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Companies made more than $1B selling powerful guns to civilians, report says

House oversight committee accused gun manufacturers of “manipulative marketing campaigns” and profiting off violence.

Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) speaks during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing to examine the practices and profits of gun manufacturers on Capitol Hill on July 27. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Five gun companies made more than $1 billion over the last decade selling powerful “military-style assault weapons to civilians,” with their revenue surging amid an increase in firearm violence nationwide, a House committee reported on Wednesday.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform assailed the gun companies, saying they deployed “manipulative marketing campaigns” that sought to connect masculinity with purchasing rifles. Some of the gun manufacturers have seen revenue more than double or triple in recent years, the committee said.

“The gun industry has flooded our neighborhoods, our schools and even our churches and synagogues with these deadly weapons, and has gotten rich doing it,” House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said during a hearing on the issue Wednesday.

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The committee, which said it had studied manufacturers that sold AR-15-style weapons used in mass killings, released its findings after a string of such shootings, including this year in Highland Park, Ill.; Uvalde, Tex.; and Buffalo. Mass killings account for a small share of overall gun violence in the United States; both have increased in recent years.

Appearing before the committee on Capitol Hill, chief executives from two of the companies defended their products as well as ownership of such powerful rifles. The core issue, they said, was not the guns themselves, but the people who might use them to inflict mass carnage.

“Mass shootings were all but unheard of just a few decades ago,” said Marty Daniel, chief executive of Daniel Defense, the gunmaker that produced the weapons used in the Uvalde elementary school massacre, which killed 19 children and two teachers, and a deadly attack in Las Vegas in 2017 that killed 60 people. “So what changed? Not the firearms.”

“I believe our nation’s response needs to focus not on the type of gun, but on the type of persons who are likely to commit mass shootings,” Daniel said. He called the massacres in Uvalde, Buffalo and Highland Park “pure evil” and “unfathomable.”

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The other companies named in the report were Bushmaster, Sig Sauer, Smith & Wesson, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. Christopher Killoy, president and chief executive of Ruger, also appeared at the hearing Wednesday, and he acknowledged “tension between our constitutional right to own firearms and the harm inflicted by criminals who acquire them.”

But, he said, the latter should not prevent people from exercising the former.

“We firmly believe that it is wrong to deprive citizens of their constitutional right to purchase the lawful firearm they desire because of the criminal acts of wicked people,” Killoy said. “A firearm, any firearm, can be used for good or for evil. The difference is in the intent of the individual possessing it, which we respectfully submit should be the focus of any investigation into the root causes of criminal violence involving firearms.”

Deadly gun violence has surged across the country, with fatal shootings nationwide spiking in 2020 and 2021 to the highest levels in a quarter-century. At the same time, Americans have bought a flood of new guns, with more than 43 million firearms purchased over those years, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Chicago homicides over July 4 weekend eclipsed the grim toll in Highland Park

Even as the testimony was unfolding in Washington, communities across the country were still confronting the aftermath of recent mass shootings. The gunman accused of opening fire in Highland Park earlier this month, killing seven people during an Independence Day parade, was indicted Wednesday on 117 counts by a grand jury, including charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder and aggravated battery.

And in South Florida, a jury continued to hear testimony in a trial meant to determine whether a gunman who killed 17 people in a Parkland, Fla., high school in 2018 should be sentenced to death.

The House committee launched its investigation into gun manufacturers in May, following the back-to-back killings in Uvalde and Buffalo, which galvanized enough public response to fuel the passage of modest gun-control legislation for the first time in decades.

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Maloney pointed to the committee’s findings in criticizing the gun companies for how they promoted guns, which she said “includes marketing to children, preying on young men’s insecurities and even appealing to violent white supremacists.”

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the committee’s ranking Republican, spoke skeptically of laws that limit firearms ownership and pushed back on criticism of the gun companies.

“Gun manufacturers do not cause violent crime,” he said. “Criminals cause violent crime.”

Gun companies, he said, sell firearms to people “allowed to exercise their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for their protection and other lawful purposes.”

The committee had also asked the gunmakers to provide information about efforts to track deaths and injuries caused by their AR-15-style weapons. All five of the gunmakers told the committee they don’t do that.

But others have tried. In 2018, a group of investors in Ruger pushed the company to report on the violence associated with its guns. The board of directors objected. But a majority of shareholders — led by a group of nuns, and supported by Ruger’s largest investor at the time, the asset firm Blackrock — passed the proposal. The vote occurred just a few months after the Parkland massacre.

The following year, Ruger grudgingly produced the report, which was criticized by activists for failing to include adequate details. The company said monitoring the criminal use of its products “is not feasible.” In June, a majority of shareholders approved a new resolution asking the company to study the deadliness of its products and impact on human rights.

Eugene Scott contributed to this report.