TIME Gun Control

Smoking Guns: The Deafening Silence of the Assault Weapons Makers

Participants protest outside Cerberus Capital Management, a financial firm that holds a majority stake in Freedom Group, a company that produces assault rifles, to call on them to divest in Freedom Group, on Dec. 9, 2013 in New York City.
Participants protest outside Cerberus Capital Management, a financial firm that holds a majority stake in Freedom Group, a company that produces assault rifles, to call on them to divest in Freedom Group, on Dec. 9, 2013 in New York City. Andrew Burton / Getty Images

The companies that manufacture the world's high-powered assault rifles and shotguns are largely out of the public's eye, shrouded from the tragedies that they cause, thanks to a campaign waged by the National Rifle Association

When I hear about another military-style assault-weapon tragedy, I can’t help thinking about cigarettes.

It’s faded a bit into history now, but it was roughly 20 years ago that the heads of seven major tobacco companies were called before Congress to testify in hearings about regulating their products.

History was made when, one by one, they testified under oath that they, personally, did not believe nicotine is addictive – even though their scientists had generated box cars of data showing that creating addiction was precisely the point. One by one, the CEOs willfully deceived Congress in a roll call of commercial infamy: Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, U.S. Tobacco, Lorillard, Liggett, Brown and Williamson, American Tobacco.

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By the time the hearings were over, the CEOs were being called “The Seven Dwarfs.”

So, from cigarettes to guns: Where is that public debate with the makers of hollow point bullets, high capacity magazines, and weapons designed to harm and kill human beings as quickly as possible?

(By the way, if you want to wade into these waters, keep your facts straight. A fully automatic weapon fires bullets as long as you hold down the trigger. They’re not illegal, but they are highly regulated. A semiautomatic weapon fires as fast as you can pull the trigger. You can get one at Walmart. There is no technical definition of assault weapon, but it generally refers to both automatic and semiautomatic rifles. In fact, the very complexity of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban riddled it with so many exceptions that it proved largely ineffective.)

I’ve posed that question of the cigarette maker-gun maker connection in various forums, and I get some interesting, angry, and often logic- twisting responses.

Among my favorites:

- You can’t compare cigarettes and assault weapons. Cigarettes harm and kill a lot more people. Accountability for these two product-related deaths tolls, then, is a matter of degree.

- Why not regulate blunt instruments? More people are killed by hammers each year than by guns – including assault weapons. The fact is: if you torture the data long enough you can make it confess to anything. And there is no doubt that there is a cottage industry on both sides in making statistics fit arguments.

But missing in those arguments: of all the implements used to kill people — knives, fists or a handy vase – only guns are created to do exactly that, and only assault weapons are manufactured expressly to do that as quickly as possible. Seriously – could Adam Lanza have dispatched 26 innocent souls in Newtown in five minutes with anything but an assault weapon?

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And of course, there is the second amendment. I won’t try to imagine what was in the minds of the Founding Fathers. But I’m going to guess their thinking did not include high-capacity magazines (the ones Lanza carried held 30 bullets each) that serve up a new bullet as soon as the previous one is fired, and bullets designed to explode inside your body.

Still, as we debate statistics and parse definitions, the public is largely unaware of the companies that are making the weapons that are the subject of the debate. And that is exactly as intended.

Who can come up with the names of the top makers of semi-automatic weapons: like Bushmaster, Sig Sauer, Colt, Smith & Wesson, ArmaLite, DPMS and others?

The reason most people can’t name these companies is because of a very slick sleight of hand – executed flawlessly by NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, the gleefully belligerent face of the NRA who expertly draws attention away from the industry he represents.

LaPierre is very good at a job he is paid a lot of money to do. As long as we’re talking about his outrageous bluster, we’re not talking about the people who make a lot of money from the products he wants to keep on shelves of the local sporting goods store and laid out at gun shows.

His ability to do that is increasingly important to the industry. As hunting declines, so do rifle sales – even with periodic spikes driven by fears of gun restrictions. Long term, how do you replace that? A report from the Violence Policy Center argues that selling military-style assault rifles – re-branded as “modern sporting rifles” – to civilians has been a key part of the industry’s marketing strategy since the 1980s. Women, say gun control advocates and the industry alike, are a high marketing priority. The gun makers insist it’s for their protection. The lethal AR-15 (used in both the Aurora and Newtown killings) comes in pink. (Available now at Gun Goddess.com)

As the debate over assault weapons rages on, the deafening silence of the gun makers reminds me of a lyric in the Jackson Brown song – “Lives in the Balance.” “I want to know who the men in the shadows are. I want to hear somebody asking them why.”

Those who have been killed and injured by weapons made expressly for that purpose deserve no less.

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