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 ABOUT BAILOUTS

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 Debusmann@Reuters.com.

263 comments

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It all comes down to whether or not you believe in private property rights and what value you assign to human life. Those values are going to be different for everybody, and rightly so, as we’re all individuals.

I would not presume to force my values upon you or consider you “wacky” for the values you hold, in return, I’d expect the same level of respect.

Posted by Uncle Jeff | Report as abusive

Ian – are you suggesting that more gun owners means more man slaughter? This makes zero sense really, since the statistics do not bear that out. 80% of all crimes are done with illegally obtained guns. Another 10% are committed with guns stolen from people who bought them legally. The reality is that responsible gun owners are safe. And if one of those gun owners shoots and kills a robber trying to steal from them, or hurt their family, it is certainly not man slaughter but justifiable homicide. Gun laws have never and will never stop criminals, because criminals will find a way. If gun were outlawed, killers would still kill and robbers would still steal. They would just devise devices that fit their needs. The dark underworld would just build their own guns and kill innocent people with those. Then people could not complain that the blood is on the hands of the gun makers now could they?

Posted by Robert Preston | Report as abusive

Ian,

Shooting a person that is in the commission of a violent crime is NOT the crime of manslaughter, it is SELF DEFENSE. This may be a foreign concept to you. I voted for Obama, but this liberal Brady-esque view of gun control never made sense. We’ve banned drugs and alcohol, and I think you have a clue as to how well prohibition works. You’re suggesting that we add one more item to the black marketeers list of wares. Incredible!!

Posted by Charles Teasley | Report as abusive

A typical piece of Mr. Debusmann’s – dark, foreboding, and totally devoid of insight. Mr. D, in the words of my father..”Do you come with a solution or are you just another part of the problem?”

Posted by Sam Meyer | Report as abusive

I personally choose not to own a gun. But if you want to own a gun, go for it. Guns don’t kill people, guns are deadly weapons people use to kill people. I think Canada has more guns per-capita than the US yet has fewer gun based murders per-capita than the US. So it seems like the problem with gun violence is more complicated than the availability of guns. IMHO.

Posted by Josef | Report as abusive

most everybody likes to think they are in the ‘middle class’…um, i recall the 1960′s and what middle class was back then. those times are gone.

Posted by d | Report as abusive

Ian, nice cheap try at B. Free. It’s not about being frightened. It’s called smart. And I’m pretty sure B. Free’s comment was that an armed and gun smart citizen has a better chance stopping a crime against him/her. It’s about strong self defense. Looking down the wrong end of a 45 tends to get the attention of thieves, punks & would-be criminals.

Since your post says you’re a lib,(nice slap at Repubs ;), here’s your free education on gun control:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L3kMuN8s jk

My bet is that you’d become a gun advocate in a heart beat if your wife woke you at 2:00 am to whisper that an intruder was about to enter your room.

Posted by BIlly C | Report as abusive

Funny, Germany has some of the most strict gun laws in the world and they just had a shooting spree that only ended with the shooter’s suicide.
People were murdered before firearms and will be murdered after firearms. Murder is a social ill and has NEVER been legitimately equated with gun ownership levels. Homogenous levels and political stability have much more affect on murder rates than gun ownership. If gun laws reduced crime, why then is DC the murder capital of the US? It has the most strict gun laws in the nation?
Beyond all of these arguments, the second ammendment is not about murder or even hunting for that matter. Read the Federalist Papers and you will see that Madison and fellows detailed their thinking behind the second ammendment. An unarmed populace is an enslaved one.

Posted by becolby | Report as abusive

gary cooper: People who get their guns stolen are not acting responsibly with their firearm, simple as that. It is sad that people who get something stolen (the victim of the crime) by those who would disarm them. You seem to assume that the fact that people are victimized and robbed, are at fault for that crime against them. Yes their guns should have been in a locked safe, but that very fact should alert you to the problem in America. You would rather people not have guns, because that way when they are robbed the criminal gets no deadly weapons out of it. 90% of the stolen guns are crimes of convenience, in other words the criminal did not go there seeking a gun, but got lucky and found it. Why? Because guns have resale value and B&E criminals are looking for money.

So should we also take all the knives out of our kitchens? And all the axes and saws and drills from our garages? What about baseball bats, hockey sticks, tire irons, lawn darts, BBQ Skewers and anti freeze? Any one of those things can be used to kill a person, yet we all have them. So why do people assume that taking away guns will take away crime? It won’t and only ignorance would say that it might. Do you know how most homicides are committed? BFT or Blunt Force Trauma. Which can be done with just about anything from a fireplace poker to a rock. And you can bet that if there were no guns, criminals would just kill you with one of those in a second.

I don’t know what is wrong with America, I don’t know why we are so violent. But the fact is that we are. And until that is long gone the need to protect yourself and family is there. The police do all they can, but they are reactionary by nature. They usually arrive after the bad stuff has already happened, so expecting them to be your 1st line of security is a mistake some people cannot afford to make.

Guns are not the problem. There are just as many guns per person in Canada as their is in the USA and they do not have our problem with crime. People need to learn that this entire anti-gun mentality is no longer fooling anyone……Democrats and Republicans both see this now. This is part of the reason for the increase of gun sales. For 30 years the government has been making it tougher to get guns, and adding in more laws and regulations, yet violent and random acts of crime had not gone away, not in the slightest. As one city’s stats go down, another one goes up.

Legal and responsible, and trained gun owners are choosing to take a precaution. If you choose to not take such precautions fine, but don’t tell others that they cannot.

Posted by Robert Preston | Report as abusive

Gee Ian, I didn’t hear B. Free mention the exact type of crime and I’m pretty sure the crime implied to be prevented would be a violent one. Perhaps attempted rape is justification for a potential victim to use deadly force? No? How about if the “theft” is armed robbery? If a thief pulls a gun on you do you have the right to protect yourself with a gun?

Your reasoning is quite off if you think someone defending herself from a violent crime would be punished with manslaughter.

Posted by P. Kellogg | Report as abusive

From a Gun owner and economic casualty…

I think that it is a good thing for the well off to get nervous about the people who used to work for them who are well armed and pissed off. The reason we have the right to bear arms is that it is precisely that right which perpetuates the revolutionary ideals that made this Republic possible. I can hear echoes of the lamentations of the British 270+ years ago waxing self rightious about how the colonists would be so much more easy to manage if they didn’t have so many guns.

Some closing words from famous psychic Thomas Jefferson:

“If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation then by deflation, the banks and the corporations that will grow up around them, will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.\” – Thomas Jefferson

Posted by Kevin Kiernan | Report as abusive

Buying a gun actually reduces your chance for safety… UNLESS you actually learn to use it. I don’t mean taking it to the range a few times, I mean sign up for a class. Start with a class that teaches you how to handle, fire, and clean your gun. Then take a class that teaches you basic gun combat (once a gun is fired you are in combat whether you like it or not… this is a fight you do not want to loose). Like any other treacherous weapon from cars to nukes, appropriate training is essential to safe and effective handling. I for one think ALL guns should be legal, they are just tools… but I believe each firearm owner should be required to take at least 15 hours of training with their weapon before they can take it home for first time buyers and one hour refresher for multi gun owners along with refreshers whenever you renew permits. An armed society is a polite society, but we don’t want people pulling a Plexico or worse yet killing someone on accident.

Posted by Adam Cagle | Report as abusive

This may be an American Frontierman’s reaction, and most of these guns will be intended for defense. There are however a lot of sad people suffering financial distress, who will be throwing themselves off the top of tall buidings, and no doubt a lot of people enjoying, perhaps undeserved, rising financial success, are going to be shot. Any public information, news or pronouncements have to be of a moderating, and hopeful influence. Everybody needs hope.
Sincerely…..John T.

Posted by John Turnbull | Report as abusive

Interesting story. I agree– guns are legal, and one has the right to own one GIVEN that they register it, do the background checks etc. AND LEARN HOW TO USE IT..

What I find continually fascinating is— the people who will SCREAM at you about the 2nd Amendment — CONVENIENTLY skip the part of it that says ” A well regulated militia”!!

To me that is very clear — we need perhaps a Switzerland-style situation where the GOVERNMENT handles a logical, basic TRAINING course that also registers you as a “TRAINED USER”. What I just described it EXACTLY, PRECISELY what we do for driving cars — why not do the same for a TOOL THAT CAN KILL YOU?

“They” only read the part they like — the part that says “the right to bear arms”. We need to all remind them of the REST OF THE AMENDMENT!!

Posted by Andre' Cholmondeley | Report as abusive

A friend of mine recently said I should move to New Zealand, buy a farm and put up a large electric fence – at the time he said I looked at him as though he had two heads. Looking at these gun statistics, I’m now looking for the property.

Posted by Richard Williams | Report as abusive

So Bernd Debusmann has issues with guns, or more so, with gun owners. You know the type; “redneck”,beer guzzling,NASCAR fanatic. The Southern “Redneck” who likes nothing more than to down 4 or 5 shots of “Jack” and then go huntin’. I could go on with the wretched and bigoted stereotypes that Southerners have endured for a long,long time. The fact is Southerners have respect for firearms and respect for their families and friends;they are not the “gun problem”. If you study gangs in the “Inner Cities” or the “hood” you’ll see where most of the gun violence is coming from.
To stem the tide of “gun violence” Boston Mayor “Mumbles” Menino decided to sue the gun manufacturers out of business. This charade has been played out in several cities, only to be shot down by the courts. But the response has been not to name the source of the problem but to punish law abiding citizens for owning guns. Liberals will go to no end to protect their “pet rock”;African Americans. Blacks will not be abandoned by their liberal benefactors, even if it means slandering white America. So lets cut the bull and look at 2nd Amendment issues clearly without resorting to “Michael Moore 6th grade logic”.

Posted by Xmossad | Report as abusive

The Second Amendment is an example of brilliant foresight by the founding fathers of the United States of America. It foresaw the day when it would be necessary for the common citizens to be able to overthrow a government that has gotten so far out of touch with the values of the average citizen that it no longer workable. What you see is democracy at work with bumps in the road along the way. We are headed towards one of those at this time.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

Ian.

You’re making completely unsupportable assumptions.

First, while B.Free may indeed be a pseudonym, you don’t really have any idea whether it is or not. Regardless, it’s perfectly reasonable for B.Free to want to protect her identity, so as not to have to deal with opinionated, negative people who don’t really know what they’re talking about. Or, simply because she chooses to exercise her right to anonymity. She doesn’t have to have a reason.

B.Free is right about the incidence of crime committed with legally acquired firearms. It is extremely low. Gun crime is very nearly always committed using illegally acquired weapons.

And, there *is* an inverse correlation when reviewing the incidence of both theft and violent crime in areas where gun ownership is noticeably increased. As legal gun ownership increases, theft and violent crime decreases.

(Yes, correlation. Not cause. But, you can look at the decrease of incidents in the area in question, and compare it to the incidence of such crimes not just in the areas in question, but also surrounding areas without an increase in gun ownership to make reasonable and meaningful comparisons.)

Second, there’s no “‘trading’ of theft for manslaughter” here.

We’re not talking about vigilantism. Just self-defense.

If you knew anything about home self-defense or concealed carry laws, you’d be aware that in the vast majority of jurisdictions, they do NOT permit the use of force to protect property, merely the use of force as a LAST resort specifically to protect someone in cases where they believe they are in “immanent danger of death or serious bodily harm”. And, serious bodily harm is just that. It doesn’t cover simply being assaulted. It’s for when you may be assaulted in a way from which you may never recover.

At worst, that’s ‘trading’ a case of aggravated assault or murder for an act of self-defense. At best, there’s no act of violence at all. Instead they may deter a crime from occurring. (Sadly, there’s no good way to track incidents where a crime that might have otherwise taken place doesn’t, so there’s no way to really provide hard data for that.)

It’s also worth pointing out, before you go down the path of “that’s what the police are for”, that the supreme court upheld lower court rulings finding against a woman tried to sure her police department for failing to fulfill their duty to “defend and protect” her when she and other female friends were held and raped in her apartment over a period of multiple days after she called 911 to report they were being assaulted. (Units were dispatched, but did not enter her apartment because they did not hear anything, so they did not feel they had probable cause to enter.) The court ruled in favor of the police, stating that no duty exists on the part of the police to “defend and protect” any private individual.

This isn’t necessarily a case of negligence on the part of the police. It just clearly illustrates that they can’t be everywhere at once, and that they can only do so much.

Even in instances where the police might try to intervene, they are usually several minutes away, so they have no ability to intervene in situations of extreme danger before it is much too late. Ultimately, we all have to be responsible for our own defense, as well as being responsible citizens in our own turn when measuring an appropriate response to any given situation.

So, while you’re right that no one’s wallet is worth another person’s life, conversely, you’re wrong in assuming that that’s what B.Free is talking about.

If necessary, it’s possible that she may be able to prevent someone from raping and murdering her, and in that case using force to do so on her part is justified.
Hopefully, that will never be the case.

But, if it does come to that, if the government, and the vast majority of individuals represented didn’t think there were occasions where that level of force was justified, then police officers wouldn’t be permitted to carry guns, either. (No police department or armed government agency has a ‘shoot to wound’ policy.)

It’s not the gun that’s the problem here. It’s human nature. And, if it wasn’t guns, it would be knives. And if it wasn’t knives it would be sticks. And if it wasn’t sticks it would be rocks. Or something else. All of which favor a larger male attacker, not B.Free.

Removing a defensive weapon doesn’t make things better. It makes things worse. Anything can be a weapon. What makes it so is intent. What’s at issue here is intent. Just because someone has a gun, it does not mean they intend to ever use it against someone else. In the case of normal citizens, they hope very hard that they never have a situation where they may have to use it. This is not so in the case of someone with criminal intent. And, if they have such intent, they don’t care whether having a gun is legal. They’ll get one anyway. If a normal citizen can’t have one legally, then the only people who will have them are criminals (who will take advantage of that discrepancy) and, possibly, police, who won’t be able to intervene, because they can’t be everywhere at once.

And, none of us want to live in a police state, so really, we’re all better off that they aren’t everywhere at once. (George Orwell made some very good observations.)

It is a shame that people feel the need to arm themselves
in order to feel safe in their surroundings.
If one takes this route one must seek the proper instructions on how to handle,care for and shoot in the proper conditions.Also,one must be cognizant of the rules and regulations around the country for possession and use of firearms-good luck

The Wall St. felons and feckless politicians have need to worry about the wrath of the American citizens. The American dream of own a home has, for many, been reconfigured as surviving in a tent city. The actions of these criminals has established a pattern which will ultimately lead to most of us living under conditions similar to those in Darfur. Both the workers and the middle class are on the road to extinction. While owning a gun might not do any good at this this time it is unlikely to do any harm.

Posted by SamColt | Report as abusive