Op-Ed

Hey, gun lobby, give the good guys a break

Jacalyn Carfagno
Jacalyn Carfagno

Remember that drawing in The Little Prince that looks like a hat but is really a boa constrictor digesting an elephant? That’s pretty much identical to graphs of the stock prices of two gun manufacturers last week.

June 10 they closed a ho-hum week in a little slump. But when the bell rang on Monday markets were newly excited about Sturm, Ruger & Co. (up 8.5 percent) and Smith & Wesson (up 6.9 percent).

There’s nothing like a mass shooting to reignite calls for gun control and demand for guns.

But by Wednesday the stocks had backed off the gains in part because of research at Harvard Business School that found there is indeed more gun-related legislation after mass shootings but — an important “but” — what passes generally loosens restrictions on guns.

This is true in Republican controlled states. In Democratic states stricter controls are proposed but don’t pass, the researchers found.

More horrific mass shootings followed by laws that make it easier for shooters to get guns? What else don’t we know? A lot, it turns out.

An article in HBS Working Knowledge, the school’s online forum, pointed out the school has the unusual ability to self-fund most of its faculty and graduate students’ research, meaning it’s not beholden to an interest group or industry. There’s not a lot of that kind of research around gun violence because 20 years ago Congress pretty much ended federal funds for it.

And that, one of the Harvard researchers suggested, is why we seem frozen on what to do about gun violence other than deplore it.

“Lack of evidence on the types of policies that are most effective is one potential reason that voters and political parties can’t even agree on which laws they should target, and whether to loosen or tighten them,” said HBS professor Deepak Malhotra.

Both Smith and Wesson and Sturm, Ruger complained about this chaotic political landscape in the annual reports they file with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Called Form 10-K, a standard section in them is “risk factors.” Usually companies drone on about stuff like competition and litigation, currency fluctuations.

But Sturm, Ruger turned up the heat in its discussion of risks associated with gun control legislation.

There’s a long moan about how guns “are subject to thousands of federal, state and local governmental regulations.” And it never ends: “literally thousands” more are being proposed. “If even a small percentage of these laws are enacted and they are incongruent, the Company could find it difficult, expensive or even practically impossible to comply with them.”

Smith & Wesson sings the same song: “Proposed bills are often varied ... we could find it difficult, expensive, or even impossible to comply with them.”

You almost have a tear in your eye for the impossible task faced by the management of these companies under assault by wild-eyed legislators everywhere.

From all their whining, you’d think they’d agree with the Harvard guys on the need for solid, unbiased research on the most effective ways to limit gun violence. It would be one path to rational, consistent legislation and end all this uncertainty. No chance.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, whose chairman is on Smith and Wesson’s board, is dead-set against federal research into gun violence. The NRA, represented on Sturm’s board, orchestrated the withdrawal of funding in 1996 and leads the charge against efforts to restore it.

This seems to me not only bad public policy but bad business.

As the gun-control movement gains sophistication, it will become more effective. There will be a tipping point in our huge national debate one day, and it won’t tip in favor of those who make money manufacturing and selling guns.

Institutions have begun to divest gun stocks from portfolios. Walmart no longer sells the semi-automatic rifles commonly used in mass murders.

The gun lobby creates a world where we either say no to even studying how to keep bad guys from getting guns or accept that good guys won’t have the guns to protect us. Said that way, it sounds like silly dialogue in a campy ’50s Western.

I think they’d be smarter to encourage research to find ways to keep guns away from bad guys and give the good guys a break.

Reach editorial writer Jacalyn Carfagno at 231-1652.

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