By Neal Peirce
WASHINGTON -- Now, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, is the time to blow the whistle on the gun industry.
And we have a proven formula. It's the approach that curbed the tobacco industry and its life-imperiling products.
Plus, action needn't wait on the federal government. Any state, right now, can start the ball rolling, through public interest lawsuits filed by state attorneys general. And -- or alternatively -- it can impose very high taxes on ultra-dangerous automatic weapons and the ammunition to fire them.
It's worth remembering the salvo of state lawsuits filed against the tobacco industry, reaching a culmination in the 1990s. The end result was the "Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement" in which Philip Morris and its ilk agreed to curtail their tobacco marketing and pay annual payments to compensate states, at least in part, for the medical costs of caring for persons with smoking-related illnesses.
Who can argue that guns are less of a public menace than cigarettes? About 25 Americans are murdered by guns every 24 hours. Many more are wounded: hospital emergency rooms see more than 200 gunshot wound victims daily. And the numbers of mass shootings, like Newtown, are on the rise. More than half of the 10 deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the last five years -- not just in schools but also at nightclubs, hospitals, funeral homes, malls, movie theaters, even places of worship.
Combining the direct medical costs of treating gun injuries with the economic damage of lost lives, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the total exceeded $40 billion for 2005 (the most recent year available). Ironically, that's far more than the $31.8 billion a year the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates the economic value (manufacturing, retailing, etc.) of the entire U.S. firearms industry. The United States leads affluent countries -- by far -- in gun-related civilian deaths and injuries.
But the gun industry funds a massive lobbying effort by the National Rifle Association and its ally -- the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The net result: near paralysis of state-level research in, or legal restrictions on, gun use. The gun industry is left free to invent ever-more-deadly weapons, selling massive amounts of ammunition while pumping millions of dollars into campaigns of federal and state candidates willing to espouse its cause.
Indeed, pro-firearm legislators have successfully induced states to pass a virtual flood of pro-gun laws and rules. The result is sheer insanity. A ProPublica survey found that five states now allow students to carry concealed guns on college campuses. Several states now make it legal to bring guns into day care centers and churches. Several states permit loaded guns in bars. Nearly half have passed "Stand Your Ground" (or "shoot first") laws (the type invoked in the Florida killing of teenager Trayvon Martin).
What's more, state and local governments -- and thus their taxpayers -- have actually been subsidizing the wealthy gun manufacturers and their sellers. The "Subsidy Tracker" website of the public advocacy group Good Jobs First lists $49 million in recent years' grants, tax credits, rebates and worker-training subsidies to attract plants or stores of such outfits as Remington Arms, Smith & Wesson, Winchester, Dick's Sporting Goods and Cabela's.
But the biggest beneficiary is Wal-Mart, with a reported $90 million in government grants -- money straight out of taxpayers' pockets -- for agreeing to situate its stores in supplicant states, counties or cities.
Gun sales are, to be sure, just one product Wal-Mart retails (and only at 1,800 of its 3,800 outlets). It offers dozens of varieties of firearms. One popular model: the Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle, the very model of rapid-fire killing weapon used by Adam Lanza in the Newtown massacre. It's uncertain where the Lanza weapon was purchased, but Wal-Mart's heavy retailing of weapons and ammunition is a significant part of its avowed sales expansion strategy, raking in state and local government subsidies -- your money and mine -- in the process.
Would state attorneys general dare prepare suits -- on the cigarette model -- to assert public safety concern, to curb powerful interests? Would state legislators be willing to place heavy special taxes on especially dangerous guns and ammunition -- heavy enough to put a dent in their sales? Many states levy high taxes on alcohol: how about guns?
Conventional wisdom says "no" -- that the NRA and its legions of supporters (real or claimed) will come "get" any legislator who tries, extinguishing his or her political career.
But even before the Newtown shooting, the NRA's political armor was weakening. It fought hard to stop President Obama's re-election and lost; it invested heavily in a range of U.S. Senate races and lost nine out of 13.
This wolf's teeth may not be so sharp after all. Public officials should listen. If the moment for a people's counterinsurgency were ever ripe, it's now.
Neal Peirce's email address is email@example.com.
(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.