liken them more to tent cul de sacs or whatever. They exist but to say they are extensive is just BS. The writer’s content may sell well in England, but I think it was a pretty shallow and ignorant attempt at describing an element of our society that is a little more complicated than his breathless polemic described. Finally, I’m always fascinated at the amount of knowledge that British and other Europeans have of our country and our beliefs, since it is so rare to find you here visiting. To base your opinion of America on movies, TV and slipshod journalism like this screed,that the majority of Americans are paranoid, gun caching boobs who hate the government (which we just peacefully elected) who gleefully ignore vast swaths of tents full of starving homeless stretching to the horizon would be like me determining that all Brits are a bunch of tea drinkers who survive on bad food, crappy weather and all have amazingly bad teeth, courtesy, no doubt, of an amazing national dental package. All the while surrounded by decaying ghettos of ranting immigrants bent upon imposing Sharia law and destroying you. Now that would be a generalization, right? Perhaps the lesson for us all would be ‘”people who live in glass houses should not throw stones”. Best, etc. etc.

Posted by Brian McMurdo | Report as abusive

Brian McMurdo’s comments are notable to me.

As are those of Geoff Morris
April 3rd, 2009 6:04 pm GMT

I don’t own a gun to kill people. I own a gun to keep from being killed. I don’t own a gun because I’m paranoid. I own a gun because there are
real threats in the world. I don’t own a gun because I’m evil. I own a gun because I have lived long
enough to see the evil in the world.
I don’t own a gun because I hate the government. I own a gun because I understand the limitations of government.
” etc.,

Yep. But I also own a gun because of those evil insurgent paper targets !!! Man, they sure feel lucky…

But now I also know how to reload, and yes, you can find all the stuff, AND ammo, you just gotta be persistent.

To anyone reading this thread who has made a first time firearm purchase recently or is considering doing so… Firearms for personal defense is the epitome of “Martial Art”.

Study, get training, regular practice, or you might be better served by ordinary running shoes and a baseball bat. This is serious business, ownership does not equal ability, or worse, “safety”, and it is so very easy to go to jail because you thought you were doing something right ! or get sued ! etc., bad bad…


Posted by Allen Francom | Report as abusive

Guns are not the problem its the crinimals are overly lenient judges that are the problem

Posted by SPURWING PLOVER | Report as abusive

I enjoyed the article. I support the second ammendment and voted for Obama. To think a president could ammend an ammendment to take away the right to bear arms seems absurd.
It is my opinion that Liberals, Democrats, and Republicans all own guns. Not to say that every person in the good old USA owns a gun however, there are Liberals, Democrats, and Republicans that own guns.

The second ammendment was written for all Americans not segregated groups.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

I’m surprised some one has not taken a pop shot at some of these CEO.I’m not a gun owner but after seeing all this crap ,makes me want to buy a gun. The attitude of these company’s ceo is mind blowing. The free market in our country is a joke just like the US Congress ,not to mention both parties. If I ran my business like some of these so called experts ,loaning money to people who you know can’t pay you back and rewarding people that make those decision to do so. I COULD GO ON AND ON, a little bit of common sense could go a long way.

Posted by bogdan tarabanovic | Report as abusive

It has more to do with President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder’s political ideals than it has to do with any recession fears. These two men and others in the administration are far-left politically and they hate firearms. They desire to re-institute a ban on firearms.

Posted by Dusty | Report as abusive

Increase of firearms purchases has nothing to do with the economy. It has everything to do with protecting yourself against a radical leftist President and his henchmen determined to, first, regulate and then, second, confiscate weapons from the American people.

The people are arming themselves to protect not against their unemployed neighbors but rather against a potentially authoritarian government. The first thing the totalitarians of the right (Fascists) and of the left (Socialists/Communists) do when they come to power is attempt to disarm their people.

This government, if it should make the same attempt sometime down the road, will find the American people will “not go gently into that good night.”

Posted by WorldNomad | Report as abusive

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