“It is difficult to get a man [sic] to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” – Upton Sinclair.
After watching seven lobbyists from the weapons industry give presentations to diplomats negotiating the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) last week, I left the vast UN conference room feeling deeply upset and disturbed. As they dissembled, manipulated the evidence and dismissed the need for strong controls on the transfers of small arms and ammunition (that cause the majority of the world’s conflict casualties), I wondered “How do they sleep at night?” Their choice of words, discourses and ideas were so foreign to my world. What kind of person could give so callous a presentation and feel that all was well with their soul?
As a humanitarian aid worker and researcher in several places deeply affected by armed violence – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Sudan, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Uganda and Kenya – I have listened to hundreds of people who have had their lives torn apart by war. For all my selfishness, ambition, fickle attention and numerous other faults, I simply could not have performed the smooth, self-confident propaganda offered by the arms lobbyists last week, without being racked by guilt and a sense of self-betrayal.
So how do they do it? Observing the gun lobbyists sitting in conference sessions, most of them seem to be well-mannered, congenial, erudite and intelligent people. What kind of view of the world do you have to have in order to represent, in good conscience, an industry that profits from the killing and maiming of thousands of people?
To try to answer this question, I have spent the past week carefully reading through the transcripts of arms lobbyists’ presentations to the conference, as well as their other public statements on the ATT. I looked for the discourses, assumptions and ideas implicit in the text, to discern the ideology that leads someone to believe that weak controls on the global arms trade – currently less regulated than the trade in bananas – would be a good thing. I tried to understand what the world would look like if the only guide you had was the weapons industry.
I found that arms lobby discourse relies on a radically individualistic and confident notion of the Self – a kind of frontierist or vigilantist masculinity, more preoccupied with the importance of preserving the right to hunt or the heritage of “antique weapons” than the humanitarian impact of a world awash with AK-47s.
A representative of the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities (WFSA) made a snide remark about campaigners’ “emotional presentations.” He and other lobbyists patronizingly referred to the Control Arms campaign as “well-intentioned”, “well-meaning”, “naïve” and, in the words of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) lobbyist, “laudable in their idealism, but completely lacking in their practicality.”
The gun lobbyists set themselves up as flinty, “practical”, “realistic” men of the world, aware of “the big picture.” But in doing so, they failed to acknowledge that the “real world” they referred to is partially of their own making, the result of their own efforts to impoverish human life to self-defined “practical considerations.”
For example, SAAMI dismissed the regulation of the global trade in ammunition as too complex because of the “shear [sic] numbers involved.” But of course, the “sheer numbers” only exist because the companies like the ones SAAMI represents choose to produce and sell vast quantities of them. This “complexity” is the result of their own activities – they helped create it. This is reminiscent of Hannah Arendt and David Keen’s writings on “action-as-propaganda”, in which social realities are manipulated and engineered so that they provide ‘evidence’ of how the ‘real world’ operates. Tellingly, the SAAMI representative called on delegates to “Focus on the real problems, that can be managed….” This implies that if a problem is ‘unmanageable’ it is somehow not real. If it falls outside the narrow scope of the arms traders’ worldview, what they know how to control, it simply does not exist.
I was particularly struck by the belligerent certainty of their presentations – there was little doubt, reflection or humility. They were literally Self-confident – confident in their ability of to know Reality unproblematically. The statement of Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association of America (NRA) was peppered with phrases like “the only way”, “the only solution”, “no compromise” and “History proves it.” His other fellow lobbyists resorted to similar assertions: “It should be obvious”, “This is a fact”, “history shows”.
One of the lobbyists, an academic from a right-wing think-tank, prefaced his comments by saying “The views I express in this statement are my own.” While this sounds like humility, it concealed an incredible presumption. Everyone else in the room represented states or non-governmental organizations, the values, interests and experience of many people.
This presumption of privileged speech also appeared in other lobbyists’ presentations. Though his organization has four million members, Wayne LaPierre claimed the NRA “represents hundreds of millions of Americans….” More distastefully, the spokesman of the Canada’s National Firearms Association invoked “what occurred in Sebrinica [sic] and Rwanda” as evidence in his case for proliferation of “civilian ownership of arms.”
The gun lobbyists’ black and white certainty is also expressed through a view of the world divided into good “civilians” and evil “terrorist states.” LaPierre of the NRA told conference delegates that “When you ignore the right of good people to own firearms…you become the enablers of future tyrants….” Civilian ownership of weapons is framed as an inherent good, enabling protection from “tyrants” and “criminals.” There is little indication that the line between civilians and tyrants, criminals, drug traffickers and paramilitaries is a blurry one.
Unsurprisingly, the gun lobbyist’s inflated notion of the white male Self impoverishes his view of the Social, the institutions that mediate the interaction of the Self with Others. For example, the representative of SAAMI said “Guns are tools and like any tool can be used for great good and great harm.” In other words, counter to any social scientific study of weapons, to the gun lobbyist, guns have no social meaning or context; they lie in pristine isolation from culture, norms, ethics and power relations. Thus, gun lobbyists replace civil society and public institutions with relations mediated by the market and weaponry, leaving individuals radically alone in their interaction with the world.
A lobbyist from the cynically named FireArms Importer/Exporter Roundtable (FAIR) Trade Group declared that, “the possession of firearms necessarily carries with it responsibility. No law or treaty, regardless of passions and motivation surrounding it, can substitute for individual choice and accountability.” However, she offered little suggestion of how society should curb the excesses of those who are ‘irresponsible.’ Moreover, she dismissed the social responsibility of the arms industry by portraying the proposed regulations as “extremely difficult and overly burdensome.” “Responsibility”, she implicitly suggests, is to oneself, not to the “burden” of the world around.
Arms trade discourse is thus deeply suspicious and contemptuous of common and public institutions, with the exception of the military and police of “democracies.” For instance, SAAMI suggested that “millions of dollars” would be “wasted” in enforcing the ATT; the Canada’s National Firearms Association representative said regulating ammunition would be “onerous and expensive.” This is despite overwhelming evidence that military expenditures divert money from key social services and small arms cause billions of dollars in damage every year (not to mention the human cost). He also argued against the creation of a “Victims Assistance Fund” because money “could be directed to terrorist states.”
The civil society campaign of hundreds of organizations from around the world are depicted as at best, emotional naïfs; at worst, according to an NRA video, they are supposedly “powerful, well-financed NGOs that have made a living out of targeting the NRA and gun ownership as evil.” Meanwhile, by participating in the talks, the Obama Administration was putting “everything we love about America, all the freedoms our forefathers fought for…under attack.”
Insecurity is thus not a collective problem to be globally managed, but rather the responsibility primarily of the individual: “The possession of firearms by civilians is a deterrent to human rights abuses…[and] criminal violence,” said the WFSA spokesman. Gun lobbyists would prefer to secede from social institutions than face the risk of external constraints. The NRA called on supporters to “Declare your independence from the UN,” in an email blast, which described the ATT conference as “tyrants” with whom he would allow “NO COMPROMISE.”
“We will not stand idly by while international organization, whether state-based or stateless, attempt to undermine … fundamental liberties,” proclaimed LaPierre in his statement to the conference. He said American gunowners would “never surrender our fundamental firearms freedom to international standards, agreements or consensus.” Without “the overwhelming force of a free armed citizenry”, he said, “regimes will destroy millions and millions of defenseless lives.”
To the gun lobbyist, the world ‘out there’ is fundamentally Other, deeply frightening. It may be controlled and profited from but never compromised with. This is a very limited view of the world, which is attractive to only a few of its people. Looking up at the podium during last week’s forum with representatives of both the arms lobbyists and the Control Arms advocacy campaigners, the contrast was not only in what was said. The seven gun lobbyists were all white North Americans; all but one were male (see this photo, for example). By contrast, the Control Arms speakers represented a much broader range of the world’s population (see these photos). They also portrayed a richer, more complex picture of human life, citing the differential geographic and gendered impact of violence, the impact of the arms trade on education and healthcare, the importance of norms and ethical tradition and the role of corruption in arms deals.
The Control Arms advocates wanted a strong ATT that would deny transfers of any conventional weapons (including small arms, light weapons and ammunition) into any situation where there is risk of human rights abuses, war crimes, gender-based violence or preventing access to socio-economic development. In calling for a robust Treaty, Control Arms is joined by generals, faith leaders (including a prominent evangelical), medical professionals, investors and the more than 620,000 people who signed a petition presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The world is a more complex, rich and diverse place than the fantasy concocted by gun lobbyists’ narrow ideology. The Self is always in relation with the Other and lies embedded in norms, discourses, cultures, economies and institutions.
For more background on the Arms Trade Treaty process, see Matthew Bolton’s earlier blog posting and journal article for Global Policy. Read his blog at politicalminefields.com; follow him on Twitter, @politicalmines.
Matthew Bolton, Department of Political Science, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Pace University New York City.