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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Ahhhhh…Kiki! Awesome! You is one bright human. I’m with you T O T A L Y! As a Vietnam infantry vet,and student of human history, I got it… Try out

Posted by Dirk | Report as abusive

Wow, some amazing stuff posted, and since it is www the world might wonder what has gone wrong here. But from my own view, a gun owner for 55 years, hunted and target shooter, whom could probably our shoot 95% of those posting, just some observations
A. Most of the paranoid posters are nearly 100% rational and echoes of the WACO bunch, AKA “they are coming to get us so we built a fort” etc.
B. The “I am legal as I have a permit so I can defend me and loved ones etc” are exactly the same things the gang banger “ranger” members say, that do not have the “benefit” of being “legal with the gun”
C,NOTHING is more frightening to cops then to respond to a scene advised “crook with gun, citizen with gun”
D. Nothing is more frightening then a “ciitizen with a gun, 19 rds it and two more 19 rd clips running about town and only had fired it on “target range AKA paper punching” and is inside the theoretical “stop the robbery scenario” so many bring up and I am in same place
E. VEery amusing to see where “can use our guns to stop the government etc”..yep can just see these big mouths when a tank pulls up at their house.. or a 50 cal squirts few through there front door.
F. Observation. I NEVER met a vet after WW2 or Korea and few from NAM that actually wanted a WW2 M1 rifle-carbine, A M14 rifle or M16 or AK, although a very few did, I never met one. Most of those drafter NEVER wanted to see a military type gun ever again.. But now with no draft and only lower end and lifer families attending military, most whom can afford the guns as I have seen, never wore uniform other then a fast foods shop. Seems those that never served want to play soldier with miltary type guns then those that did serve..
G. I am amused at the fools that post and seems hung up on crime and the use of “IF” as in “if they come in, kill, you rape etc. as to hype the “I am a hero and will not let that happen, so you are scum”..probably are as dangerous to family as are the “criminal” but love to operate ih the hypathetical…
SO for all that so love their guns and need 20 round handguns, 30 round or more for their “look at me with my bushmaster, AK or M16 etc playing Minuteman defending the town, swat cop or soldier”. I can only advise you wanna be hero’s. IF YOU SHOOT SOMEONE, or as you so often put it while playing the some sort of vigilante savior of USA “bust a cap on them”

Posted by Chuck | Report as abusive

In response to Van,

I’m not one who typically responds to posts like this, because I’m pretty much a ‘peacekeeper’ and don’t care too much for debate. However, I just want you to know that while your comment about racism may be correct for some people wanting to purchase firearms (as it is probably correct for many people NOT purchasing firearms)that is not the case for everbody. Unfortunately racism does exist, and from all sides. Let me just say this up front. I am white. The current state of our country and our economy has created a desire to purchase a handgun for protection, and I aim to do so soon. However, I have never once considered the skin color of the person who could potentially be a ‘threat’ to me, and have NEVER even considered such race riots like in LA until your comment.

I have operated firearms since I was a young child, and have only owned a rifle until now. However I’ve seen the social unrest that can come economic crashes, and I do intend to be prepared.

You’ll notice that in the article it made a comment that a majority of the people living in tent city’s around the country are white, seems to me that they could potentially pose greater threat than anybody else, regardless of skin color. Let’s see, moving from a 4br/3ba house with all the modern amenities to living in a tent with no running water and no sewage/facilities. It would be enough to make me pretty desperate.

It makes me sad to see so many things come down to race. Racism does exist but many people DO see past the color of the skin and see threatening people as more than their ‘race’.

Posted by Sara | Report as abusive

Um, No. This is Not about the economy. “This” – being the rush to buy handguns. No, this is about the clear evidence that the Left is rabidly pursuing their agenda whenever and wherever possible. If you think that you might want a gun a sometime in the future, well buddy, that future is now. Your opportunity – notwithstanding the recent Supreme Court ruling – may not be here in a year. That – and only that – is the reason for the rush to buy guns.

Posted by Guy Thompto | Report as abusive

Wow, a lot of supposition in this article. Not much support. Nice title though.

Posted by Allen | Report as abusive

So many words have been written here about the wrong thing: guns. The base issue isn’t guns, it’s people. So yes, I’m obviously a believer in the old “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” cliche. Fortunately, there’s usually a good reason behind the existence of a cliche.

I’m an American living in Scotland for three years now, one of those “Euro-liberal Socialist States” we like to deride so much. Guess what they kill each other with here? Knives. Sure combat knives are not legal. You can’t even purchase a sharpened version of the traditional Scottish marriage knife (called a “sgian dubh” in gaelic) worn strictly for ceremonial purposes nowadays in a sheath on your sock along with your kilt during a wedding ceremony. They only sell dull versions. So the crooks buy butcher’s knives to stab with.

I’ve also lived in New Orleans (8 years), a city that beat D.C. in murders-per-capita for several years running. I was there during those years in fact, yet I feel more unsafe here in all-white Scotland. I’ve seen videos of British police “riot” vans with grating and steel shutters to protect the windows (unarmed coppers of course) being assaulted by bricks, bottles, fire bombs, and anything else a large group of deliquent teenage punks could get on-hand. Walking along streets here, I’ve been verbally assailed by the same type of punks out simply having a good laugh amongst themselves. I’m a 6’5″, 230lb. male and I’ve been fearful here. Could you imagine what a woman of small stature must feel?

Someone pointed out that it’s about fear, that gun owners are often fearful people who may need to somehow overcome it, as if it’s some type of psychological problem. I’ve met the type, having gone to college with a guy carrying an unregistered .45 everywhere he went, noting that his first reaction when someone knocked on his door was to place his hand on the grip. While it’s true that there are psychotic, paranoid people who happen to own guns (or probably knives over here), the more common owners of personal protection are simply responding to a fear justified by tens-of-thousands of years of human behavior: the robbing, raping, killing, maiming, pummeling, and otherwise violent treating of each other. Using rocks, sticks, swords, knives, and now guns. Could we ever expect apes, or porcupines, or fish killing each other off on the scale of a WWII? Nope. It’s strictly human in nature.

There are a few consequences of this gunless society. There appear to be many more robberies, thefts, and other property crimes here (probably increasing insurance rates overall for everyone). It’s also a much less polite society here (another cliche I feel that I’ve proven to myself to be true), having been treated in ways that Southerners (American that is) especially would immediately take offense to, if not downright prepare to throw a punch. But it’s simply the way it is for these people. Also, there are obviously many fewer fatal violent acts.

I suppose this last item could be the main logical selling point for those of “liberal persuasion” to argue against guns. But since most “shootings-in-anger,” or at least it was this way in New Orleans, involve members of the criminal class anyway and not your “general citizenry,” is there truly any benefit to preventing them? It happens here with knives, or bottles, or boots leaving people with lifelong injuries in many cases. Is it necessarily a good thing to lower the chance of death among the criminal class? Is it a good thing to increase the numbers of less-fatal injuries amoung lifelong delinquent addicts requiring ongoing State services?

My point is that guns are irrelevant. We’ve been killing each other for thousands of years. We’ve simply improved the numbers of each other we can take out at a time, or the effort to do it. Without guns, we’d still be doing it.

Posted by Jon | Report as abusive


it is hard to disagree with you on your point about reaction to danger. Combat veterans know. Some police know. Most civilians do not know. So you are absolutely correct. I am hobbyist gunsmith. I say that because I don’t earn any income from it. I reload my own ammunition and I understand firearms. I am proficient with many light arms. I am an experienced speed shooter and with my 45-70 I can take down any large game in North America within 500 yards with iron sights. But, I have never been in a situation where lives depended on my reaction with a firearm. I truly hope I never am. But, like the Boy Scout, I will be prepared.

As for the hunting for food, some of us live in areas that are not as populated as a big city. A Bull Elk or a few bucks would provide 6 to 8 months of meat to my family. I also think it is a moot point. Game could not support the entire US population and wild game alone is not a balanced diet. Without carbohydrates ketoses sets in and that can be lethal. I doubt the situation will stretch to that point. Even if we reach 25 to 30% unemployment there is still 70 to 75% still working and earning an income. The cattle ranches and farms and canneries still need to provide food to those working and earning so, I doubt there would be any long term disruption to the supply of food staples. This is why I would think that the black markets would grow especially drugs and prostitution and why some will turn to property crime so make sure they, the jobless, can feed their families.

I have written to the White House and my Congressmen regarding the need to ensure that the displaced are housed, fed and medical needs taken care of. In my opinion the Stimulus package didn’t do enough in this area.

Your point regarding the City/State is historically correct but, I doubt it will apply to the current global depression. Crime will rise and most will be in the cities. Sure the rural areas will see a rise but, I doubt it will be like what will happen in the city. I would hope that this situation will not cause cities to die. As you said the rural areas depend on the city.

I find your opinion regarding the moral character of our politicians flowing down by example to our citizenry to be very insightful. I believe there are many good people here but, it only takes a few bad ones to cause unimaginable trouble and since way to many are unwilling to stand up and protest (a rebellious friend of mine says the country is populated with sheeple) those few are rarely challenged.

As for all of you who came to my defense, thanks. Ian obviously has some issues that caused him to read more into my comment than was there. And for the record I am not a Dubya fan. I am not a Democrat fan either. But I might dare say that they seem to be a shade better than the last bunch of Republicans. At least so far. And I am counting on Obama’s promise not to place new restrictions on our firearms. For all that is worth.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

You are all reading too much into this author’s tenous link. President Clinton was white,there was no economic depression going on, but gun/ammo sales went thru the roof during his first administration. The issue is simply fear of additional restrictions/prohibitions. Obama’s legislative history is strongly ani-gun.
Regarding hostility and fear of social unrest,conditions were a lot worse during the Great Depression, but there weren’t mass violent uprisings.
Here in the rural areas we have always looked after the less fortunate. We may live farther apart but we are highly networked thru fraternal organizations,churchs, Grange and 4H, volunteer fire companies, veterans’ clubs, gun clubs ,etc. When someone’s house burns down, or their kid needs an operation, we take up collections to help them out. We have a guy at work whose daughter was severely wounded in Iraq. The parents had to rush off to be with her, leaving behind a working farm. Within days a volunteer group had formed that fed and watered the animals, harvested the hay crop that was ready, baled it and stored it in the barn, and even kept the lawn mowed. We help each other, we are not going to turn on each other, even though we have lots of guns, probably 4 or 5 per household on average.
With the high percentage of hunters and veterans, any nonsense that starts in the urban areas has little chance of getting very far into the rural areas. We’re not losing sleep over this.

Posted by RuralOne | Report as abusive

This column is dead wrong and exploits the situation for a juicy story. It’s an embarrassment to journalism. Fact is that people bought guns in higher numbers as they thought that Obama was going to crack down on gun laws. That’s all there is to it. Why? They looked at his limited and non-definitive voting record and acted from a fear and paranoia that has defined the American character since we stole this land in the first place. American fear and paranoia … now that’s your story Bernd!

Posted by Brian Lucey | Report as abusive

Jon, your explanation is as right on as anything I’ve ever read. I own guns; have been around guns all my life. I have yet to see a gun kill a single person. Guns are inanimate, unreasoning tools. People use guns to kill people, as well as bricks, bats, knives, rocks, and their bare hands. To those well meaning but ultimately ignorant folk who espouse “gun control” I guess the ultimate step is to outlaw all material that may have the potential to harm or kill people. Good luck with that one!!

It’s also interesting to note that the cities with the most stringent gun control laws are the ones with the highest crime rate. Most notably, Washington DC, Detroit, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Chicago. This is not my opinion but facts reported by the FBI. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. If you want a city to be truly safe, insure anyone who is responsible, law abiding and willing to take training is REQUIRED to carry a firearm. Trust me on this…crime will drop very, very quickly.

Posted by Gman | Report as abusive

In reply to Sara,
Thank you for your kind consideration. I share your point of view but I’m also realistic. The cities are still very divided according to social status and race.
I share the fact that any kind of criminal scares me, of course, and I try to stay out of the areas where it’s most likely for me to get shot, stabbed, robbed or raped (happens to women and men).

I must correct myself, though, because I wrongfully gave the impression that black populations are highly dependent on social benefits and welfare and that I implied they would be the first ones to revolt and riot. I sincerely apologize, it’s unbelievably silly to have said it and hope the reasons why L.A. 1989 happened do not exist anymore anywhere. But the fear factor remains and that is what drives the sale of weapons in America.

I’m realistic that hunting weapons won’t provide effective resistance should there be a compelling need to overthrow the government, and while there is still bread and circus in abundance, there won’t be any desire for political uprising anyway.

Posted by Van | Report as abusive

Think this is a reflection of the populace’s fear of the Govt.

Think the government may wish to ponder their actions in the context of history and fear the people. Mainstreet is not as dumb as the government thinks. The beltway no longer listens to the masses but goes about destroying the foundation of our founding fathers. Atlas shrug comes to mind

Posted by Don Green | Report as abusive

A little known quote that I once read was given to the Emperor of Japan who queried as to why there would be no attempt to invade the West Coast of America, and so instead, they invaded Pearl Harbor.

The answer: (might be a bit off as I’m quoting from memory) “We cannot invade the American mainland, for behind every blade of grass there will be a rifle.”

Had restrictions been popular then, perhaps we would be speaking Japanese. It’s a real quote and worth some thought.

Posted by Steve | Report as abusive

Gun sales have increased for 2 major reasons:

1. Gun owners and prospective gun owners believe that the liberal politicians will attempt to write legislation to ban the sale of hanguns or guns altogether. Hence the “buy some quick while they’re still legal” rush.

2. More conservative and law abiding Americans understand that they are ultimately responsible for themselves. A liberal government which is afraid of its own citizens and incapable of responsibly dealing with serious issues is just a few steps away from civil unrest.

The government and the police are just extensions of and reflect the moral code of the country. Citizens form (are) the government and protect each other, and no government or police force is large enough to control a population without the assistance of the citizenry. Katrina, LA riots, and a thousand other examples prove that law and order WILL sometimes break down. When it does, you can be a responsible citizen capable of defending yourself and those you care about…or you can be a lawless criminal…or you can be a helpless victim waiting for some other citizen to risk his life for you.

The lawless aren’t going to leave you alone just because you are unarmed. Grow up and join those law-abiding responsible citizens who actually defend the weak and enforce the law, -especially- when the simply government cannot.

Posted by Peter | Report as abusive

Mr. Debusmann,

See you at the coup de estat.

Posted by Bryan | Report as abusive

Andre’ Cholmondeley wrote:

“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?”______________________________

Unfortunately, folks like Andre’ don’t understand basic English language construction.

The second part of Article II of the Bill of Rights is a prefatory clause. The operative clause stands on its own. That being said, at the time of the writing of the Bill of Rights, the term “well regulated” meant “well equipped.” A “well regulated militia then should all be carrying modern, military style weapons, preferably of a common make and caliber.

At the time there was an “unorganized” militia as well as an “organized” militia. Clearly there was an effort by the authors to assure commonality of arms, equipment and training between both militias.

There is still an unorganized militia. Title 10 U.S.C. § 311, entitled “Militia: composition and classes” describes the unorganized militia.

As for registering cars vs. registering guns – there is no specific amendment to the Constitution that states that right to keep and drive automobiles cannot be infringed.

Nice try. How bout YOU read up a little, Andre’ hey?

Posted by Ned | Report as abusive

Maybe everyone here should take 20 minutes to read this bill. They are already trying to take your guns. .xpd?bill=h111-45

Posted by mike | Report as abusive

For those of you who don’t get it… here is a short lesson on the constitution!
The three most important words in the constitution are Government, States, and People, because they describe where the power or rights go. When the founding fathers used the word government, it always meant the Federal Government in Washington D.C… Always! When they used the word States, they always referred to the state governments… Always! And when they used the word people, they always meant the individual citizens…. Always, no exceptions! And, by referring to a militia, they showed that they were not just talking about hunting squirrels. Why is that so hard for some people to understand?

Posted by Robin Brians | Report as abusive

Dear America,

Put Rambo back in your pants.

If you think you can outshoot the person coming after you, think again. Or, maybe, think for the first time.

Posted by Jeff Burke | Report as abusive

Its funny the hypocrits we have in our country. you have people screaming bloody murder if their rights to bears arms is restricted or becomes more difficult. these people who hold on to guns are the same people people who scream fromt he roof tops about being “pro-life”. there is only one purpose of a gun: to take a life. how can you be “pro-life” yet walk around with weapons that can take a life. these are also the same people who so easy to say “let’s go bomb them” or “we should just nuke them”. see the hyocrisy?? the worst part is, that these are the same “holier than thou” bible preaching people who believe it is everyone else who is immoral and has lost their way. jesus never carried a shot gun. Jesus was not some soldier. Jesus was a shepard and a carpenter. he built things not destory things. its funny how we here in america are so quick to scream about our rights to bear arms and create militias. yet, we hate those in other countries who wish to the same. at least those in africa and middle east are doing it to protect their lives and lives of their families. who is oppressing or persecuting us?? we hate the iraqis and the palestinains and iranians and the north koreans, because they want obtain weapons and arm themselves and start militas. yet you see people winning and screaming about that being their right. we tend to hide behind out flag and our bald eagle and show our “patriotism” becase we are trying to protect our land and families. yet if some kid in palestine or iraq was to do the same, he is labeled as some sort of “terrorist” or “jihadist”. see the hypocrisy?? bush was successful in spreading american principals and ideals in the middle east. and you see the result of that.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive