How America is Filling up itself and the World With Guns

The American obsession with guns and violence is not unique, but it is distinctive. The US ranks 12th in the world for rate of firearm-related deaths. El Salvador, Colombia, Swaziland, Brazil, South Africa, the Philippines and some others are worse. But that is the company the US is in– not, say, relatively peaceful places like Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands.

It turns out that the Newtown shooter used a semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle and he had lots of thirty-round high-capacity clips for it. Authorities have revealed that each of the 20 children and six adults he killed was shot multiple times, but given the number of clips Lanza brought with him, the number of victims could have been much, much higher. The Federal ban on weapons such as the Bushmaster, in place 1994-2004, was allowed to lapse by the George W. Bush administration and his Republican Congress, all of whom received massive campaign donations from the gun lobby. There is a Connecticut ban, but the maker of the Bushmaster used a loophole in the poorly written state law to continue to sell the gun in the state. The Bushmaster is manufactured by a subsidiary of the Wall Street hedge fund, Cerberus Capital Management, called the “Freedom Group”– which also owns Remington and DPMS Firearms. It is the largest single maker of semi-automatic rifles in the US, and they are expected to be a major growing profit center in the coming years. The Freedom Group was sued over the Washington, DC, sniper attacks, and paid $500,000 without admitting culpability.

So, the hedge funds are doing us in every which way.

But the weird idea of letting people buy military weaponry at will, with less trouble than you would have to buy a car, is only one manifestation of America’s cult of high-powered weaponry.

In 2011, US corporations sold 75% of all the arms sold in the international weapons market, some $66 billion of the $85 billion trade. Russia was the runner-up with only $4 billion in sales.

Saudi Arabia bought F-15s and Apache and Blackhawk helicopters. Oman bought F-16s. The UAE got a missile shield. And, of course, Israel gets very sophisticated weapons from the US, as well.

The US share of the arms trade to the Middle East has burgeoned so much in the past decade that it now dwarfs the other suppliers, as this chart [pdf] from a Congressional study makes clear.


The University of Michigan “Correlates of War” project, run by my late colleague David Singer, tried to crunch numbers on potential causes of the wars of the past two centuries. Getting a statistically valid correlation for a cause was almost impossible. But there was one promising lead, as it was explained to me. When countries made large arms purchases, they seemed more likely to go to war in the aftermath. It may be that if you have invested in state of the art weapons, you want to use them before they become antiquated or before your enemies get them too.

So the very worst thing the US could do for Middle East peace is to sell the region billions in new, sophisticated weapons.

Moreover if you give sophisticated conventional weapons to some countries but deny them to their rivals, the rivals will try to level the playing field with unconventional weapons. The US is creating an artificial and unnecessary impetus to nuclear proliferation by this policy.

I first went to Pakistan in 1981. At that time it was not a society with either drugs or guns. But President Ronald Reagan decided to use private Afghan militias to foment a guerrilla war against the Soviets, who sent troops into Afghanistan in late 1979. Reagan ended up sending billions of dollars worth of arms to the Mujahidin annually, and twisting Saudi Arabia’s arm to match what the US sent. The Mujahidin were also encouraged by the US to grow poppies for heroin production so that they could buy even more weapons.

Over the decade of the 1980s, I saw the weapons begin to show up in the markets of Pakistan, and began hearing for the first time about drug addicts (there came to be a million of them by 1990). I had seen the arms market expand in Lebanon in the 1970s, and was alarmed that now it was happening in Pakistan, at that time a relatively peaceful and secure society. The US filled Pakistan up with guns to get at the Soviets, creating a gun culture where such a thing had been rare (with the exception of some Pashtuns who made home-made knock-offs of Western rifles). Ultimately the gun culture promoted by Reagan came back to bite the US on the ass (not to mention Afghanistan and Pakistan!) And not to mention the drugs.

Now the US views Pakistan as peculiarly violent, and pundits often blame it on Islamism. But no, it is just garden-variety Americanism. You’re welcome.

28 Responses

  1. One recalls Mad Albright, whose famous quote came during the latest Balkan “crisis” of the last Century, “At a 1993 meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell–who gave his name to the doctrine that the military should be used only after a clear political goal has been set, and then only with decisive force–she challenged the general: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” As Powell later recalled, “I thought I would have an aneurysm.””* This was rich given a woman who not only never even had to put on a uniform but was intent on bombing the very people who saved her skin in WW2.

    The culture of the United States over the last half century has been one where weapons seem to solve all ills … until they don’t. Giving people the means of destruction used to be a point of contention during the Cold War when the “West” was competing against the Eastern Block and the Warsaw Pact for influence and weapons revenue. Albright et al seem to have succumbed to some sort of obsessive-compulsive behaviour that mandates employing military forces to achieve dubious and nebulous ends, if only but for a lack of any other options. All this serves to do is set an example for “allies” who seek to achieve their geopolitical ends by the same means, Saddam Hussein having been one of them during the 1980ies into the early 1990ies. His eventual overthrow was manufactured by those who were consumed with his having acquired “WMDs,” another expression of the OCB of the maniacs staffing American policy centres.
    And, how many shootings have occurred this PAST WEEK in the United States? Cedar lake (IN)(almost), Topeka (KS), Newport Beach (CA), Clackamas County (OR), and, of course, Newtown (CT) (with a bomb threat as an added ‘bonus’) … more? [And I’m just reading the Yahoo! headlines at 4:44AM today] What examples are the likes of the Albrights et al showing, not only to people around the World but to those at home, by solving issues with weapons BEFORE talking things out? Yes, the U.S. HAS to change: it must change its perspective on how problems are addressed and solved, not relying on arm-chair warriors who get (at least) a twinkle in their eye every time they see George C Scott as General Turgidson in ‘Dr Strangelove,’ but focussing on ‘how’ to turn the World away from – and not to -swords.
    Now, THAT will take guts!


  2. This excellent article, and especially Figure five, starkly show that America is on the wrong path. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” We really should not be surprised at Newtown shooting. As the NRA apologists say, it is not the guns that kill, it is the people who kill. Their twisted logic seems to have some truth to it after all, because it is the violence in society that gives rise to events such as the shooting of children in Newtown and thousands of deaths with firearms in US streets. We cannot pursue a militaristic policy abroad and remain immune from its effects at home. Ultimately, it will come to bite us.

  3. What will we do about gun violence?

    Absolutely nothing.

    What could we do about gun violence?

    – Better health care where mental problems are identified and treated early and often. It will cost money but it is money well spent.

    – Use the laws of physics and chemistry to define acceptable and unacceptable weapons …

    -o- weapon should be designed so that it can not fire more than one projectile every 30 seconds.

    -o- weapon should be designed so that it can not be modified to fire more than one projectile every 30 seconds. If the design can be “worked around,” the CEO of the manufacturer goes to jail for ten years.

    -o- The weapon should be designed such that it can not fire more than four projectiles before reloading and the design should make it impossible to add a larger capacity. If the design can be “worked around,” the CEO of the manufacturer goes to jail for ten years.

    -o- The mass of the projectile should be severely restricted such that projectiles with too much mass are prohibited and anyone possessing such a prohibited projectile is presumed guilty and goes to jail for ten years.

    -o- The energy used to propel the projectile should be severely restricted such that projectiles with too much energy are prohibited and anyone possessing such a prohibited projectile is presumed guilty and goes to jail for ten years.

    -o- the muzzle velocity of the weapons should be restricted to “X” feet per second. If a legal projectile exceeds that muzzle velocity, the weapons is prohibited and must be destroyed and the CEO of the manufacturer goes to jail for ten years.

    All of these things are readily measurable with standard physics and chemistry tests, so the weapons and ammo manufactures would have no possible loop holes. either their weapons passed all the physics test, or it didn’t and when it didn’t the CEO of the company woudl pay a heavy personal price. This would cause CEOs to ensure their products stringently met the laws.

    The past laws defined the prohibited weapons explicitly so the manufacturers just changed the name of the products and legally sold the new products.

    Basing the law on physics and chemistry, means no matter what name the manufacturer slaps on a product, if it does not meet the law it is illegal and the CEO goes to jail.

    Note also that when illegal weapon are defined by their physical characteristics, it is easy to round up “gang bangers” for possession of an illegal weapon and send them to jail for a long time.

    The idea is to get dangerous weapons off the streets while still allowing sport weapons.

    • Although I live in a country in which access to firearms is considerably more restricted than the U.S. and am happy that I do, even though I do enjoy target shooting I would point out that:

      “-o- weapon should be designed so that it can not fire more than one projectile every 30 seconds.”

      … would outlaw just about any firearm ever made, including even the Brown Bess musket.

      Also, any firearm powerful enough to be acceptable for hunting even medium sized game would also be quite capable of killing a person. Since “self defense” seems to be widely accepted by the population of the U.S. as a primary reason for owning firearms (not that I think that that’s a good thing) I see little likelihood of any law that would prohibit ownership of a firearm capable of killing a person being passed.

      Short of a huge change in culture in the U.S. and an alteration of the 2nd amendment (since we all know this is the only part of the Constitution that the GOP and their supreme court are interested in empowering) I think the most that would be likely to succeed in the near future would be something like the previous “assault rifle” bill being put back into law.

      While that is being worked on we can contemplate things like the comment here by FrmrSteve. I think that addressing these issues would be even more effective in preventing these sorts of crimes than any form of gun control. The painful thing about this is that any effort in this direction would also be strongly opposed by many of the same people who oppose any form of gun control. Of course these are the same people who have no problem with the government monitoring all their communications, strip searching them, attacking citizens assembling to protest, lying the country into a few wars, kidnapping and torturing people at will or even obliterating buildings filled with people on the say so of the president but consider the prospect of federal action to make health care more affordable to be an outrageous action heralding the beginning of an oppressive dictatorship.

  4. Hello Juan, and thank you for this. It seems apt to add to your fine observations that in April of 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. made the following observation about the United States when he came out openly against the war in Vietnam:

    “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

    Later in his speech he prophetically predicted the following:

    “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.”

    He recognized that our foreign policy and the violence we see in our own country are inherently connected, and he was spot on. We have had to take to the streets over U.S. brutality in I don’t know how many countries as we continually visit violence on the global south. The U.S. is stuck in a primordial ooze spinning the wheels of its collectively reptilian brain which, as Carl Sagan observed, celebrates values of hierarchy, of authoritarianism, of territoriality, of force and violence, of the strong man.

    Perhaps if we could collectively imagine a complete deconstruction of our armaments industry and its morphing into green industry, of the morphing of the Department of War (I won’t call it Defense, that is a B******T Orwellian term) into the Department of Peace, perhaps if our neighbors could be laid off from factories that build arms and rehired at ones that build solar panels (and yes, our friends and neighbors need to be called out for their contributions to violence), perhaps if we decided to have a Department of Planetary Repair and Reparation, which we desperately need as we heat up the planet, we could start to heal this country and our species as a whole. The people and the children of this planet need it.

    Before taking up farming I taught Classics for many years at a major university. It said it all to me that when I taught the Iliad with its graphic violence I did not need to worry about anyone taking offense; but talk about ancient sexuality or Classical literature with lots of obscenity in it? That had to be taught with great sensitivity with even warnings in the syllabus about risqué material. That was not the students’ fault, that is just how our culture works: as Colonel Kurtz put it in the movie Apocolypse Now, “We train our young men to drop fire on people, but we won’t allow them to write f**k on their airplanes because it’s obscene”.

    Sorry for the long post, but in the wake of Connecticut on top of what we read about drones I feel this needs not to be said but proclaimed from the hilltops. And what more apt time for King’s words than in the season of peace?

  5. An addendum to what I posted above Juan.

    There are a number of people such as myself who deeply resent the pervasive celebration of militarism in this country. It seems the one institution that gets a free pass is the military. I have seen what they do to young people – how the military can often (not always, but all too frequently), desensitize young people to violence. These young men and women are put in horrific situations and then, without the benefit of psychological counseling are sent to live in society again, with all of the attendant consequences: high rates of suicide, spousal abuse, drug abuse, etc. Get them the hell out of the military and send them to school or to learn a trade.

    And yet try, try to find any MSM outlet that dares to criticize or critique our military – it’s all too often a story of triumphalism, and heaven forbid when scandal does come to light that it is more than a few bad apples and not a deeper institutional crisis. Or worse, the one who brings institutional rot to light is put in solitaire, such as Bradley Manning.

    “Support Our Troops” has become a finger poked in our chest that I interpret to really mean, “Do not under any circumstances criticize the military and let it run the show”. Well I have some news for the ignoramuses in the press and for those with yellow ribbons: this country was founded in no small part on the basis that the military would not run the show, that there would be a separation of powers. They had actually read and absorbed about how Rome had devolved from a republican form of government into a military dictatorship and wanted no part of it.

    As noted in my earlier post, this has got to end; but I don’t see that happening soon, since even our police are becoming increasingly militarized, with their use of drones, or their heavy armaments and pepper spray used against students peacefully protesting against income inequality, or any other number of strong arm methods.

    • I totally agree that the U. S. celebrates militarism without question. One can’t go to a football game in my part of the country without being subjected to all kinds of “Support Our Troops” celebrations, ranging from “Soldier Day” at the game to the marching band playing the official army song to military jet flyovers, all accompanied by pervasive flag-waiving. Questioning why the U. S. ever invaded and occupied Iraq or why the U. S. is still in Afghanistan brands one a communist/Muslim/Nazi/atheist hater of the greatest country in the history of the world for now and evermore

      It would be nice if even one-tenth of that glorification were given to teachers or social workers.

  6. As I recall that we trained and equipped the Iraqi army with something over 1,500,000 AK 47’s then upgraded them with 1,500,000 M-16’s. Three million battle rifles in a country divided by three diverse religious groups.

    No worries, it’s a stable country now huh.

  7. Dr. Cole’s observations substantiate the fact that the USA has developed a gun culture of enormous national and international proportions,(plus the right-to-shoot.) All of which is overlooked by the press. Even the President tries to ignore it as he speaks on the Newtown tragedy. Instead, the President and most commentators talk about the “mental” condition of the guns’users. This is a travesty with terrible consequences to civil rights. The fact is that Psychiatry/Psychology is not able to predict criminal behavior. Any psychiatrist/psychologist that claims the contrary should come forward publicly and state it in scientific terms.
    Unsubstantiated medical information such as the ability to predict criminality should not be used as preventive detention and forced treatment of people. The main victims of such procedures would be those with records of psychiatric/psychological consultations

  8. As it turned out, the killers’ Mom was a former stock brocker and his estranged dad is no less that GE Capital VP! That is, this family is accustome to hacking the laws in the ways ordinary people would never imagine.

    Although Mrs Lanza owned her arms completely legally, she hacked the CT gun law and did not protect her arms from her mentally unstable son. Most likely, she taught him to shoot. So, yes, strict gun laws are great, but peole like Lanza will always hack any laws however smart these laws are.

    link to

  9. For the debate to proceed meaningfully, there must be clarity around the terms used.
    “Assault weapon” was defined in law by (aggressive) cosmetic characteristics.
    “Military weapon” seems to mean that multiple rounds are fired with a single trigger squeeze.

    Just as important, we need to confront whether or not we want it to be legal to purchase weapons for self-defense. Right now, gun advocates talk in terms of a “regulated militia” and hunting.
    In my limited experience, most handguns, shotguns and even rifles are purchased for defending against home invasion (which is rare,) attempted rape, armed robbery and such.
    Unless we can change perceptions about those dangers, people will get all the guns they want, legally or otherwise. Is it smart to outlaw normal bahavior ?

    Personally, if my wife carried a handgun, I’d be the person most likely to be shot with it. And yet, I might get her one anyway, because of how afraid she is of being attacked.

    Rather than outlawing guns, I’d like to see us work to reduce perceptions of danger posed by these hazards. Then fewer folks would think they needed guns.

    While Spy guy above is wrong in the specifics, he is right about how to develop limits: performance-based.

    Farmer Steve:
    Our societal deference to Generals is scary to me. The folks who percolate to the top in the Army are usually the ones with the least conscience. The core value of our military is: “take care of your boss.”

  10. Semi-automatic weapons are military weapons, as proven by the fact that militaries buy them for military purposes.

    Trying to confuse the public into thinking that if it isn’t a machine gun, it isn’t as dangerous, is just propaganda.

  11. No one has ever suggested substituting tranquilizing guns for bullets. It isn’t enough of a deterrent? Or is it that killing is the real goal rather than quelling an intruder or a rapist? And going into the inevitable “mental illness” arena is nothing more than allowing humans to wrap ourselves around the evil perpetrations of those who want to make their odious marks on society – if they are ill, it’s not just a bad act done by a person. Instead, we identify the perpetrator as ill – out of his head – and look to magic cures such as psychologists or psychiatrists needing to prevent the bad acts via magic interventions. Trying to identify and stop perpetrators using the mental illness card is like predicting that there will be a needle in the haystack, going to look for it, and changing the needle’s sharpness – this all presuming the needle is indeed a needle.

  12. nothing will heappened. all will go in toutten after a few days discussion…

  13. Thanks Juan for such an informative article.
    Assault weapons of any type should have no place in a modern country, and people with “mental illness” need attention and care, preferably no drugs, prison and violence.
    When a country defines itself by its exceptionalism and military might, and uses every means to impose its way on the rest of the world by threats or bribes, it is not surprising to see serious violence in the “Homeland”.

  14. Elsewhere in this space, people have mentioned efforts to regulate the capacity of magazines, and the cyclic rate of fire, and calibers and styles and other stuff.

    For those who want to try to limit the idiocy of the Gun Lover culture, and the degree to which it has infiltrated everything, take a quick look at these little videos, which display the infinite inventiveness of our species, that inventiveness on which the remaining optimists pin their hopes that we can think and invent and innovate our way out of the Big Die-off:

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  15. “The Mujahidin were also encouraged by the U.S. to grow poppies for heroin production so they could buy even more weapons.” It is now estimated that 87% of the world’s opium poppy production originates in Afghanistan.

    There has been a positive correlation between covert operations intelligence activities and the international drug trade trade.

    As documented by the book “Legacy of Secrecy”, anti-Castro Cuban exile leaders often used their CIA-backed covert operations as cover for the international drug trade while conducting raids and other actions against Cuba.

    During the Nicaraguan Contra insurgency, the CIA had the DEA station in Honduras shut down because it interfered with Contra resupply operations. There were gasps in the U.S. Capitol when one American convicted drug trafficker testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1988 of the complicity of Latin American government leaders, including Manuel Noriega, in the international narcotics trade. It was estimated one U.S.-backed Contra leader had supplied the U.S. with an estimated $300 million in cocaine. Federal officials later called the indictment of the drug ring’s American traffickers the largest drug trafficking organization uncovered in North America to that point in time (1986). Ron Paul later suggested this was one of America’s biggest scandals.

    The NY Times #1 bestseller “By Way of Deception” chronicled the Mossad involvement in drug trade to finance Israeli intelligence activities. The ex-agent who authored the book was later questioned by the Israeli government by deposition, as they took his allegations seriously.

    • /waiting for the apologist(s) to weigh in here, to find some little cavil or rhetorical tic in these posts and comments, to try to impeach what’s being said and commented on and illuminated here. Or at least to distract and distort and scare the rest of us into accepting more of the crap that’s being pulled “in our names” by the heirs of Wild Bill Donovan and that Bush guy, was it Prescott or George 41?, and all the other lying, self-serving, sneaky, destructive, smug, vile and violent creatures that smirk and steal and defraud and torture their way through the ugly halls and back streets of that “shadow government.”

      Of course, the most of us prefer to sleep through it, or to get off on it, either real-world or via fiction and sims and crap like that. Seems to me there’s a pretty direct, if well-obscured, link between installing Shahs and deposing or assassinating elected leaders and suborning whole governments into crass and profitable illegitimacy maintained by State Terror and State Security, in places like Equatorial Guineau, link to, and other places where people just “disappear,” and stuff like Columbine and now that current Ooooh-lookie thing in Connecticut.

      Most of us love to hate Michael Moore, because he’s (ahem) overweight and a little overbearing, but he and so many others call it exactly the way it is. And know they are just a set of Laocoons and Cassandras. And many people apotheosize Cheney and his kind. Go figure.

      • The striking thing about Michael Moore’s movie “Bowling for Columbmine” is that he argues the problem is indeed not guns per se, but American gun culture. A simple trip to Toronto shows a universe of difference in attitudes about crime and guns. He even opens people’s doors at random to show that not everyone in Toronto bothers to lock them. Does this mean that robberies don’t happen in Canada? No, it means that people there are acculturated to not letting fear of violence rule their lives – which is why they rarely use their guns on each other.

        Of course, once you have the culture, people will buy far more lethal guns, setting off an arms race between every citizen.

  16. Juan, you said “It may be that if you have invested in state of the art weapons, you want to use them before they become antiquated or before your enemies get them too.”

    Indeed, I believe that the wild success of the 1991 multilateral (in fact mostly US) action in Iraq wowed those at the top, enabling a belief that US military force could accomplish almost anything. At the time it was widely said that the legacy of Vietnam – a feeling that military force was of limited use – had been overcome. This was considered a great benefit.

    Now we are once again able to see that, as Vietnam proved, military force is in fact of limited utility but hubris springs eternal. At this moment yet another huge aircraft carrier is under construction by the US. I fantasize what might happen if this ship were turned into the largest hospital ship the world has ever seen and the “battle group” that will surround it was dedicated to airborne/seaborne transport of those in need of medical attention from disease-plagued regions to which the “medi-group” of ships could sail.

    There is no chance of my fantasy becoming reality. Instead we will add another carrier to, what, the ten or eleven we already have. The capability to show our muscle, (which nobody doubts) rather than our mercy, (which the world seriously questions) will be further enhanced.

  17. I have repeatedly searched for figures on information about the percentage of total US export are military related or are armaments of one sort or another. Where can one find reliable figures?

  18. About 30 years ago I read a book about conventional arms sales and the US was #1 back then, but the USSR wasn’t too far behind. With the demise of the USSR, we now have the field pretty much to ourselves. Selling weapons has become one of the major exports of the US, just as making weapons and other materials of war have become a major part of our domestic economy. What a sad commentary that making and selling arms is important to our economic growth.

  19. Let’s see the focus on disarming nations first … then, we can talk about disarming civilians.


    1) Nations can and do commit more damage. Compared to a similar population of ~250 individual human beings, the proportion of nations which are prone to violence is enormously larger. This greater potential for violence, combined with a greater capacity for violence, makes nations far greater threats to the human race, than are individuals.

    2) A firearm is the simplest possible heat engine – single cylinder, single compression, single cycle, non-reciprocating – and, for this reason, it will never be replaced, from an educational perspective, as the starting point of all mechanical engineering.

    • “the starting point of all mechanical engineering”? “non-reciprocating” (as in machine gun)?

      Was this intended to be irony, or >snark<? One might think so, from the name you give yourself.

      If not, back to logic school for you. If that was one of the subjects at whatever engineering school you might have attended.

      We do love our guns, don't we?

    • But the people opposed to disarming civilians are usually the ones most opposed to reducing their countries’ militaries. Ron Paul’s contrary attitudes about that are now a small minority view within the very Tea Party movement he’s credited with starting. It’s all about the fear of the “other”, an ideology about the threat from within or without your borders, easily flipping like a switch based on sensationalized events.

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