The disengagement of morality
An extract from 'Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Feel Good About Themselves' (1/e) by Albert Bandura, Stanford University.
© Worth Publishers/Macmillan Learning. Used with permission of the publisher. Buy on Amazon.
In this chapter, Dr Bandura considers the gun industry from the perspective of his agentic theory. "The gun manufacturers' moral evasion of their toll their products take in human life and the fear they engender in society at large requires skillful disengagement of moral self-sanctions. The sections that follow address the moral issue."
Moral and Social Justification
The social justifications clothe guns in the symbolism of patriotism, freedom, and individualism. The most embellished justification for the right of people to arm themselves was resoundingly presented by Charlton Heston when he was the president of the NRA. He framed his justification in terms of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” In his keynote address to the NRA, Heston (1999) provided a scary list of evil social forces, both governmental tyranny and criminal elements, against which armed people must protect themselves:
The majesty of the Second Amendment, that our Founders so divinely captured and crafted into your birthright, guarantees that no government despot, no renegade faction of armed forces, no roving gangs of criminals, no breakdown of law and order, no massive anarchy, no force of evil or crime or oppression from within or from without, can ever define your Americanism. . . . The founding fathers guaranteed this freedom because they knew no tyranny can ever rise among a people endowed with the right to keep and bear arms. That’s why you and your descendants need never fear fascism, state-run faith, refugee camps, brainwashing, ethnic cleansing, or especially, submission to the wanton will of criminals.
In an invited address at Stanford University sponsored by the Stanford Speakers Bureau, Heston’s successor as president of NRA, Sandra Froman (2007), reaffirmed the constitutional right of individuals to have firearms to defend themselves:
The simple truth, born of experience, is that tyranny thrives best where the government need not fear the wrath of an armed people. . . . I’m proud to be an American gun owner, and grateful to live in a country where the basic human right of self-defense is guaranteed by a constitutional provision, and where that constitutional provision, the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, is there to protect all of the other rights that we hold so dear.
In 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill granting individuals with a permit to carry concealed loaded weapons in their own states and the right to do so in other states, regardless of their gun policies. In justifying this law, Congressman Chris Gibson equated guns with freedom: “This bill is about freedom” (Collins, 2011). It is ironic that promoting a bill in the name of freedom takes away the freedom of inhabitants in other states that have chosen to disallow carrying concealed firearms.
In Froman’s (2007) view, permission to bear arms has been especially liberating to immigrants and those of lower socioeconomic status: “If you look at history, gun bans have been used, many times, to prevent people of lower economic classes or immigrants from protecting themselves.”The notion that guns are a blessing for immigrants and disadvantaged populations stands in stark contrast to reality. In fact, these are the very populations that are disproportionately the victims of gun violence (Cole, 2013). Guns take the heaviest toll of life in ethnic-gang turf wars, in fights over territorial rights for lucrative drug dealerships, and when used by others living a life of crime. Drive-by shootings in disadvantaged neighborhoods also take a toll on innocent lives. Nannette Hegerty, the police chief of Milwaukee, described the scene on the streets of the inner city: “We’re seeing a very angry population, and they don’t go to fists anymore, they go right to guns” (Zernike, 2006). We shall see shortly that the marketing practices of the gun industry make it easy for powerful firearms to fall into the hands of minors and criminals. Heston also used the poor to justify opposition to banning the easily concealed “snubbies”: “The black and Hispanic women who clean office buildings until 3 a.m. and then walk home—of course, they want a handgun in their purse” (Hornblower, 1998).
In proclaiming the liberating power that subjugated people experience when armed, Ron Schmeits, one of Froman’s successors as president of the NRA, told cheering gun-rights advocates that had the German people been armed during the Holocaust, “we wouldn’t have had the tragedy we had there” (Altherr, 2009). The notion that a small group of armed citizens could have overthrown the crushing Nazi regime far exceeds any bounds of credibility. In the genocidal bloodbaths resulting from political mayhem in Africa, armed factions are slaughtering each other in appalling numbers with deadly weaponry supplied by Western nations.
Richard Feldman, an executive of a trade group representing gun manufacturers, invoked better self-defense as another type of justification for enhancing the lethality of guns: “If the gun has more stopping power, it is a more effective weapon” (Butterfield, 1999). The escalation of firepower is of the industry’s own making. Recall that police were forced to adopt deadlier firearms because they were being outgunned by criminals. Some fringe groups with conspiracy mindsets are fueling rage over their marginalization and troubles with the law. They are heavily armed to protect themselves against an expected assault by governmental forces. However, the general public is not arming itself against social forces threatening to deprive them of their freedom of speech. Should such threats occur, they are countered by congressional and judicial means, not by armed force.
Metaphors do the heavy lifting in sanitizing the policies and practices of the gun industry. In the opening remarks of her talk at Stanford University, Sandra Froman (2007) equated guns with freedom of speech and continued the metaphoric theme throughout her talk: “Now I’m sure you expected the President of the NRA to talk about guns, and I’ll get to that. But the fight over your right to keep and bear arms and the fight over your right to speak out and make a difference are all a part of the same fight to protect and preserve the freedom that we Americans have as our brithright.” People came to hear Froman address gun issues being debated nationally. Instead, they heard a diversional lecture devoted mainly to safeguarding the First Amendment. The students provided a forum for the NRA president to speak freely on gun issues.
After the metaphoric mutation of guns into free speech, Froman presented a historical analysis of the social changes in punitiveness for speaking out on controversial matters. She proclaimed her resolute defense of free speech against “social censors or government gag rule”:
What could happen to you in America if you said the wrong thing at the wrong time? In 1775, if you said the wrong thing at the wrong time, you could be tried for treason and hanged. In 1875, if you said the wrong thing, you might be ostracized by your peers or lampooned by the press. In 1975, if you said the wrong thing, you might get punched in the nose—on the other hand, you might get elected. Today, if you say or do the wrong thing, you might look up from your desk to find that you are today’s thought police victim. . . . I’m here to defend outspoken points of view. I’m here to defend a marketplace of ideas that’s not policed by social censors or government gag rules (Froman, 2007).
The point at issue is not the marketplace of ideas but rather the marketplace of guns. I am sure that Wayne LaPierre does not like being called a “gun nut,” nor do advocates of gun regulation like to be called “loony leftists.” However, both sides are free to say whatever they want about each other and their gun policies. They are doing so unrestrained by any formal social sanctions or legal prohibitions.
Froman (2007) then deplored the misuses of the First Amendment to justify protection of “marginal speech”: “The First Amendment is supposed to protect our right to speak out on subjects of public importance. Yet the First Amendment has been treated so cavalierly of late that its core purpose, the protection of political speech, has been dangerously diminished. At the same time, the First Amendment has been used to justify protection of marginal speech that would make our founding fathers blush and turn over in their graves.” Quite the contrary. The founders can repose serenely because the opposing constituencies are assailing each other unmercifully on the airwaves, in political campaigns, and on the floor of Congress with impunity.
The First Amendment was designed to protect all kinds of speech – including “marginal,” offensive, deranged, or vile speech. Indeed, the Supreme Court has allowed very few exceptions to the constitutional protection of free speech. Froman suggests that protection of “marginal speech” diminishes the fundamental purpose of the amendment. Defending “marginal speech” does not diminish the amendment. Rather, it testifies to its robustness.
Froman did not name the “thought police” who she claimed prohibit free speech. Nor did she describe the nature of the “marginal speech”: “People started twisting words as weapons, to gag their critics, to attack their political foes, to plead victimhood, or claim the moral high ground.” Froman (2007) went on to describe the costs to society of silencing those it does not want to hear, citing Pasteur and Einstein as examples:
In an open marketplace of ideas, you’re always going to have a few crazy ideas, but by opening the door wide enough to allow those in, you also open the door to brilliant, world-changing ideas, from people like Louis Pasteur and Albert Einstein, both of whom were ridiculed at first by their professional colleagues for their uncommon views. The fact is, by seeking to silence those it doesn’t want to hear, society is also silencing those it needs to hear.
Here again Froman focused on the wrong issue in the wrong marketplace, and on the wrong constitutional amendment. This triple evasion required a lot of linguistic camouflage.
In sum, speech about guns is not socially prohibited. By a linguistic sleight of hand that equates guns with free speech, Froman converted the Second Amendment, which affirms the right to bear arms, to a free-speech issue covered by the First Amendment. Her diversionary talk illustrates the power of language to mask what one does not want to talk about.
Most of the public alarm and controversy over gun violence centers on high-powered, semiautomatic rifles because of their enormous killing power. This type of firearm was styled after the military’s automatic M-16, which was designed for instant mass killing on the battlefield. The civilian versions, with their large-capacity magazines, especially the Bushmaster AR-15, were used in mass killings (Follman, Aronson, & Lee, 2013).
Gun bans require specification of firearm features. The original federal assault weapons ban of 1994 listed several accessories of military rifles, including a pistol grip, detachable magazine, grenade launcher, and flash suppressor. In this compromise bill, a rifle was legal if it included only one of those features, so it was easy to circumvent the law. Semiautomatic firearms are vigorously protected by the gun industry because they are the most profitable items. As a result, heated semantic battles are fought over what a militarized rifle in civilian life should be called (Goode, 2013). Those who try to tighten gun laws call them “assault weapons.” Gun advocates call them “modern sporting rifles.” It is ironic that the gun industry itself advertised these rifles as “assault weapons” before linguistically sanitizing them as “sporting rifles.” At first, the NRA refused to sell Phil Peterson’s Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Assault Weapons on its web site, but readily did so when Peterson retitled it Buyer’s Guide to Tactical Rifles. Peterson said that after the 1994 ban, the gun industry “moved to shame or ridicule” those who called the militarized guns assault weapons (Goode, 2013). In the final analysis, restricting certain features would make little or no difference, because the gun industry will find ways to circumvent the bans.
After the gun lobby renders a ban ineffective, the difficulty in showing that the ban has any effect has been cited as evidence that gun regulations are ineffective. This neutering process is illustrated by a California law designed to slow down reloading. The law required empty magazines to be detached with a tool rather than with a finger (“Bullet button” used, 2012). It did not take gun makers long to find a way around this requirement. They simply devised a button that releases the magazine with the tip of a bullet and defined the bullet as a “tool.” The gun makers called the “bullet button” assault weapon “California Legal.” As this failed effort shows, whatever gun features are banned or altered the gun industry finds a way around them, mechanically and linguistically.
Reducing moral self-sanctions by means of advantageous comparisons is typically achieved by contrasting one’s harmful activity with more egregious inhumanities. John Risdall, president of the gun manufacturer Magnum Research, used this common mode of corporate exoneration: “But don’t tell me I’m immoral for selling this product. Did the people at Honeywell who were making components for nuclear weapons feel they could be doing something immoral? I don’t think so. It was a business” (Diaz, 1999).
Heston used the Nazi persecution of the Jews in comparative justification for people arming themselves. He likened gun-regulation advocates to the Gestapo in terms of their pervasive dictatorial power: “I remember when European Jews feared to admit their faith. The Nazis forced them to wear six-pointed yellow stars sewn on their chests as identity badges. It worked. . . . So what color star will they pin on our coats? How will the self-styled elite tag us? There may not be a Gestapo officer on every street corner yet, but the influence on our culture is just as pervasive” (Heston, 1997).
The gun industry favors morally uplifting comparative associations, however. By equating guns with freedom of speech, the gun industry creates a comparison that is morally elevating. In an example of how the industry achieves this by linking its wares to just causes fought for by revered social reformers, Sandra Froman (2007) cited both Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks for moral uplift:
Look at Susan B. Anthony. She demanded her rightful inheritance when she spent the last half of the 19th century fighting to give women the right to vote. And soon women everywhere realized that this was a birthright that should never have been denied. . . . What if Rosa Parks didn’t reclaim her share of freedom, by refusing to move to the back of the bus? Thanks to Rosa Parks, no one has to go to the back of the bus, whatever your color.
Such comments are a diversionary, exploitation of the woman suffrage and civil rights movements in the service of the gun industry. Neither Susan B. Anthony nor those she inspired won women’s voting rights with guns. Rosa Parks sparked the civil rights movement by nonviolent resistance to institutionalized discrimination. Given her commitment to social change by nonviolent means, she would probably be appalled to see her name used in support of the gun industry. For its comparative ennoblement, the NRA also recruited George Mason and Patrick Henry, who fought for the Bill of Rights, and distinguished scientists such as Einstein and Pasteur. Froman (2007) added other political figures and social reformers for comparative moral uplift.
So before I go, I’d like to leave you with the wisdom of others who have also faced the decision of whether to fight or forfeit their own freedoms. ‘To not speak one’s thought, this is slavery.’ That’s Euripides. I say to each of you who has the courage to speak your thoughts: don’t be afraid, you’re reclaiming your freedom. President John F. Kennedy said, ‘Conformity is the jailer of freedom.’ And I say, political correctness, or ‘PC,’ as it’s known, is just another way of asking you to please conform. . . . [M]ake up your own mind and say what you believe, even if someone disagrees with you. . . . And finally, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ Martin Luther King said that.
To use President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.—whose reform efforts were silenced when they were shot to death—to vindicate the problematic policies and practices of the gun industry is not only the height of irony. It is shameless.
No one is restricting people’s freedom to talk about guns or to argue about whether the Second Amendment refers to an individual right or a collective right tied to an organized militia. Rather than misleading people with uplifting comparative metaphors, free speech is better served by public debate about the types of guns that are being produced, how they are marketed and sold, the need for background checks and safety instruction for those who want to buy them, and how to carve out the boundaries of gun-free zones.
Diffusion and Displacement of Responsibility
The gun industry does little to shift responsibility for the production of firearms itself. The constitutional protection of individual gun rights further reduces gun makers’ qualms about how the gun business is run. However, the Second Amendment does not remove the moral issues involved in producing guns that are used for killing people rather than for sport and hunting. Lethal semiautomatic pistols are not designed for target practice or hunting elk. This section addresses the gun industry’s moral disengagement from the manufacture of increasingly deadly wares, marketing and sales practices, and the granting of protections from civil liability.
Gun manufacturers make guns and then sell them to wholesalers who, in turn, sell them to retail dealers. Tracing guns used in crimes reveals that criminals often get their guns directly or indirectly through recent retail purchases rather than by theft. However, not all the guns used in crimes are recovered. About half a million guns are stolen annually, and about a third of incarcerated felons report that they get their guns by stealing them (Cook et al., 1997). In a Chicago sting operation, undercover police posing conspicuously as street gang members had no difficulty buying guns from licensed dealers (Butterfield, 1998). Weekend gun shows, where licensed dealers, unlicensed private sellers, and private individuals sell their firearms, are an unregulated marketplace for illegal gun sales. Another undercover operation was conducted by New York City in Nevada, Ohio, and Tennessee (City of New York, 2009). Undercover gun buyers told gun sellers that they probably could not pass a background check, or the seller allowed a female companion to purchase a gun in her name. The gun was then handed to the prohibited partner in an obvious straw purchase, in which someone buys guns legally for those who are barred from purchasing them (Keefe, 2009). Among private sellers, 67% sold guns illegally. And 94% of the licensed dealers sold guns to an obvious straw purchaser. In a similar sting operation in the online gun market, in over 60% of the cases, sellers were willing to sell guns to undercover buyers after they said they probably could not pass a background check or were too young to buy a gun (Goldstein, 2011). The high rate of illegal sales suggests that gun laws with inadequate regulatory oversight are of little value.
Gun lobbies oppose any effort to close the gun-show loophole. They compare gun shows with shows of benign products and characterize unregulated firearms sales as an expression of citizens’ passion for freedom. Such portrayals are justifications for opposing background checks at gun shows. In the view of the NRA, such checks would criminalize law-abiding citizens:
They [gun shows] are no different than book fairs, car shows or country cross-stitch shows—all of which share free speech, the right to assemble and the right to peaceable commerce between individuals. All of these assemblies represent the same thing: a gathering of Americans with a common passion—for freedom. . . . Anti-gunners call private individuals who sell a few guns from their personal collections—their personal property—the so-called ‘gun show loophole’ . . . [u]nderstand the ‘closing’ of the so-called ‘gun show loophole’ for what it means. It would make it a criminal act for peaceable, law-abiding citizens to buy or sell guns freely as they do today. (Keefe, 2009)
There are, of course, many local gun-control ordinances, some state laws, and a few federal ones. However, all too often they are of limited functional value because some of them are cosmetic, and most are unmonitored, unenforced, and easily circumvented. The gun lobby pressured Congress to defeat legislative efforts to close the gun-show loophole by requiring background checks at those sales. Having legislators justify their opposition to even minimal gun regulation makes it easy for gun sellers to justify their sales practices. Under a poorly monitored distribution system, manufacturers and wholesale distributors can shield themselves from knowledge of what happens to their guns in sales to the public. Unknowingness by design not only assuages moral concern, but permits deniability, nonresponsibility, and protection against legal liability. An executive representing gun manufacturers, Richard Feldman, succinctly described the nonaccountability for what happens to the guns that the industry produces: “We design weapons, not for the bad guys, but for the good guys. If criminals happen to get their hands on it, is not the manufacturer’s fault. The problem is, you can’t design a product and insure who is going to get it” (Butterfield, 1999). Ed Schultz, a Smith & Wesson executive, extended this view to children. The gun industry, he maintained, is faultless. Shooters are solely to blame: “The problem is not the guns. These people that they call children, in my mind, are little criminals and . . . ought to be held accountable”(Donn, 1995).
Built-in nonresponsibility in the gun-distribution system, exemption of gun dealers from reporting and accounting for missing guns in their inventory, unregulated sales at gun shows, and the absence of a national gun-tracking system allow everyone in the gun business to disown any responsibility for the guns used in crimes. Detrimental practices shielded from consequences do not change. The gun industry dumped in Southern states with lax gun laws firearms that ended up in the hands of young people and criminals in cities with tough gun laws. Ninety percent of the guns used in crimes in New York City were bought in other states. The city won a lawsuit against the gun dealer for negligent marketing and distribution practices (Kunkle, 2008).
A number of cities and counties in California filed a similar lawsuit. In an affidavit filed in support of the lawsuit, Robert Ricker, a former gun lobbyist and director of the main gun-trade organization who turned critic, reported that gun manufacturers knew that some corrupt dealers were selling guns to criminals through straw purchases. Gun makers agreed, under pressure from larger gun manufacturers, to maintain collective silence to protect against legal liability (Butterfield, 2003).
Ricker further contended that the gun industry resists weeding out corrupt dealers because doing so would acknowledge the problem. This could create potential liability. They even canceled formal meetings to discuss illegal sales, according to Ricker, for fear that it would be construed as admission of a problem and expose them to charges of negligence for their inaction. Not knowing what happened to their guns permitted deniability of responsibility. Noting the distinction in tort law between misfeasance and nonfeasance, Professor Richard L. Abel at the University of California at Los Angeles explains that it is much easier to adjudicate doing harm than doing nothing to prevent harm. Those within the industry willing to stop the illegal gun trade were pressured to remain silent. Ricker described it as a “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” practice of evading firearms laws and regulations (Butterfield, 2003).
The California lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that gun manufacturers cannot be held responsible because they are too far removed from the point of sale (Dolan, 2001). Wholesalers also argue that they, too, bear no responsibility because they are not selling guns to the public. Both the manufacturers and wholesalers use the additional exoneration that they are selling guns only to dealers with federal firearms licenses. They contend that it is not the industry’s responsibility to monitor the dealers for what happens to the guns they sell them. They argue that this is the job of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which licenses gun dealers. However, there are too few federal inspectors to oversee adequately what the dealers are doing. The agency lacks the resources to provide proper on-site inspections of how guns are sold. Given the high profits of illegal gun sales in the criminal market, corrupt dealers will figure out ways of getting around corrective measures if the responsibility is displaced entirely to understaffed and underfunded external regulators. The societal problem of inadequate gun regulation is exacerbated by the escalating lethality of the types of guns being manufactured. In short, the gun industry has created a distribution system with scant oversight that institutionalizes a culture of nonresponsibility for an extremely lethal product.
Sandra Froman portrayed the NRA as a tiny underfunded organization run by a skeleton staff. She explained that they achieve so much legislation with such meager resources because of their high credibility with lawmakers , who have great respect for NRA lobbyists:
What I continue to find amazing is that we do so much with so little. People don’t realize we really don’t have a lot of people: we really have a very sparse staff. . . . And we’re really able to accomplish a lot. Mostly because we have a lot of credibility on [Capitol] Hill, we always back up what we say with empirical data and our lobbyists are really well respected. . . . The NRA is still playing catch up. We still need to be better of making sure we have a secure financial foundation to continue to protect this fundamental right. (Froman, 2007)
Froman’s characterizations of the NRA could not be further from the truth. The NRA is a powerful player in gun politics, not only by virtue of its ability to mobilize a passionate membership dedicated to gun rights as a superseding issue. With an apathetic electorate, a dedicated group organized around a narrow issue can exercise electoral power well beyond its numbers. Moreover, as we will see later, the American legislative system grants disproportionate power to small states with a sizable share of rural residents. The NRA wields powerful influence over legislators through both carrots (campaign contributions) and sticks (the threat of electoral opposition) (Spitzer, 2014). Although over half the state legislatures have granted the gun industry immunity from legal liability, the successful New York City liability lawsuit struck fear in the industry. It made enactment of a federal immunity law, which would preempt state laws, an uppermost priority and exercised its power to achieve it.
In 2003, Senator Larry Craig of Idaho and House members Don Young of Alaska and Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, states with small populations but significant progun constituencies, sponsored a bill in both houses of Congress to grant the gun industry special exemptions from legal liability. The bill received the White House’s blessing. Senator Craig, who was sometimes referred to as the “senator from the NRA,” was on the board of the NRA, as were Young and Cubin.
A group of law professors wrote to the Senate, opposing the bill because it had only a few immunity exceptions. In their view, the bill “would largely immunize those in the firearms industry from liability for negligence. . . . No other industry enjoys or has ever enjoyed such a blanket freedom from responsibility for the foreseeable and preventable consequences of negligent conduct” (Clark, 2003). The bill passed the House with a sizable majority, and 56 senators added their names to it. However, progun supporters had several problems with the bill that required bringing further pressure to bear on legislators. More senators had to be lined up to make it filibuster-proof. Opponents to the bill had added two amendments that the NRA strenuously opposed. These would extend the federal ban on assault weapons and the requirement of background checks on those seeking to buy guns, both of which were due to expire in 2004. The bill could have passed easily, but it was pulled from the Senate floor and reintroduced in 2005, after the expiration of the assault weapon ban and the required background checks.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence submitted a request to the House and Senate ethics committees to examine the conflict of interest of Craig, Cubin, and Young’s co-sponsoring the liability exemption bill while serving on the NRA board. Their request fell on deaf ears. When the bill was reintroduced in the Senate, it passed handily, granting gun makers and dealers sweeping liability exemption for misuse of firearms. An amendment to narrow the bill to permit cases to go forward against gun dealers who engaged in “grossly negligent” or reckless sales practices was defeated. Another amendment to narrow the bill by barring suits by municipalities claiming group damage but preserving the right of individuals to sue was also summarily defeated.
In a statement following the vote, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who had pulled the original bill from the Senate floor the previous year, defended the gun industry as being unjustly targeted: “America’s crime problems will be solved not by unjustly targeting the gun industry for the criminal actions of others” (Murray, 2005b). Supporters for blanket immunity justified it on the grounds that frivolous lawsuits would bankrupt the domestic gun industry, leaving the nation dependent on foreign gun makers for weaponry. Frist voiced this justification: “The Department of Defense faces the very real prospect of outsourcing side arms for our soldiers to foreign manufacturers“ (Murray, 2005a). The Brady Campaign planned to challenge the constitutionality of the law.
Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts expressed moral outrage at the blanket exemption of gun dealers from responsibility for negligent conduct: “The unholy alliance and control of the legislative process against the safety of our citizens is immoral, and it’s a disgrace” (Murray, 2005a). Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island expressed concern about barring individuals who have been seriously harmed from suing irresponsible dealers: “This legislation would bar the door to courthouses for real people” (Murray, 2005b).
Behaving in ways that displease the gun industry is not only politically risky, especially in southern and midwestern states, but it can be financially costly as well. Smith & Wesson agreed to set restrictions on how dealers sold its handguns. The NRA denounced the firm as capitulators. The nation’s largest gun wholesalers refused to distribute Smith & Wesson guns. Some shooting-match organizers told the firm to stay away from their events. The company was vilified in Internet chat rooms, ostracized within the gun industry, and promptly terminated as a client by a law firm representing other gun manufacturers (Butterfield & Hernandez, 2000). These concerted punitive actions had the semblance of antitrust activity. A spokesman for the company had this to say about the pummeling: “We’ve been getting beat up pretty bad, and the whole idea seems to be a boycott of Smith & Wesson products.” The chastisement brought the wayward company back in line. It submitted a clarification that watered down the agreement to meet the dealership instructions.
Minimization of Adverse Effects
Disputes about the effects of guns depends, in large part, on the different functions they serve in rural and urban settings. In rural life, guns mainly are used for hunting and recreation. In urban life, guns are mainly instruments of interpersonal violence and criminal activity. Rural residents fear that gun regulation will lose them their way of life. Urban residents fear that inadequate gun regulation can lose them their lives. In progun states and rural regions within states, politicians are gun shy about even sensible safety regulations.
As noted earlier, the production and marketing of deadly semiautomatic firearms compared to the earlier firearms lack social and moral justifiability. Semiautomatic firearms are a quantum leap in lethality. Sandra Froman (2007) camouflaged this issue with her oft-used misleading comparative metaphors and minimization of the escalation of lethality:
The analogy between old-style firearms and modern firearms isn’t too different from the analogy from hand-written manuscripts and the old printing presses that we had to the internet today. The technology has changed, but the need for the protection has not. . . . It’s true for the First Amendment as well as the Second Amendment.
These lethal firearms, in Froman’s view, are no more than a technologically advanced way of protecting free speech. Lawrence Keane, a spokesman for the gun industry’s trade association, tried to cloak the lethality of the semiautomatic assault rifle in benign recreational terms as a “modern sporting rifle” (Shear & Davis, 2015). These rifles are military-style assault weapons, not sport-hunting rifles. An executive of a trade group representing gun manufacturers trivialized the deadly escalation of firepower as a standard competitive business practice: “Just like the fashion industry, the firearms industry likes to encourage new products to get people to buy its products” (Butterfield, 1999). The problem with this comparative exoneration of the gun industry is that guns can impair the quality of life in communities by heightening people’s fear of becoming the victims of criminals wielding lethal firearms. Changes in fashions have no injurious public consequences.
Sandra Froman (2007) argued, by minimization through advantageous comparison, against states’ requiring gun purchasers to receive instructions on how to operate guns safely, except in some shortened form that can be easily turned into a token gesture: “And why should we have training at all? We don’t have a literacy test for people to vote. That’s a right that you have, just like the Second Amendment is a right.” She compared the requirement for instruction in gun safety with Jim Crow–era literacy tests intended to disqualify mainly African American voters. This is a strange comparison, indeed, of framing the requirement of safety instruction as violating a civil right.
In a speech he delivered at the National Press Club, Charlton Heston trivialized public concern over armor-piercing bullets and easy access to small concealable pistols that are the preferred weapon in criminal activities. He characterized regulatory initiatives regarding these menacing products thus: “I want to save the Second Amendment from all these nitpicking little wars of attrition, fights over alleged ‘Saturday night specials,’ plastic guns, cop-killer bullets and so many other made-for-prime-time non-issues invented by some press agent over at gun-control headquarters that you guys buy time and again” (Seelye, 1997). Efforts to regulate guns were, in his view, “merely tyranny with manners.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is the main federal agency responsible for overseeing the enforcement of gun regulations. However, under the pressure of the gun lobbyists, Congress has succeeded in keeping the bureau leaderless, understaffed, and underfunded. These obstructions have prevented the bureau from doing its job of safeguarding the public from gun violence. In the past, the president had the authority to appoint a director without the approval of Congress. However, doing the gun lobby’s bidding, lawmakers changed the law, requiring Senate confirmation of a nominee (Schmidt, 2013). Because of the Senate’s delay in voting on nominees, this bureau has had six acting directors in the past eight years.
Attribution of Blame
The gun industry attributes the blame for the escalating lethality of its firearms to public demand. Recall Olberg’s explanation of why Smith & Wesson was selling small lethal pistols that are easy to conceal: “I sell the guns that the market is demanding” (Albright, Alexander, Arvidson, & Eason, 1981). As we have seen, innovative lethality was driven by sagging gun sales and the battle among gun makers for the small-gun market, not by consumer demand.
Another form of moral evasion by selective attribution of blame is to disembody the gun from the shooter in a false dichotomy that places the blame entirely on the shooter. This is apparent in the NRA’s exonerative causal slogan “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Removal of the gun from the mix of causal factors absolves guns—and by extension their manufacturers—of any role in gun violence. This causal detachment is analogous to claiming that it is people, not carcinogenic cigarettes, that are a major determinant of lung cancer. Human agency is executed through means. The gun toter is the agent. The gun industry provides lethal means to achieve desired ends.
Guns vary in killing power. In a mass shooting with a semiautomatic rifle, the size of the magazine and the ease of reloading determine the scope of the slaughter. For example, in the massacre in Fort Hood in 2009, Nidal Hasan was able to exact a heavy toll by extending the 10-round magazine to 30 rounds with easy reloading: “He was dropping his magazines and reloading in a matter of seconds” (Fernandez, 2013). Because of the semiautomatic feature, mass shootings last less than five minutes (Schmidt, 2014). The make of the gun and the size of the magazine in the hands of the shooter determine how many people die and are maimed. For someone intent on killing a lot of people, a semiautomatic weapon with a large-capacity magazine is the means of choice. Its killing power is tragically displayed in the rash of mass shootings. In accord with modeling theory, the recent years have witnessed a sharp rise in the number of mass shootings and the number of people killed in each tragic assault (Schmidt, 2014).
A gun is inanimate, but through its intended firepower it also influences a person’s sense of agency (Selinger, 2012). The agentic transformative power of a gun is captured in an ad from an earlier era for the Colt .45 gun. It was often called the great equalizer that made the little man as big as the largest man in the West. The amount of carnage in a shooting spree is determined by the complex interplay of the psychological makeup of the shooter, the social conditions that drove the shooter to commit mass murder, the nature of the setting, and the lethality of the gun. From a moral standpoint, in addition to the shooter, the gun industry bears some responsibility for developing and marketing guns of ever-greater lethality in the competition for market share. The gun lobby is also a contributor to the causal mix by blocking any gun reforms regarding the lethality of the firearms and bullets being marketed and by staunchly defending easy access to them. Lawmakers beholden to the gun lobby are facilitators as well. In short, mass killing is determined by a complex array of facilitators, rather than solely by the psychological makeup of the assailant.
The causal cliché is widely used for deflecting accountability. William Ruger, a gun manufacturer, argued, “Guns are a matter of individual responsibility. You keep coming back to the fact that people kill people, not guns” (Ayres, 1994). Professed helplessness to do anything about mass killings is another form of moral evasion for opposing any constraints on the gun industry. One lobbyist used this type of evasion in opposing a community’s effort to ban bullets that can penetrate police body armor. In his argument, in which he euphemistically refers to armor-piercing bullets as “objects,” he claimed that you can’t moderate behavior by controlling objects. Quite the contrary. Fewer police are likely to be slain with armor-piercing bullets if they are banned with strict enforcement than if the bullets are freely available.
Claimed Futility of Gun Regulations
Construing gun regulation as futile is a novel form of moral disengagement in gun violence operating at the effects locus of moral control. In a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, one of the weapons was a military-style semiautomatic rifle. As we have seen, this type of assault weapon had been banned for civilian use. However, lawmakers allowed the ban to expire in 2004. Immediately after the mass killing, the governor of Colorado argued against stricter regulation of the gun industry: “If there were no assault weapons available and no this or no that, this guy is going to find something, right? He’s going to know how to create a bomb” (Crummy, 2012).
Recall that the killing power of firearms is heightened by enlarged ammunition clips and semiautomatic firing. The Aurora gunman used a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a 100-bullet magazine. Countless lives were spared because his gun jammed partway through his planned massacre. The governor used the alleged inevitability of mass killings by other means as a justification for exempting firearms from regulatory consideration.
Little attention is paid to the government’s obligation to protect the public’s right to safety. A gunman in a suburban Wisconsin town killed three women and wounded four others in a spa where his estranged wife worked. The mayor of the town repeated the futility justifications that fend off public demands for gun reforms: “Try as we might, these can’t be avoided” (Yaccino & Davey, 2012).
Gun-rights advocates point to the fact that killers obtain guns legally as evidence that regulations won’t stop massacres. They argue that mentally unstable people, not guns, are the problem. A gunman intent on killing as many people as possible obviously can massacre more of them with magazines that hold 30 rounds than with ones that hold 10 bullets. In arguing against a proposed law in Colorado to limit the capacity of ammunition clips, one lawmaker claimed that “it makes no difference to public safety if there are 10 rounds in a magazine, whether there are 15 rounds in a magazine or whether there are 30 rounds” (Frosch, 2013).
Gun advocates who oppose the regulation of firearms on the grounds that they cannot be regulated run the risk of hoisting themselves in their own petard. If a society faces the threat of repeated massacres of innocent people by killers using military-style weapons that no amount of regulation can prevent, society has a moral obligation to protect its citizens by banning such weapons. It cannot be a helpless victim of a gun industry. What the claim of the futility of gun regulations ignores is a fundamental question: What are military-style semiautomatic weapons with unlimited ammunition clips doing as merchandisable lethal products in a civil society?
In keeping with the selective allocation of blame, the solution proposed by the gun industry is to increase the severity of punishment for crimes committed with a gun. This translates into lengthier prison terms, “Harsh sentences for gun criminals,” as Froman (2007) puts it. The massive growth of the prison population is imposing increasing social and economic burdens on society. We turn to the high societal cost of the remedy proposed by the gun industry next.
Types of Public Victimization by Crime
Crimes victimize people in three major ways. The crime itself victimizes them. It also impairs the quality of life in the community at large. A few random shootings can strike fear in an entire community. Fear for their own safety permeates people’s lives. Many people are arming themselves. They live behind bolted doors, avoid most downtown areas, and desert their streets at night. A district attorney describes in concrete terms the life-constricting effects of feared violence: “Gun violence is what makes people afraid to go to the corner store at night” (Ludwig & Cook, 2003). Crime rates have been declining but, paradoxically, fear of criminal victimization is rising. A campaign to arm the populous requires high arousal of public fear. Carrying concealed guns in public places has been legalized by state and local legislatures. The fact that people are walking around with concealed weapons renders more of the public environment threatening. One senator introduced a bill on the Senate floor that would allow individuals from states permitting concealed gun carrying to arm themselves while visiting other states (Collins, 2009). The senator argued, for example, that this interstate gun-carrying license would make Central Park “a much safer place.” The ill-chosen example, which probably contributed to the narrow defeat of his bill, backfired. Introducing guns into Central Park could not make it safer because there had not been a gun homicide in the park for years. Converting Central Park into a gun-carrying zone could only make it a scary place.
The second societal cost of gun violence, which bears on the gun industry’s prescription of longer jail terms, is the heavy drain of prison costs on tax revenues. Lengthier and mandatory prison terms cram the prisons. In California it costs about $47,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate (Legislative Analyst’s Office, 2014). Lengthier prison sentences have a significant impact on how governmental resources are spent. Higher education and prisons compete for money from the same general fund. The public demands that criminals be put away for long stretches, but is unwilling to pay the heavy costs. Indeed, legislators get voted out of office if they raise taxes. As a consequence, prisons are draining funds for higher education. After adjustment for inflation, since 1980 spending has decreased by 13% for higher education but has swelled by 436% for prisons. California now spends more on prisons than on higher education (Sankin, 2012). As university budgets and financial aid shrinks, tuition increases are used to cover the shortfalls. The diversion of scarce resources from education to prisons drives out the neediest students from higher education. The irony of this budgetary diversion is that education provides the best escape from crime and poverty.
In the third public victimization by crime, the huge cost of operating the prison system detracts from educational and developmental programs during children’s early formative phase of life. The enabling guidance equips them with personal resources for a prosocial life path. School failure, accompanied by association with antisocial peers, forecloses many prosocial options in later life (Patterson, 1986). Dropping out of school increases the likelihood of incarceration and joblessness, which incur high social and economic costs (Sum, Khatiwada, McLaughlin, & Palma, 2009). Once youths get into trouble with the law, they cycle through the prison system, with most coming out worse than when they went in. Investment in developmental programs that cultivate children’s interests, aspirations, competencies, and resilient beliefs in their efficacy to realize their hopes pays large future dividends.
Hawkins and his collaborators demonstrate how early efforts to promote academic and social development yield huge long-term benefits (Hawkins, Catalano, Kosterman, Abbott, & Hill, 1999). In this school-based program offered in the elementary grades, teachers were taught how to manage classroom behavior and promote academic development. Parents were taught parenting skills and how to support their children’s academic work. And the students were taught how to manage interpersonal problems and resist peer pressure to engage in transgressive activities.
The effects of this early multifaceted effort were assessed in a six-year follow-up when the students were 17 years old and in high school. Compared with children in matched control schools that did not offer the program, those who had the benefit of this early developmental aid were more likely to remain in school, were less likely to repeat grades, had higher academic achievement, and were less likely to commit violent crimes, take up heavy drinking, father a baby, or give birth to one. The children from poor, crime-ridden areas benefitted the most. Society can provide prosocial guidance for children living in disadvantaged conditions or pay dearly later. Youth violence is better reduced by investment in education than investment in incarceration.
Derogation of Opponents
A poorly regulated lethal product that is shielded from civil liability and incurs high economic and social costs predictably draws heavy critical fire. Challenges to the morality and civic responsibility of the gun industry’s troubling practices are met with infuriated reactions by progun advocates. They see themselves as patriotic defenders of freedom, unjustly attacked by an arrogant, elitist minority bent on banning guns from society. During his presidency of the NRA, Charlton Heston launched the most blistering counterattack. He directed his heaviest fire at the press, especially their coverage of publicly alarming shootings (Heston, 1999). In his portrayal, “[t]his harvest of hatred is . . . sold as news, as entertainment, as governmental policy” as “reporters perch like vultures” and “news anchors race to drench their microphones in the tears of victims” (Heston, 1999). The reason for the “screeching hyperbole leveled at the gun owners” is that “their story needs a villain. . . . And we’re often cast as the villain.” Concerning media requests for interviews after a tragic shooting, Heston said, “The countless requests we’ve received for media appearances are in fact summons [sic] to public floggings, where those who hate firearms will predictably don the white hat and hand us the black.” Heston turned his wrath on political advocates of gun regulation as well. Members of the Clinton administration, whom he called “Clinton’s cultural shock troops,” were his archenemies (Heston, 1997).
With his election to the presidency, Obama drew the heavy fire. Wayne LaPierre likened him to a “South American dictator” bent on eradicating the Second Amendment. In his conspiratorial analysis, LaPierre warned NRA members that Obama was trying to “lull gun owners to sleep to win re--election.” “Lip service to gun owners,” LaPierre warned, is just “part of a massive Obama conspiracy” to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term (Markon, 2012). In his rallying cry at an NRA convention, LaPierre (2012b) beseeched his followers to “save America and our freedom.”
Other members of the NRA also characterize gun policies in terms of repressive police control. For example, gun regulation is called “political terrorism.” Development of a gun-tracking system is “police control,” and federal agents are “jack-booted government thugs.” Proponents of gun regulation are “loony leftists.” It works both ways, however. One former top lobbyist for the gun industry had some uncharitable things to say about the NRA: “You have a situation where you have a bunch of right-wing wackos at the NRA who are controlling everything” (Butterfield, 2003). And the NRA resents being called a “merchant of death.”
The fierce factional dispute is not about guns per se, Heston explained. Rather, it is just one aspect of the larger cultural war construed by progun advocates as between arrogant elitists and rank-and-file Americans who love their country and are courageous guardians of America’s cherished values and freedoms (Heston, 1997). The reframing of the nature of this war is larded with widely used oppressive imagery of “thought police,” “lock-step conformity,” “cultural warlords,” “self-appointed social engineers,” “Clinton’s cultural warriors,” and “apologist for criminals.” Within this wrathful declamation, Heston (1999) incongruously presents himself as a judicious conciliator seeking to restore harmony between the warring factors. “I am asking all of us, on both sides, to take one step back from the edge of that cliff. Then another step and another, however many it takes to get back to that place where we’re all Americans again.”
The mission of the NRA, in Heston’s clarion call to his constituents, is to defend hard-fought freedoms from zealous gun haters. In the emotive discourse, guns are linked to a list of other types of freedoms:
Our mission is to remain a steady beacon of strength and support for the Second Amendment, even if it has no other friend on the planet. We cannot let tragedy lay waste to [sic] the most rare and hard-won human right in history. A nation cannot gain safety by giving up freedom. This truth is older than our country. “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty not safety.” Ben Franklin said that. If you like your freedoms of speech and of religion, freedom from search and seizure, freedom of the press and of privacy, to assemble and to redress grievances, then you’d better give them that eternal bodyguard called the Second Amendment. The individual right to bear arms is freedom’s insurance policy, not just for your children but for infinite generations to come. That is its singular, sacred beauty, and why we preserve it so fiercely.” (Heston, 1999)
Guns are sanctified not only by association with other cherished freedoms but also by linkage to broader sociopolitical matters that resonate strongly with most NRA constituents. This is achieved by establishing one’s moral credentials through past conduct. Having behaved charitably or righteously establishes one as a good person with license to behave prejudicially in the future. This process of self-entitlement to prejudicial conduct is well documented by Monin and his collaborators across diverse areas of functioning (Effron, Cameron, & Monin, 2009; Monin & Miller, 2001).Heston used his march with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights as his moral voucher to courageously champion “white pride” in the nation’s founders, who created the constitutional gun right. This moral self-license spilled over into indiscriminate condemnation of entire categories of people who, in Heston’s view, undermine the social and moral order, including feminists, homosexuals, African Americans, and new age religionists:
The Constitution was handed down to guide us by a bunch of those wise old dead white guys who invented this country. Now some flinch when I say that. Why? It’s true . . . they were white guys. So were most of the guys who died in Lincoln’s name opposing slavery in the 1860s. So why should I be ashamed of white guys? . . . Now, Chuck Heston can get away with saying I’m proud of those wise old dead white guys because Jesse Jackson and Louie Farrakhan know I fought in their cultural war. I was one of the first white soldiers in the civil rights movement in 1961, long before it was fashionable in Hollywood, believe me, or in Washington for that matter. . . . Mainstream America is depending on you, counting on you to draw your sword and fight for them. These people have precious little time or resources to battle misguided Cinderella attitudes, the fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition, the feminists who preach that it’s a divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with the other, and all the New-Age apologists for juvenile crime, who see roving gangs as a means of youthful expression. . . . Freedom is our fortune and honor is our saving grace. (Heston, 1997)
This call to arms also illustrates the moral engagement subfunction in the mechanism of social and moral justification. Fighting gun regulation becomes a source of patriotic honor, moral courage, and self-pride. Each year the National Council of Teachers of English presents its Doublespeak Award to public figures or organizations employing deceptive, euphemistic, or self-contradictory ways. In 1999, the award went to the National Rifle Association, with special recognition of Charlton Heston for his “artful twisting of language to blur issues,” and the “invocation of patriotism, reverence, love of freedom, and the opposing use of dread words to color the opposition” (National Council of Teachers of English, 1999).
Former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, who cofounded a coalition of mayors and supports grassroots activism for gun reform, has been especially targeted by gun enthusiasts. They have branded him a “nanny statist fascist” and an “anti-gun bigot” (Barbaro & Goldstein, 2013). Their intense hatred went beyond words. One man sent letters to him and the director of his advocacy organization that were laced with the poison ricin. The letters asserted that the right to bear arms is a “God-given right” that the sender would protect to his death.
The NRA’s uncompromising opposition to any restriction on firearms gives gun-regulation advocates a lot to be incensed about. Here are some of the restrictions opposed by the NRA on the basis of the slippery-slope scenario: banning semiautomatic assault weapons, armor-piercing bullets, and easily concealable street crime guns; requiring safety trigger locks; limiting purchases to one gun a month; background checks for purchases at gun shows; requiring gun dealers to examine their inventories for lost or stolen guns; implementing a national system for tracing guns used in crimes; imposing civil liability for egregious sales practices; and banning gun carrying in public parks and recreational areas.
- For more from Albert Bandura, read 'Social cognitive theory goes global' in our archive.
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