In response to the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 children and two adults dead, President Biden called for a reckoning. “As a nation, we have to ask, ‘When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” he said on Tuesday. “When in God’s name do we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?”
Yet, his call stands in tension with the U.S. role in global arms purchases. The military that Biden oversees is reliant on a weapons industry that overlaps with the domestic gun industry and, in some cases, these industries are one and the same — a reality put horrifically on display in Uvalde.
Daniel Defense Inc. is a Georgia-based company that manufactured the DDM4 Rifle used by Salvador Ramos to carry out the mass shooting at Robb Elementary. Earlier this year, the company struck a contract for up to $9.1 million with the Pentagon. The deal was announced March 23 for the production of 11.5” and 14.5” cold hammer-forged barrels for the Upper Receiver Group – Improved.” This product refers to barrels that are used for rifles. The upper receiver is what contains the bolt, which is where the rifle cartridge sits.
The company has received more than 100 federal contracts, and even a few loans, a search through a government spending tracker shows. As the New York Times noted May 26, this includes a pandemic-era Paycheck Protection Program loan of $3.1 million. The contracts date back to at least 2008, when the government spending tracker was created, and most were made with the Department of Defense, but others with the Departments of Justice (U.S. Marshall Service), Homeland Security, State, and Interior.
Daniel Defense prides itself on making assault rifles, including those used by civilians. The company calls itself “one of the most recognizable brands in the firearms world, consisting of the world’s finest AR15-style rifles, pistols, bolt-action rifles, and accessories for civilian, law enforcement, and military customers.”
These are exactly the kinds of weapons that Democrats concerned about the proliferation of assault rifles say they want to regulate.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently gave the green light to Democrats to push for a bipartisan piece of gun legislation following the Memorial Day recess, after slamming the Republican Party on Wednesday for its “obeisance to the NRA.”
But the solutions offered up by Democratic politicians tend to focus on consumers — background checks, no-buy lists and increased criminal penalties — rather than on weapons manufacturers, even though it is the gun industry that has the power, is producing the lethal arms and is profiting from their sale.
In light of the shooting in Texas, some anti-war activists are asking whether the U.S. government’s entanglement with the global arms industry affects politicians’ willingness to go after domestic manufacturers.
As Erik Sperling, the executive director for Just Foreign Policy, an anti-war organization, put it to In These Times, “It’s hard to envision how one could meaningfully curtail the political influence of the gun industry while simultaneously maintaining a foreign policy that promotes their profit and power.”
The United States is home to the largest weapons industry in the world, with all top five global weapons companies based in the country, and these companies boast a small army of lobbyists in Washington.
“The gun industry and the big contractors like Lockheed Martin that dominate the global trade are somewhat separate,” explains Quincy Institute senior research fellow William Hartung. But, as is the case with Daniel Defense, some companies do business both globally and domestically.
And there are signs that the U.S. military’s heavy reliance on the arms industry has, in the past, played a role in hedging against measures that target the domestic gun industry. In 2005, the Republican-controlled Congress gave a big victory to the gun industry when it passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that protects firearms makers and dealers from nearly all liability lawsuits. The law, which was signed by President George W. Bush, was actively supported by the gun industry.
The Department of Defense also overtly supported the measure at the time, arguing to the Senate that the legislation “would help safeguard our national security by limiting unnecessary lawsuits against an industry that plays a critical role in meeting the procurement needs of our men and women in uniform.” According to reporting from the New York Times, this support from the Pentagon gave a “boost” to the measure.
This law is still in effect today, and plays a considerable role in protecting gun manufacturers — as well as dealers and trade associations — from consequences for their marketing practices. Unlike the tobacco and car industries, where lawsuits have helped improve safety protections, the gun industry is untouchable by most liability lawsuits. According to the corporate watchdog organization Public Citizen, “Never before or since has Congress afforded an entire industry with blanket immunity from civil lawsuits.”
This collaboration goes both ways. The National Rifle Association, which is an advocacy and lobbying organization for the gun industry, has also supported efforts to roll back protections for civilians globally. In May 2019, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) celebrated then-president Donald Trump’s “unsigning” of the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, which Trump announced at the NRA’s annual convention. (The United States had signed the treaty in 2013 but hadn’t ratified it.)
This treaty, which has been in effect since 2014, was the first global effort to regulate the international trade of arms, from rifles to fighter jets to warships, and was supposed to make sure that weapons do not end up in the hands of rights abusers or in areas of extreme conflict, though it has no enforcement mechanism. Critics at the time warned that the unsigning of the accord would put more civilians at risk.
According to Hartung, the NRA’s opposition to this treaty dates to before the accord’s existence. “Going all the way back to 2001, the UN was working on regulating small arms, because they were fuel for a lot of the worst conflicts in the world that had the most casualties,” he tells In These Times. “Through a series of UN meetings where they started the process that would lead to the arms treaty, you would have NRA representatives walking the halls with representatives of gun companies trying to make the case for deregulation.”
“Their argument was that regulating guns globally threatens gun ownership domestically,” explains Hartung. “And many companies are global exporters, so they want to keep that as unregulated as possible.”
The NRA’s ILA appeared to confirm Hartung’s narrative when it cheered Trump’s 2019 unsigning the UN Arms Trade Treaty, proclaiming that he had defeated “the most comprehensive effort towards international gun control.” Notably, President Biden still has not returned the United States to the treaty, even though this would be a simple, administrative act that would not require Congress.
Leading Democrats, furthermore, have not highlighted the global arms proliferation of some of the companies, like Daniel Defense, that produce guns for domestic sale.
Some critics argue that politicians cannot effectively demand to curb the influence of the gun lobby domestically while supporting arms proliferation abroad, because the industry — and its associated violence — spans both spheres.
Khury Petersen-Smith, the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank, told In These Times, “The U.S. manufactures and sells more weapons than any other country. It invests in developing the most lethal weapons in the world, in using them to arm its military, its police, and its allies, and it makes those weapons extremely available to its own population. That is the landscape in which this young person accessed these weapons, and horrors like this massacre are part of that same landscape.”
Paige Oamek contributed research to this article.
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.