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.

You can contact the author at


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Herr Debusmann,

interesting opinion. I personally would like to hear from those that are living in “tent” cities why they are not living in their Japanese or Korean Cars, or sleeping between their sheets made in pakistan, or walking in their shoes made in China. Consume, consume, consume, that is all I ever hear, well I am finished. I will no longer buy from a business that does not support other local companies, including American Car companies!

As for the rest, I am sick of it, I will keep saving 20% of my income, pay my mortgage, love my wife, and remain a proud American!

Posted by Sherwood Baker | Report as abusive

Typically as joblessness grows so do black markets. People need money. Since this or the prior administration has not funded the safety nets well enough to care for the millions of jobless, they will turn to alternative work. Drugs and prostitution will become the fastest growing. There will be those that, for some reason think robbery is the less moral damaging way to go but may of them will be armed with something deadly. So as turf wars wage and burglars surprise business and home owners violence will ensue. This administration could set up cheap housing for the displaced in a very short time frame but without a WPA style jobs program that would make sure honest income was flowing to these families black market income looks real good.

Now what is really bad is Mr. Debusmann trying to somehow get the fact that there are more guns in society as a contributing factor in the commission of violence. The people buying guns legally are most likely not going to commit a crime. They may stop one, though.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

Mr. Debusmann’s leftist politics fit perfect with Reuters political motives.

His quote:
“fearing he would tighten gun controls despite campaign pledges to the contrary.”

That is a lie.

If you look at site, and had you looked closer at his campaign websites, Barack has always said he supports a permanant “assault weapons” ban. You know, the ones Mr. Obama said “belong on a battlefield”?.

I don’t know anybody here in America that has been able to purchase a select-fire weapon since the 60′s…

Posted by Scott | Report as abusive

The American Dream is quickly turning into an American nightmare. Maybe the purchased guns are to be used against top AIG executives or bailout bankers?. The American society is turning into a powderkeg with a long fuse. And the situation is bound to turn worse before it improves.

Posted by Ricardo | Report as abusive

Firearms are also useful in hunting — obtaining food is the second reason I have firearms (the first is target shooting). In much of the US hunting for food has long been a way of life — I know of families that survived the Depression on rabbits, ducks and squirrels taken by hunting.

Posted by Mike D. | Report as abusive

B. Free (whose gun apparently gives her so much confidence and security that she is too frightened to publish her real name), says: “The people buying guns legally are most likely not going to commit a crime. They may stop one, though.”

Surely even in the wackiest caricatures of Dubya’s America, trading the crime of theft for the crime of manslaughter never counted as “stopping” a crime?

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

Ian Kemmish says “Surely even in the wackiest caricatures of Dubya’s America, trading the crime of theft for the crime of manslaughter never counted as “stopping” a crime?”

I say manslaughter would never be the charge if you stopped a theif cold with a 40 S&W who breaks into your house while your kids are sleeping in their beds. It’s called justifiable homicide. There’s no “trading”. One is a crime, one is not.

Posted by Roundup Logan | Report as abusive

I’m not sure what the author is trying to convey here…are we buying guns because the economy is in the pits? Are we buying guns because we’re angry? Are we buying guns because we’re planning to subvert the gov’t because, quite frankly, they’re a bunch of boobs and we need to get rid of them?

A very ominous sounding article that has no focus and no understanding of gun ownership in America.

One question that doesn’t appear to have been asked or researched was ‘where are all the guns being purchased?’ I know that some of the gun sales increases have come along the border we share with Mexico. This is because the Mexican drug cartels are waging war for control of the distribution routes into the US. This has resulted in an increase in shootings and kidnappings here in the US. There is also evidence that drug cartel members are crossing the border into the US to purchase guns they can’t purchase in Mexico.

As for Mr. Ian Kemmish’s response – I am a proud gun owner. Sir, you make a false assumption that killing someone in the defense of their property is the same as manslaughter. It is not (as long as it’s proven that you were indeed defending yourself). In those states where conceal and carry laws have been passed, the incidence of violent crimes with guns has been reduced. Those states that still have a ‘ban’ or laws that prohibit citizens from owning guns (ie, New York City, Washington D.C.), rates of violent crimes actually increase.

Finally, from a high level, another reason why gun sales could have increased was just last fall the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case revolving around the gun ban in Washington D.C. and whether or not it is Constitutional. I would think that prior to these arguments, gun owners might have been purchasing guns just in case there was a ruling for the gun ban (and therefore against the 2nd Amendment) in Washington D.C. Fortunately our Justices ruled correctly in favor of the 2nd Amendment and against the Washington D.C. gun ban.

Posted by Don from Texas | Report as abusive

Ian posted:
“Surely even in the wackiest caricatures of Dubya’s America, trading the crime of theft for the crime of manslaughter never counted as “stopping” a crime?”

Ian, protecting your home and family with deadly force is not Manslaughter it is justifiable homicide. Most thinking states have adopted the Castle Doctrine which protects homeowners from prosecution for defending their homes. Unfortunately in the world we live in now the scumbags who would rob you care nothing for your life and will take it even if you give up your money, wallet or car without arguement.

Have a great day…Go Armed!

Posted by T. Jefferson | Report as abusive

Ian (if that is your real name), Drop the crack pipe and step away from the keyboard. A large number of innocent citizens are maimed and killed by thieves. My definition of “stopping a crime” is someone defending themselves, not their property.

Do you want unarmed police to come to your house when you’ve called in a burglary? Do you realize that the police are always just a few minutes too late to save someone’s life? Criminals buy guns to commit crimes; law abiding citizens buy guns to defend their families from criminals.

Some people like me also live in states where you don’t have a neighbor within a couple miles and don’t have a police station within 20. What would you have me do if some criminal threatened my life or the life of my family? Call the cops and ask the criminal to wait 30 minutes?

Wake up or continue to live your life as a helpless victim with your eyes closed to the realities of the world you live in.

Posted by North2Alaska | Report as abusive

The tradeoff, Ian, isn’t manslaughter, it’s usually what would be “brandishing” (a form of assault) if not justified, other times it’s non-criminal homicide; and in most states simple “theft” (larceny) isn’t enough, it has to be personal, “robbery” or “burglary”.

In any case, is it the newly poor who are buying guns?

Posted by David Scott | Report as abusive

This guy Ian must be completely out of his mind if he believes that defending oneself, family, or property is considered a crime. I don’t know where you live but in many parts of this Country (The US), it is legal to defend ones home (Including ones automobile) with deadly force if necessary. So if someone breaks into your home in the middle of the night to rob you and your family, I guess you’ll just hide under the covers and hope they’ll leave you and yours alone and unharmed???

Posted by anthony temacino | Report as abusive

Hey Ian, I have guns and I’ll gladly publish my name. I live in a state that upholds my God-given right to defend myself and my family and that’s why I always carry a legally-concealed loaded hand gun. I train with it on a regular basis so that I am always able to immediately respond with lethal force in the face of a threat on my life and/or property. Hopefully I’ll never have to.

Posted by Robert Ridgway | Report as abusive

Ian, I used my real name just to show you I am not afraid. Trading what you are calling manslaughter for theft is not considered so in any state where guns have not been outlawed. (i.e. Kalifornia, Illinois) It’s called protecting your family and property. Some day you must grow out of this ‘Dubya’s America’ thing and realize things are changing and it’s not all the Hope and Change and Unicorns and Skittles promised by the current administration.

People ask me why I carry a .45 everywhere I go and at all times. My response is simple, “Because they don’t make a .46″

Posted by Tj Rueb | Report as abusive

Ian Kemmish assumes (without any supporting evidence) that B. Free wants to kill someone. In truth, in the overwhelming majority of instances where a firearm is used to protect property or for defense, the firearm isn’t fired. So there is no trading of the crime of theft for the crime of manslaughter.

Additionally, manslaughter is not committed in circumstances of self-defense. Mr. Kemmish needs to familiarize himself with the laws concerning this issue.

It is a strong deterrent to be looking from the wrong end of a firearm someone is obviously ready to use.

Posted by Lobengula | Report as abusive

Hello Ian,

You just revealed that you are unarmed and vulnerable. Could you please include an address next time? Unlike you, B. Free is practicing good personal security by not revealing whether he/she is armed or keeps weapons in the home. There is no need to attach a name to an opinion on an Internet forum, especially if it marks you as a target in some way. B. Free is acting intelligently, rather than impulsively…exactly the type of person you want to own a gun.
Being armed does not mean that you have to use lethal force if you encounter criminal activity. It simply means that the option is available if the crime escalates from petty crime to a threat of violence. Would you live in a jungle without some means to defend yourself from potentially violent wildlife? If not, that doesn’t mean you are a bad person, it just means that you are prepared. If you began killing animals needlessly, then there would be a problem. I don’t believe there is any difference between gun ownership in an civilized area or a jungle, the animals are just more intelligent (for the most part) outside the jungle.

Posted by Gun Owner | Report as abusive

Mr. Kemmish: I fail to comprehend why the defense of my property and life against a criminal intent on depriving me of same is regarded as a bad thing. We have laws that say taking other people’s property is wrong. Since the thin blue line is under no obligation to intervene during the commission of a crime, I’d like to know why it’s considered wrong for me to defend myself and my property. I work to provide the few luxuries I have, why should I just let someone take them away from me? Do they deserve them more because they take what they want and I foolishly pay for the privilege of ownership? Or is this a socialist ploy saying that “ownership” is wrong? Of course, getting past my redneck alarm system (multiple large mongrels and one purebred charmer)will give the local constabulary time to arrive … and ticket me for the noise level while the criminal escapes. The odd thing about everyone having a gun, a lot of people will think twice about pulling and using one. Not everyone, but a lot of them; which prevents me from having to use one myself. I’d rather have the weapon and not need it than end up dead, raped and/or robbed because I didn’t.

Posted by SC Loftin | Report as abusive

Americans and guns are like babies and candy;it’s bad for them but they don’t care, they want it anyway.Ninety percent of armed crimes are commited with guns obtained in B&E’s from ‘legitimate and honest’gun owners (according to a statistic quoted on the radio from police records).Take away private guns and you take 90% of the new guns off the street.We are not only degrading the safety of Ameicans with our gun fetish but because of blackmarket gun running to Canada and Mexico we are endangering our neighbours.There is no real argument for handguns,only an infantile lack of urge control.

Posted by gary cooper | Report as abusive

So Ian, you’re saying that if you woke and found someone burglarizing your home and potentially threatening your family you wouldn’t do anything to stop them? I don’t own a gun, but having been raised to respect firearms and the rights of the American people I am hard pressed to accept the words of your last paragraph.

“B. Free” for all the hiding behind a screen name did not condone ‘manslaughter’- shame on you for putting words in other peoples’ mouths.

If you are content to let a thief walk off with the things you have worked hard for in life, by all means, go right ahead. Me, I’m using anything at my disposal- be it a table lamp or a baseball bat to make my point to the criminal. Not to kill them, but to stop them.

Posted by Julie Evans | Report as abusive

Stopping a robber is not manslaughter, nor a crime, it is justice. People have a right to defend one’s property, with deadly force if necessary.

Making criminals, especially ones interrupted in the act and clearly guilty, seem like innocent victims a caricature of the values this country was founded on. We resisted, with deadly force, the Crown’s tyranny. We should also resist the tyranny of our fellow man.

Only a morally and ethically bankrupt person suggests that we should stand by and allow criminals to take away our property without so much as raising a finger in self defense. Personal dignity and liberty is more important than survival.

Posted by Michael Paulson | Report as abusive