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We Are All Implicated in the Gun Industry

A man works on the rails of an AR-15 style rifle at Battle Rifle Co., based in Webster, Texas. Battle Rifle is one of more than 10,000 gunmakers in the US. (AP Photo / Lisa Marie Pane)
The Nation

Since the industrial revolution, arms manufacturing has been central to our economy—changing that won’t be easy.

Thanks to the heroic determination of high-school students, the gun-control movement is on the march in the United States. Companies around the country are distancing themselves from the NRA. Yet media giants like Amazon and Apple still purvey NRA propaganda; major financial companies like Visa and MasterCard keep facilitating gun sales; and the storied insurance company Lloyds of London persists in insuring the NRA and gun shows.

The immovability of these big targets makes clear the challenges of a consumer-boycott strategy against an industry historically at the heart of modern life. Arms manufacturing has been entangled with our financial system from the beginning, and excising it from the economy will not be easy.

Britain’s military engagements and colonial excursions in the 18th century helped drive industrialization. Military contracting fueled the development of metallurgical industries. In 1752, Birmingham boasted that “above Twenty thousand Hands” were employed “in useful Manufactures…greatly serviceable to the Government.” The town worked to quash any legislation threatening its booming firearms industry, convinced that injury to it would damage the entire region, throwing a “considerable…portion of its population” out of employment.

Britain’s biggest gun-making firm was owned by Samuel Galton Jr. Galton was a Quaker, and the Religious Society of Friends is a sect known for its pacifist commitments. In 1796, responding to concerns raised in his church, Galton defended his business by arguing that there was no industrial work he might do that did not in some way contribute to war. Indeed, fellow Quakers in town included families like the Lloyds, his iron suppliers, whose war profits laid the foundation of Lloyds Bank. Galton’s logic did not persuade the Quaker church; he was officially disowned. The church refused to receive “further Collection from him or to admit his attending our Meetings,” but he defiantly continued to attend the worship, and the Quaker Ackworth School and other Quaker charitable organizations continued to accept his donations. Meanwhile, as war with France went on, the Galton gun fortune skyrocketed. The family used this wealth to establish a bank in 1804. The Galton bank later merged with Midland, now part of HSBC.

Soon after, government-spawned innovation in firearms manufacturing again drove industrial revolution. After decades of patient investment, the US federal government enabled the production of firearms with interchangeable parts. The resulting “American System of Manufacture” was adopted in machine-tool, sewing-machine, and other industries. British gun makers followed suit, adding bicycles, cars, and other essential modern goods to their offerings. At the end of the 19th century, global arms sales were thriving. European and American arms companies obtained banking partners that gave loans to client states. Cartels formed as business alliances emerged to divide up world markets.

In the early 20th century, the French arms maker Paul Allard of Schneider-Creusot reminded critics that his factories had long been oriented toward the “whole industry of metallurgy and mechanical construction,” with only periodic focus on war matériel at the government’s behest. The science-fiction writer H.G. Wells likewise pointed out that the profits of arms trading accrue not only to arms makers but to “thousands of persons of all ranks of life,” “as lesser shareholders,” even when they are “quite innocent of any desire to slaughter their neighbours.” Moreover, he noted, arms manufacturers made other products, too. In 1935, a British Royal Commission argued that the line between military and civilian manufacturing was so blurry that it was impossible to say who was and who wasn’t making arms. Parts used in arms manufacturing often also had uses in other goods. Like Galton, the commissioners saw the entire economy as ineluctably involved with arms production, recognizing that “large numbers of people, of all classes…by reason of their employment, their business interests or by the holding of shares, may have a financial interest in war or the preparation for war.”

Despite the historic reality of the centrality of arms-making to the evolution of modern industry and finance, we often echo the Quaker church that scorned Galton and imagine arms makers as especially scandalous “merchants of death.” Andrew Undershaft in George Bernard Shaw’s 1907 play Major Barbara was the ultimate caricature of the malevolent arms maker. Today, we focus on the villainy of the NRA and the politicians in its pocket. This outlook shapes strategies like pressuring companies that partner with the NRA to cancel their discounts to NRA members.