Editorial Board

Memo to Gun Lobby: You Won. So Tone It Down, OK?

The 2008 election of Barack Obama was a boon to gunmakers. Now the gun lobby, gathered at the National Rifle Association’s convention in St. Louis today, is using the prospect of his re-election to again stoke fear -- which may be good for the industry’s bottom line but not for the country.

Relevant figures for gun sales are hard to come by, but excise tax receipts on firearms rose 45 percent in 2009. There were manufacturing backlogs and soaring profits. Reasons for this so-called Obama bubble are speculative, but it’s fair to say that it was driven at least in part by unease among some gun owners and enthusiasts about the prospect of more gun-control legislation. The bubble burst in 2010.

Last month, gunmaker Sturm Ruger & Co. said that demand had once again spiked. In fact, the rise was so sharp that, despite increased production, the company suspended new orders until May. With Election Day in gunmakers’ sights, the Obama bubble may be back.

The triumph of a lobby devoted to expanding gun rights and increasing gun sales has created challenges for communities and states that do not share the National Rifle Association’s belief that an unfettered right to carry and use guns -- concealed or in the open, at church or at school, individually or in bulk, seated or standing one’s ground -- is the “essence of what being American is all about,” according to NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre. The second-degree murder charges against George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin have highlighted the dangers of the more than two dozen Stand Your Ground statutes that have been enacted around the U.S. in recent years.

The NRA has mastered the lobbying arena, freed manufacturers from legal liability for their products and won a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment from the U.S. Supreme Court. It has lately entered Republican primary politics, campaigning against Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. It is also advancing a theory, as laid out by LaPierre, that there is “a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment -- during his second term.”

That’s right: The president who can’t dislodge a transportation bill from an intransigent Congress is preparing to amend the Bill of Rights.

The NRA’s success in changing the laws of the land was reflected in Mitt Romney’s speech to the group’s convention in St. Louis on Friday afternoon. “We need a president who will enforce current laws,” he said, “not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners. Mr. Obama has not; I will.”

The purpose of gun-control laws, such as they were, wasn’t to serve the interests of any particular industry. It was to make useful distinctions for society as a whole. There were places where guns were deemed appropriate (hunting grounds) or acceptable (the home). There were also places where they were deemed too hazardous for society to tolerate (schools, bars). There were lines drawn between hunters, sportsmen and the like on one hand, and the mentally unstable and criminal on the other. The signal achievement of the NRA in recent years has been to erase those distinctions.

Another Obama bubble may be a financial boon to the gun industry. If so, it is one that relies too much on the politics of fear for its success. Even in this partisan hour, the public sphere still requires some respect for pluralism.

Rallying ideological opposition to the president and his party is the quintessence of democratic action. The NRA’s cocktail of fear, however, stirred by the barrel of a gun, is too strong a drink.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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