In American crisis, anger and guns

By Bernd Debusmann

In the first two months of this year, around 2.5 million Americans bought guns, a 26 percent increase over the same period in 2008. It was great news for gun makers and a sign of a dark mood in the country.

Gun sales shot up almost immediately after Barack Obama won the US presidential elections on November 4 and firearm enthusiasts rushed to stores, fearing he would tighten gun controls despite campaign pledges to the contrary.

After the November spike, gun dealers say, a second motive has helped drive sales: fear of social unrest as the ailing economy pushes the newly destitute deeper into misery. Many of the newly poor come from the relentlessly rising ranks of the unemployed. In February alone, an average of 23,000 people a day lost their jobs.
Tent cities for the homeless have expanded outside a string of American cities, from Sacramento and Phoenix to Atlanta and Seattle, for people who are living the American dream in reverse. First they lose their jobs, then their health insurance, then their homes, then their hopes. The encampments are reminiscent of Third World refugee camps.

Often former members of the middle class, tent dwellers’ accounts of their plight to television cameras have a common theme: “I never thought this could happen to me.” Unlike the victims of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans, many of the newly-poor are white.

The FBI says it carried out 1,213,885 criminal background checks on prospective firearms buyers in January and 1,259,078 in February, jumps of 28% and 23.3% respectively. Keen demand turned the stocks of publicly-trade firearms companies like Smith & Wesson (up 80% since November) and Sturm Ruger (up more than 100%) into shining stars on the New York Stock Exchange.

There are no statistics on how many guns are bought by people who think they need them to defend themselves against desperate fellow citizens. But, as columnist David Ignatius put it in the Washington Post, “there’s an ugly mood developing as people start looking for villains to blame for the economic mess.” In November, an analysis published by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute listed “unforeseen economic collapse” as one of the possible causes of future “widespread civil violence.”

The American economy is down but not out, and in mid-March some experts reported signs that the pace of the decline was slowing. But it hasn’t slowed enough to sweep away the sense of anxiety and fear that comes through in many conversations and commentaries about the future of this normally optimistic country.
While Obama’s approval rating remains high, at 59%, almost two thirds of the population thinks the country is on the wrong track, according to a poll commissioned by National Public Radio in mid-March.

“What is really remarkable about all this is that there hasn’t been social unrest,” remarked an executive with business interests in Latin American countries where riots and street demonstrations in response to economic squeezes are routine. “The conditions for it are all there.”

Anger about bailouts

Anger is building. Just under half of those surveyed in a poll by the Pew Research Center this month expressed anger about “bailing out banks and financial institutions that made poor decisions.” The poll was taken before details became known of the full extent of the bonus-paying spree to members of the very team that brought the insurance giant AIG close to collapse.

The government propped up AIG with close to $200 billion and now owns 80% of the company. The argument that $165 million in bonuses had to be paid under contractual obligations went down particularly badly with workers of the three US car companies whose leaders appealed for support from the Bush administration last year when the economic crisis gathered steam.

One of the conditions for the billions that were dispensed to the car industry was that contracts between auto workers and their union, the United Auto Workers, had to be renegotiated to cut costs. The union agreed, and the question arises: are contracts with blue-collar workers less binding than those with highly-paid derivatives traders?

Some see this as another sign of the inequalities that Obama promised to address. Remember his famous exchange with Joe Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, during a campaign stop? “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama told him.

There’s less wealth to spread around now as trillions of dollars has evaporated with increasing speed in the deepening crisis. In housing alone, more than $5 trillion has vanished. The gap between rich and poor, a gap of Third World proportions, has not changed. A full-time worker, on average, made $37,606 last year, considerably less than in 1973, adjusted for inflation.

While CEOs made 45 times as much as workers in 1973 they make more than 300 times as much today, according to Holly Sklar, author of Raise the Floor, Wages and Policies that Work for All of US.

To what extent those gaps will shrink under Obama remains to be seen and the outlook for swift action is not promising. There are, in fact, not many things for which the outlook is promising. Exceptions include Smith & Wesson. They expect revenue to double within the next three years. (Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com.)

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