Congress, spurred by violent tragedies in Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, New York; and elsewhere, may soon pass modest bipartisan gun-reform legislation. The bill would bolster red-flag laws meant to prevent dangerous individuals from owning guns, strengthen background checks of all gun buyers and amplify penalties for gun-trafficking crimes. Mental health programs and school security would receive more federal funding.
The bill is a step forward and, as my colleagues on Bloomberg Opinion’s editorial board have noted, is better than doing nothing. But it’s simply not enough.
Too many guns are on the streets already, and high-powered, military-grade handguns, long guns and rifles remain readily available. Gun violence in the US is far more ubiquitous than in other affluent countries, and there are more civilian-owned firearms than people in America.
Sales of military-grade firearms need to be curtailed as soon as possible — and without waiting on Congress. President Joe Biden should issue an executive order preventing the departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury — any federal agency — from awarding contracts to small-arms manufacturers that sell comparable weapons to average citizens. Gunmakers would be forced to choose with whom they do business: soldiers or citizens.
The world’s biggest gunmakers sell their wares to the US government as well as average Americans. That list includes large overseas manufacturers such as Glock GmbH, Beretta Holdings, Sturm Ruger & Co., Heckler & Koch GmbH and Sig Sauer’s parent company, L&O Holding GmbH. US-based companies such as Colt’s Manufacturing Co. and Smith & Wesson Brands Inc. are big players as well. Daniel Defense, a much smaller US manufacturer that makes the AR-15 assault-style rifle that was used in the Uvalde massacre, also does business with the federal government.
How potent would an executive order like this be? It would depend on how much it would hurt the bottom line of companies that sell to the government. Many of the companies are privately held, so their annual revenue and earnings aren’t freely available. Sales at Smith & Wesson, which is publicly traded, doubled to more than $1 billion last year. The company estimates that about 94% of its revenue came from consumer sales last year; the federal government and law enforcement made up only 6% of its sales.
I’m going to presume that Smith & Wesson’s sales mix might be a proxy for most gunmakers, and based on my review of federal contract data at USASpending.gov, it probably is. Daniel Defense, for example, told Forbes in 2017 that 90% of its revenue came from consumer sales.
In that context, here are a few takeaways from those figures: 1) It should worry you that gun proliferation is so extensive that average consumers have more small arms than law enforcement and the military (have a look at this map and data if you want to be alarmed further); 2) Gunmakers might simply walk away from federal contracts if they are forced to make a choice; and 3) Sales aren’t the only leverage the White House has with gunmakers.
Should gunmakers forgo government sales after an executive order, they would lose a valuable marketing partner. Handgun sales in the US took off in the 1980s in part because Beretta and Glock marketed their guns as the preferred weapons of the military and police departments. Fetishizing guns as the tools of warriors and sheriffs has proved to be a wildly successful marketing strategy for gunmakers. Visits to their websites show how much military bravado is still central to their messaging. Would they want to give up their marketing mojo and lose a chunk of their sales if the federal government walked away from contracts?
There are lots of details that would have to be worked out for an executive order like this to be effective. Gunmakers and their lobbyists would denounce the White House as anti-consumer and invoke the Second Amendment. But if the Biden administration is prepared to weather the inevitable blowback, and possibly enlist local police departments to adopt a similar strategy with their own purchasing contracts, it could prove to be a forceful response to gun violence.
“It’s a fascinating idea, but all of the legal, constitutional and feasibility issues would turn on how an executive order would be implemented,” said Eric Ruben, a professor at the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Perhaps the executive order could apply contractual limitations only to military-style assault weapons. Hunters could still get their rifles. Sporting enthusiasts could have their guns. People who want to carry a modest firearm to protect themselves wouldn’t be affected. The police could still get the firepower they need. But potential mass shooters wouldn’t have access to the kind of weapon used at Uvalde and other horrific crime scenes.
Going this route would allow the White House to circumvent a Congress that hasn’t responded to what a clear majority of voters want: meaningful gun reform. And it would get there by using the power of the federal government’s purse.
(Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates gun-safety measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering U.S. business and politics. A former editor and reporter for the New York Times, he is author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.”
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