Who's Profiting from Oakland's Gun Violence? 

As the city struggles with violent crime, major gun makers and their lobbyists are making a financial killing.

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"For most of its history the NRA was an organization by, for, and about shooters," explained Garen Wintemute, professor of emergency medicine at UC Davis, and an expert on gun violence. "But beginning in the 1970s, the NRA began to align itself much more closely with the industry, so much so that there have been times when the NRA has had to choose between the interests of its individual members and the industry, and the NRA has gone with the industry." As an example, Wintemute pointed to the gun industry's unique immunity against product liability laws thanks to lobbying by the NRA. "That doesn't help shooters, it helps industry," he said. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005, drafted by the gun industry's lobbyists, protects gun makers and dealers from a range of civil liability lawsuits. It's the first and only law of its kind to shield an entire industry from negligent behavior.

"Since 2005 the NRA has received millions of dollars from the gun industry," stated Josh Sugarmann and Marty Langley of the Violence Policy Center in a recent report. "Corporate contributors to the NRA come from every sector of the firearms industry, including: manufacturers of handguns, rifles, shotguns, assault weapons, and high-capacity ammunition magazines; gun distributors and dealers; and, vendors of ammunition and other shooting-related products." Sugarman and Langley have compiled extensive information on the gun industry's political power in their report "Blood Money." They estimate that gun companies donated between $19.8 million and $52.6 million to the NRA since 2005. This money is funneled directly into campaign contributions and legislative lobbying.

According to a recent report from the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance and lobbying activity in Washington, DC, the gun lobby's financial power "crushes that of gun-control supporters. The NRA alone has spent more than ten times as much as gun-control interest groups on lobbying in 2011 and the first three quarters of 2012."

Data we compiled further reveals the political influence of the gun industry. According to Federal Elections Commission records, executives of the Freedom Group have given more than $100,000 to federal candidates since 2007, almost all to Republicans. The various companies that make up the Freedom Group gave tens of thousands to members of Congress between 1990 and 2006, just before Cerberus Capital assembled them under the Freedom Group brand. The most prolific firearms financier was Bushmaster. Its executives gave more than $66,000 to federal candidates between 1990 and 2006, all them Republicans.

Executives of Smith & Wesson, Sturm Ruger, Colt, and Glock donated hundreds of thousands more, again mostly to Republicans, especially to senators from states where these companies have factories.

Lobbying records also reveal a staggering sum of money employed to shape federal gun legislation. Since 1999, gun companies and pro-gun groups have spent at least $76 million on influencing members of Congress. Among the most aggressive and powerful in the lobbying arena is Bushmaster. It spent $250,000 since 2005, an investment that helped secure a $5.4 million US Army rifle contract.

Another heavy hitter, Sig Sauer — owned by Swiss Arms, a foreign corporation based in Switzerland that is controlled by two German tycoons — has spent $1.3 million since 1999 lobbying the US Congress. Sig Sauer was the most active gun maker in the lobbying campaign to keep the federal assault weapons ban from being renewed after its expiration in 2004, spending more than $700,000. Both Sig Sauer and Bushmaster make millions from the sale of assault rifles to civilians in states where they remain legal.

At the state level, the gun industry, in concert with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing legislation mill, has pushed for the passage of concealed carry laws as a market-creating opportunity for new gun designs. "They started in Florida loosening concealed carry laws, and then went national," said Diaz. "For the gun industry, this is wonderful because the more reasons you can come up with for carrying weapons, the more designs they can generate. From the gun industry's view, this is a whole new market."

To blunt public understanding of the carnage that assault weapons and compact pistols cause, the gun industry has taken the fight to the public health profession. According to Shannon Frattaroli, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, the gun industry has succeeded in cutting millions from scientific research that might undermine its market for deadly weapons. "In June 1996, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment that cut over $2 million from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control's [NCIPC] budget, the exact amount spent on gun violence prevention research," Frattaroli recalled. "Essentially what that money represented was the money that was spent on firearms research, and a very clear message was sent by Congress that firearms research coming out of the center would be punished through the appropriations process. There was never an explicit ban on firearms research, but that action had such a chilling effect on NCIPC to fund firearms research.

"Is there a straight line that can be drawn between the NRA and that appropriations move?" Frattaroli continued. "No, but everyone had their suspicions. It's been devastating for the field, and now we're in a situation where policy decisions are being made, but the evidence we're relying on isn't as strong as it could be had we done this research over the past seventeen years."

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