The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gun capitalism — not ‘ghost guns’ or other trends — is to blame for gun violence

There are more than 400 million guns in Americans’ hands.

“Ghost guns” that were secured by the D.C. police are displayed at a 2020 news conference held by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who announced new legislation to ban the import of kits and parts used to make the untraceable guns. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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If you’ve heard of “ghost guns,” you may have begun to panic about an epidemic of untraceable firearms lacking a federally-mandated serial number and assembled from parts purchased online or 3-D-printed. A recent New York Times article warned that ghost guns “can be ordered by gang members, felons and even children,” and deemed the rising number of seized ghost guns a “crisis.” The head of a gun-safety organization called ghost guns “the biggest threat in the country right now.”

The problem? None of this language is new. It echoes 60-year-old rhetoric first used to describe the country’s original post-World War II gun panic. Then, commentators warned about mail-order firearms; Lee Harvey Oswald had purchased a war-surplus rifle through the mail that he used to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. The Gun Control Act of 1968 restricted such mail-order sales, but similar gun panics followed, with “Saturday Night Specials” in 1970s, “plastic guns” in the 1980s and “assault weapons” in the 1990s.

Ghost guns are the latest iteration of this variety of moral panic, which distracts from and obscures the most direct source of the gun violence that plagues us: American gun capitalism, with its largely unrestricted production, distribution, marketing and sale of civilian firearms unequaled anywhere in the world. That system has placed a staggering 400 million guns in private hands in the United States, virtually all of them acquired through legal commerce — including the common firearm used in the Oxford High School shooting, which was purchased on Black Friday by the suspect’s father.

Moral panics over niche firearms like ghost guns enable Americans to imagine we are addressing an intractable problem. But by portraying the gun issue as an ethical one — delineating virtuous and unvirtuous uses and users of guns — gun panics ignore the economics at the heart of the problem and contribute to worse social outcomes, like greater criminalization, while failing to stem gun violence.

The dramatic expansion of the consumer gun market after World War II inflamed the rising fear that more guns meant more guns in the wrong hands. Even before the Kennedy assassination, Senate gun-control crusader Tom Dodd (D-Conn.) denounced “the traffic in handguns between mail-order houses and juveniles, young adult felons, drug addicts, mental defectives, and persons who generally would not be able to purchase weapons in their own communities because of their background.” He validated “responsible” gun ownership — he often spoke of hunting with his sons — and coded it as rural and suburban, White and male. He sought to reassure anxious gun owners that he only aimed to regulate unvirtuous gun use and users.

Dodd brought in police chiefs to testify about how children and “undesirables” acquired guns: They saw magazine advertisements and ordered them through the mail, some of them unassembled or in need of only minor handiwork before being ready to fire. Among the most notorious mail-order options were “starter pistols,” cheap handguns made in Western Europe with barrels intended to fire only blanks for starting a race. Since the U.S. government didn’t recognize them as firearms, they could be imported at lower tariff rates and sold without minimal record-keeping requirements mandated by the 1938 Federal Firearms Act.

Manufacturers and importers knew that Americans weren’t buying these starter pistols in bulk for track-and-field events, so along with the pistols they distributed compatible steel barrels, which could, with just a bit of elbow grease, replace the original barrel and fire real .22-caliber ammunition. Importers testified to this common and legal practice in Senate hearings.

While stories about converted starter pistols seemed to outpace their actual use — the NYPD seized 5,000 firearms in 1962, less than 8 percent of them converted starter pistols — the notion of easily accessible illicit guns was scary. But it wasn’t politically actionable until the Black uprisings of the late 1960s in cities such as Detroit, Newark and Washington, D.C. Dodd played up the purported role of mail-order firearms, especially war-surplus rifles from World War II, in the disorder. He denounced “the weapons of the assassin, the hidden snipers, and the big city rioters.” White fears of armed Black uprisings helped Dodd get the 1968 Gun Control Act (CGA) passed.

The law attempted to dam the flow of starter pistols and other cheap imported handguns while still permitting higher-end firearms imports “for sporting purposes.” Within months, though, gun capitalism found a way around it.

Wily American entrepreneurs quickly discovered that the GCA failed to prohibit the importation of gun parts. For example, Saul Eig, a cutlery dealer who became rich importing cheap handguns from West Germany, now arranged to import gun parts. He converted a former church in Miami into a small factory, where he employed Cuban immigrants to assemble guns from the imported parts. Soon, the “Eig” brand of the “Saturday Night Special” — the term used to describe cheap, small-caliber handguns allegedly wielded by a lower class of criminal — became infamous.

A new moral panic emerged over Saturday Night Specials, which White suburbanites imagined to be responsible for spiking crime rates in increasingly Black cities. In the media, police complained that the Specials’ low-quality metal warped with each shot fired, presenting ballistics challenges. The guns’ identification with cheapness implied easy accessibility for the unvirtuous: the poor urban Black populations imagined to be singularly criminal.

But data suggested that the concern was misdirected. A 1977 study of nine large cities by the Police Foundation found that the three guns most often seized by police departments were marked Smith & Wesson, Colt and Harrington & Richardson — all traditional manufacturers founded in the 19th century whose brands were not associated with cheapness, as the Specials were. These iconic manufacturers let the Eigs of the gun industry take the heat for rising crime rates while they continued to arm Americans and to compete quietly in the cheap, small-caliber, concealable handgun market.

Gun panics operate on the specter of random violent crime, which has never represented the majority of gun deaths; Americans were and are much more likely to suffer gun violence at their own hands or those of people they know.

Subsequent gun panics followed a similar pattern: authorities and the media would use moralistic language to denounce a small segment of gun commerce as responsible for changing patterns of violent crime, and push for reforms to criminalize an imagined unvirtuous gun user. The arrival of handguns from Austrian manufacturer Glock, which replaced some metal or wood parts with polymers, led to a panic over “plastic guns” in the mid-1980s. Later that decade, attention shifted to “assault weapons,” and the press especially hyped the AK-47, which was imported in greater numbers from China at the end of the Cold War. Eventually President Bill Clinton banned their importation after foreign manufacturers modified them to bypass the 1994 assault weapons ban. Domestically, the ban’s emphasis on mostly cosmetic features of firearms encouraged manufacturers to redesign weapons to fit new regulations. Once again, gun capitalism found a way.

Of course, given the United States’ history of racialized criminalization, who the virtuous and unvirtuous were in these discourses was never in doubt. Many states increased penalties for gun crimes in concert with the rise of mass incarceration since the 1970s, which disproportionately harmed people of color. These efforts further punished young Black men in cities caught between the twin forces of deindustrialization and the crack epidemic of the 1980s. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban was signed into law as part of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which arguably did more to exacerbate the United States’ unparalleled mass incarceration crisis than it did to reduce overall levels of gun violence.

For seven decades, gun panics have shaped gun control politics and policy, resulting in a discussion driven by distinctions between virtuous and unvirtuous gun use. Such a dichotomy obscures the fundamental reality of gun life in America: Gun capitalism has put more than 400 million guns in Americans’ hands. Despite successive panics, guns remain largely unregulated because we have only narrowly targeted what we perceive to be unvirtuous gun use and users. What regulations we do have merely sanction that confounding commerce. The Oxford suspect’s father, for instance, was just one of nearly 700,000 Americans who tried to buy a gun legally during the week of Black Friday, a data point we know because the FBI vetted and, if precedent is any indication, approved upward of 99 percent of them.

In 1945, there was one gun for every three Americans; today we have more guns than people. Our guns-everywhere culture grew not out of some historical affinity for firearms but in tandem with the postwar boom of consumer capitalism. Cyclical calls for regulating the newest perceived threat to the tenuous status quo of virtuous gun ownership — in this case, the panic over ghost guns — only obscures the broader market dynamics that have armed a population for violence and conflict.