This article is related to Anthony Biglan’s new book Rebooting Capitalism: Forging a Society that Works For Everyone.

On June 5, 1968, I was playing poker with about six friends. We took a break from the game, however, to watch Robert Kennedy’s speech. He had just won the California primary. We were all very pleased. I was the President of the Students for Robert Kennedy at the University of Illinois. Most of my friends that night were fellow graduate students, whom I had recruited to work on Kennedy’s primary campaign in Indiana. We got more than a hundred students to go to Terre Haute to do advance work for his rally and to go door to door for the Senator.

The first time he spoke there my friend Jerry Oncken got a picture of me shaking hands with him. The second time, one of his campaign staffers, Jerry Bruno, invited us to their hotel. Bobby came into the room in his stocking feet and shook hands all around. He asked how our work in Illinois was going. Someone mentioned that there was a problem in that the campaign had not made campaign buttons. But then someone else said that I had made some. (Green “Kennedy” on a white button. I still have some.) Postmaster Larry O’Brien had stepped down that day to take charge of the campaign. Kennedy turned to me and said, “Well, we’ll make you postmaster general.” You can imagine how I felt, when he won in California; he would almost certainly be nominated for president.

We went back to playing cards. But a few minutes later one of my friend’s kids came in to say that Kennedy had been shot. We rushed in to watch. But after a while my friends drifted back to the poker game. I was incensed. I threw my money on the table and walked out.

The next morning, my wife, Beverly, woke me up with the news that he had died late that night–June 6, 1968. I had always thought that June 6 was very special. You see I was born on June 6, 1944, the day the allies invaded Normandy. But this was not a happy birthday.

I went to Washington with thousands of other people to be present for his funeral. He was buried at Arlington Cemetery, next to his brother, JFK.

Along with millions of other Americans I was incensed that guns were so readily available. JFK had been shot with a rifle purchased from a mail order catalogue. In April of 1968, Martin Luther King had been shot with a rifle.

While I was in Washington, I became aware of a gun control organization, Citizens for Responsible Firearms Policy. I went to their office, joined the organization, and decided to create a local chapter when I got back to Champaign-Urbana.

If you were not alive at that time, you missed an incredible era in American life. It was a time when young people believed that the times were a changin’ as Bob Dylan wrote. I was convinced that the scourge of too readily available guns was one of the many things that was about to change. And it did change. But not in the direction I had expected. If anyone had told me at that time that the problem of guns in society would be far worse than it was fifty years ago, I would have thought they were crazy.

How could I have been so wrong? Let me tell you.

In this chapter, I summarize the harm done by guns in American society and describe the recent evolution of the gun industry and how it has cultivated a gun culture. As with tobacco, this is a story of the evolution of a business that developed a set of harmful products and practices as they worked to expand their profits. The gun culture they created simply did not exist 50 years ago. I also describe the fifty year history of efforts to reduce gun deaths. Unfortunately, these efforts have thus far been largely ineffective.

Guns as a Matter of Public Health

An average of 35,000 Americans a year were killed by guns between 2012 and 2016; the rate rose from 33,000 in 2012 to 38,000 in 2016.1 In that same five year period an average of 200 people a day were injured by guns. The economists Ted Miller at Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation estimated that the cost of gun violence is about $229 billion per year.2

Erin Grinshteyn and David Hemenway3 compared the gun death rate for the U.S. to that of 23 other high income countries. The gun homicide rate was 25.2 times higher in the U.S. than in the average of the other countries. For 15 to 24 year olds the rate was 49 times higher. Suicides by gun were eight times higher than in comparison countries. The rate of deaths due to accidental shootings are 6.2 times higher than in other countries. Eighty-two percent of all the gun deaths across these 23 countries were Americans.

An analysis by the New York Times4 illustrated how much more rare homicide by guns is in other countries. The chances of being killed by a gun in Japan are about the same as the chances of being killed by lightening in the United States.

About 60% of gun deaths in the U.S. are due to suicide. There were 21,175 such deaths in 2013.5 Our higher suicide rate among 15 to 24 year olds compared with other countries is due to the availability of guns in the home. In homes where there are no guns the suicide rate in this age group is no higher than in other countries.6

Then there are unintentional shootings. The gun safety organization, EveryTown1 reported that between December 2012 and December 2013, at least 100 children were killed in unintentional shootings. In more than two thirds of the incidents, the gun was loaded and unlocked and the child got their hands on it. Among the incidents they described was a two year old boy in Conway, South Carolina who shot and killed himself on Christmas day when his father left a loaded gun unattended while he made a phone call and an eleven year old boy who shot and killed himself on Mother’s day when he tried to take a loaded gun away from his 2 and 4-year old siblings.

Of course not all of the unintentional shootings kill children. Patrice Price was driving her boyfriends car, when a loaded 40 caliber hand gun slipped from under the front seat. Her two year old son picked it up and fired it, killing his mother.7

In sum, there is ample justification for treating gun violence as a significant public health problem.

Guns as a Business

The recent evolution of the gun industry is another story of selection by consequences. The manufacture and sale of firearms is a major business in the United States and in recent years the business has been growing. Figure 1 shows Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) data on the annual manufacture of firearms between 1986 and 2012. All but about 4% of these guns are sold domestically. Not shown is 2013, when, according to BATFE, 11 million firearms were made. The production of guns has tripled since 2001. 

Figure 1: Gun Production in the U.S. 1986-2012 Source: Firearms Commerce in the United States Annual Statistical Update 2014, U.S. D. O. J. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.8

Until Republicans gained control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the gun business was quite profitable. Writing in 2015, Ben Popken of CNBC reported9 that the annual revenue of the gun and ammunition industry was $13.5 billion, with a profit of $1.5 billion. The price of Smith and Wesson Stock rose from $2.48 in November 2002 to $27.77 in July of 2016. The price of Sturm Ruger rose from $10.88 in December 2002 to $67.43 in July of 2016—a 620% increase. (Most of the other major manufacturers are privately held companies, so data are not available.)

However, gun sales and gun stock prices have plummeted since Obama left the White House. As long as he was the president, many people were convinced that he would take their guns away. This stimulated sales because people felt they had to get their guns before they were outlawed. Once Trump was elected people stopped worrying about it.

Evan Osnos has written an informative history of the recent evolution of the gun business in The New    Yorker.10 From 1989 to 1991 gun production was declining. One reason was that the industry largely sold its products to hunters and hunting was declining. The industry was in trouble.

According to Mike Weisser, who blogs about the gun industry as Mike the Gun Guy, a critical event in the resurgence of the gun business was the Los Angeles riot in the spring of 1992, which resulted from the acquittal of police for the beating of Rodney King. The riots were broadcast live on TV and included live coverage of the beating of a white truck driver. Weisser claims that this event increased many people’s perceptions that they were in danger. As shown in Figure 1 for 1992 through 1994 handgun sales did increase significantly after the riot.

This encouraged the industry to shift its focus from the hunting market to an emphasis on self-defense and protection. Osnos cites an article in Shooting Industry that advised gun dealers that “Defensive firearms, sold with knowledgeable advice and the right accessories, offer the best chance of commercial survival for today’s retail firearms dealer.”10

Think about this from an evolutionary perspective. In a market system, the practices of an industry will be shaped by the economic consequences of what they do. One of the most important things most companies can do is find new markets for its products.

So imagine you are a gun manufacturer. Your livelihood is threatened and one solution is to find new markets. The hunting market is declining, but here with the Rodney King riots you realize that you can market to people who are fearful. It is the start of a whole new path toward prosperity.

Indeed, the entire history of the gun industry over the past 25 years can be written in terms of how the profit motive led to an expansion of the marketing of guns. What has come with that is an unfortunate increase in the number of people being killed or injured by guns. Once the public health consequences of an industry become apparent, we can ask ourselves whether the costs to society are worth the benefit to the manufacturers.

How the Industry Increased Gun Sales

Finding new markets. As noted, the insight that seems to have propelled the gun industry was the realization that many people would buy guns because they believed that they were in danger. But the translation of this insight into sales is played out differently for different sectors of the society.

Consider sales to women. As early as 1994 the Violence Policy Center11 noted a significant increase in efforts to market guns to women. The primary appeal is through fear. For example the Violence Policy Center cited a National Rifle Association pamphlet targeting women that stated:

In nature, the predator preys on the weak, the sick, the aged. It stalks. It waits patiently for the precise moment when the victim appears defenseless. Then, it strikes… [T]here is no way of telling a criminal predator by the way he looks. He might be a potential suitor.

The proportion of women who have bought guns has been increasing as a result. CNN reported in 2014 that 80% of gun retailers reported an increase in female customers in 2012 and that Texas women had 28% of the concealed carry permits, a sevenfold increase over 2012.

CNBC12 quoted Jim Curcuruto, director of industry research and analysis at the National Shooting Sports Foundation as saying, “The women’s market is a force in our industry, and manufacturers, retailers and shooting ranges are making changes to their products and services to satisfy women’s tastes and needs.”

The gun industry used some of the same themes that the tobacco industry used to sell cigarettes to women. They stressed empowerment. The website thewellarmedwoman13 reports on how women are being empowered to protect themselves.

And like the tobacco industry which created “feminine” cigarettes such as Virginia Slims, the gun industry is producing guns that are especially designed for women: Pink and purple toned handguns and rifles, slimline handguns, and a model from Smith & Wesson call the Lady Smith.

The increase in gun sales to women has been accompanied by the marketing of numerous accessories, including the T-shirts and Flash Bang bra holsters, whose originator claims women need them “Because their bodies are shaped differently … and women need different ways to conceal guns.”14

A Wall Street Journal article quoted “Athena Means, the owner of an online shop called GunGoddess.com, who said that “offering ‘cute gear’ for women serves an important purpose: ‘getting the gun off the night stand and out to the [shooting] range’ for practice. Attractive clothing and accessories encourage women to get training and meet other women who own guns.”

Another expansion market is youth. Like the tobacco industry, the gun industry realizes that you can capture the brand loyalty of your customers if your brand is the first one they are introduced to. But unlike the recent efforts to restrict the marketing of cigarettes to those under 18, there seems to be no limits to how early guns are being marketed to children. A report from the Violence Policy Center documents the extensive efforts of the gun industry to raise a generation of gun loving children. Here are some of the things that gun industry leaders have said:

What market isn’t tied to juniors? I really can’t think of any. Military and law enforcement firearms have civilian versions which are applicable. The Concealed Carry Weapon (CCW) market has firearms which hold 10-rounds which is the limit for IDPA [International Defensive Pistol Association] competition. When the junior turns 21 they can get a CCW permit. What do they buy? It is usually a gun from a manufacturer they are familiar with.15

“A Word from Your Editor,” Junior Shooters, Spring 2012 (page 23)

[W]e’re talking about a tiny gun intended for the very youngest shooters — the ultimate first gun. ‘We’re targeting the six- to 12-year-old range….’ With the number of hunters declining, it’s crucial to get kids introduced to the sport as early as possible. The HotShot [youth rifle] means that even the youngest shooters now have a gun sized just for them.16

It is important to consider more hunting and target shooting recruitment programs aimed at middle school level, or earlier.

Understanding Activities that Compete with Hunting and Target Shooting, 2011 Comprehensive Consumer Study, Executive Summary, National Shooting Sports Foundation, 2012 (page 34)

Like many other businesses, the gun industry has worked to increase the opportunities for people to use guns in fun, social settings. Wikipedia cited an estimate that there are 16 to 18,000 indoor shooting ranges alone in the U.S. That comes out to 320 per states. I have been unable to find estimates of the number of outdoor ranges. Writing for NPR, Linton Weeks17 suggests that shooting ranges have become the new bowling alley, with all kinds of fun and prosocial activities such as blood drives, Toys for Tots collections, poker style target games, zombie shoots, and pheasant bratwurst. Like any other consumer product, it pays to associate guns with many appealing things, especially things that enable people to socialize in enjoyable ways.

One illustration of the role of fear in gun sales is the fact that frequent and horrific gun violence increases the sale of guns and the profits of the gun industry. CNN Money reported18 that the day after Omar Mateen killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub, the price of Smith and Wesson stock surged 10%.

Now I am not suggesting that anyone in the gun industry wants people to die. I can’t imagine that they think of it in this way. It would be hard to live with yourself if you did. Practices can evolve without the people whose behavior is involved having any perception of the contingencies that select those practices. And in this case, the selecting contingency is greater gun sales, not greater gun violence.

You may rebel at my saying this. It may seem to forgive gun marketers for the death that their weapons do.  But must we be angry to act? 

The practical matter we started with is how can we reduce the number of gun deaths? We have the scientific tools to do this. (That is not understood by many policymakers, but the understanding is spreading.) We can study instances of gun deaths and tease out the various factors that contribute to it. We have some evidence about it, but not nearly what we could because funding for such research has been prevented by the gun lobby. We can look at variation in state and local laws and law enforcement practices and correlate it with the rates of gun deaths. We can analyze all the factors that go into a person shooting themselves in the head. We can try different policies and practices selecting and expanding the ones that contribute to reducing death and injury toll.

Industry Advocacy

Like any other industry, the gun industry works to ensure that public attitudes and public policy are favorable to their business. The tobacco industry benefited for many years from the advocacy of the Tobacco Institute, an organization that the tobacco companies created to promote pro-tobacco policies and prevent both the perception that smoking was harmful and public policies that threatened the industry. The industry carried on a generally successful campaign for fifty years that persuaded many Americans that they could keep smoking because the health effects of smoking were unproven.19,20

The gun industry is engaged in similar public advocacy. The trade group for the gun industry is the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). It is located in Newtown, Connecticut, three miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed twenty children and six adults at the school after first killing his mother in their Sandy Hook home. Like any trade organization, it engages in activities that are designed to promote the purchase and use of its product. The NSSF website provides information about every aspect of the business. For example, it has a set of pages devoted to Shooting Ranges, which includes information and support for those wanting to create shooting ranges, which, as I mentioned are valuable for promoting shooting sports and the sale of ammunition.

Then there is the National Rifle Association.21,20 It was formed in 1871 by two civil war veterans who were dismayed by the level of marksmanship of Union soldiers. Over most of its history it focused on marksmanship, gun safety, and hunting. According to the organizations’ own history, it created the Legislative Affairs Division in 1934 “in response to repeated attacks on the Second Amendment rights”.21 However, it was only in 1977 that the NRA’s focus turned much more to advocacy for gun rights. At its annual convention, gun rights activists took control of the organization.22 Since then the organization has become one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country. As Figure 2 shows, the NRA and its affiliates spend far more on gun rights issues than all of the gun control organizations combined.

Figure 2: Expenditures by Gun-Issue Nonprofits.23

The NRA and its allies have pursued an aggressive effort to pass state and federal laws regarding the use of guns. Most of these laws are ostensibly for the purpose of protecting the “rights” of gun owners, but they all encourage further sales of guns by making gun owners feel threatened that the government will take their guns away. According to Jill Lepore,24 writing in the New Yorker, 44 states have passed concealed carry laws. These laws have the effect of allowing and encouraging the widespread carrying of guns.

In an article in the New York Times, Campbell Robertson and Timothy Williams,25 describe a number of laws which seem to have no other purposes than to encourage expanded carrying of guns and keeping many people believing that gun rights are a very important issue. A law passed by the Mississippi legislature in 2016 was described as “an effort to allow worshipers in church to arm themselves.” Laws in West Virginia and Idaho allow “people to carry concealed handguns without a permit or firearm training.” And despite law enforcement opposition, some states such as Texas have passed laws that allow people to openly carry guns on university campuses, such as the University of Texas, where Charles Whitman shot and killed 14 people and wounded 31 others in 1966.26 In Florida, a “Stand Your Ground” law was passed, which prevents citizens from being prosecuted if they use deadly force when confronted by an assailant not only in their home, but in any place that they have a right to be.24

To get a sense of the way in which our culture has been changed by the promotion of a gun carrying style of life, here is a statement I found on a website called Defend and Carry:

Carrying a handgun for self-defense purposes is an increasingly popular idea amongst many people ranging from gun owners to previous victims of violent crimes. The world we live in today seems to get more and more dangerous with every day that passes. All you have to do is turn on the TV news or browse any news website and you will undoubtedly see or read a story about a shooting or other violent crime.27

The irony of this statement is that the U.S. has 25 times the murder rate due to guns than other developed countries.3 It is the proliferation and promotion of the gun way of life that is contributing to the many shootings that you read about. If the reader of this statement agreed that the world had gotten more dangerous, it is largely due to the gun culture that the writer was promoting.

In addition, what research is available shows that gun owners are more likely to die due to suicide or murder with a gun than are people who haven’t bought guns.28,29 Obviously this kind of evidence undermines the argument that you will be safer if you buy a gun. This is one reason the gun lobby has succeeded in cutting off funds for public health research on gun violence.

Like any other organization, the actions of the NRA are shaped and maintained by the financial consequences of their actions. In this regard, it is instructive to examine the sources of NRA funding.

The most complete breakdown I have been able to find of NRA funding comes from Wikipedia.22 The NRA reported income of $218.9 million in 2011. However, it also receives donations to the NRA Foundation, which received $43 million in 2013 and to the NRA Political Victory Fund, which received $21.9 million in 2014, an election year. Less than half of its revenue comes from membership dues. The organization also receives funding from arms industry corporations and sporting goods companies.

Bloomberg News30 reported that the NRA received $14.8 million from firearms-related companies between 2005 and 2010 and that its receipts from the gun industry grew twice as fast as those from members’ dues. One reason that the gun industry increased its support of the NRA is that the NRA was instrumental in getting the law passed which shielded the gun industry from liability law suits. Bloomberg News quoted former NRA President Sandy Froman as saying that the NRA “saved the gun industry from bankruptcy.”

But why does the NRA and the gun industry oppose even the most seemingly sensible policies such as encouraging the manufacture of guns that only the owner can fire? Because every effort to implement any gun legislation is seen as a threat to the apparent basic right to own a gun. Given the history of gun politics over the past fifty years, it is hard to see why the gun industry would believe this. And, I don’t think they do. Rather, I think that such opposition has two functions. First, every effort to pass legislation—pro or con—regarding guns is an opportunity to heighten gun owners’ sense that their right to have guns is important and must be protected. The Washington Post cited31 a 2013 poll conducted by CNN that showed that 53% of gun owners believed that the government was trying to take away their right to own firearms. That figure rose to 62% after the Obama administration pushed for gun control legislation that might have made killing sprees such as the one in Sandy Hook less likely.

Bills to expand gun rights, such as open carry on college campuses in Texas also keep the issue of gun rights salient in the minds of gun owners who believe their rights are in jeopardy.

And the belief that a right is in jeopardy creates what psychologists call “reactance”—a well-established “like hell you will!” reaction to attempts to constrain our behavior that leads us to do the opposite. In this case, the threat increases gun sales. Indeed if you look at the increases in sales and profits that have followed mass shootings and President Obama’s efforts to pass gun legislation, you can see that there is some truth to the claim made by one investment advisor that President Obama is “the best gun salesman on the planet.”30

The near-death experience of Smith and Wesson illustrates the wisdom of the NRA’s focus on gun rights. Evan Osnos’ article in the New Yorker tells how Ed Shultz, then CEO of Smith and Wesson entered into talks about gun safety with Andrew Coumo when Coumo was Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In the interest of reducing gun accidents, Schultz agreed that Smith and Wesson would develop a “smart gun” that could not be fired by children. But the day the agreement was announced the NRA accused Smith and Wesson of running up “the white flag of surrender. The NRA called for a boycott of the company and within months the company had lost 95% of its value and had to be sold. The NRA was correct in seeing that a sizable number of gun owners and gun dealers would feel threatened by any policy that smacked of reducing gun access.

(According to Osnos, Smith and Wesson has repaired its relationship with the NRA. In 2012 its CEO was inducted into the Ring of Freedom and received the yellow jacket reserved for those who have given $1 million to the NRA.)

Thinking About This from an Evolutionary Perspective

The generic features of this story are essentially the same as those for the tobacco industry. Each industry evolved as a function of the profits it made. To survive and expand profits they developed new markets. When the harms that the industry produced became apparent, the industry took whatever steps it could to prevent erosion of its profits. In both cases, they found ways to use the harm that they were doing to market their product. In the case of cigarettes, they used fear of disease to market new “low tar and nicotine” cigarettes, claiming that they were less harmful, but knowing that they were not. In the case of guns, they played on people’s fears of gun violence to get them to buy guns in the vain hope that it would protect them. They conducted extensive and highly skilled public relations and made sure that state and national lawmakers would be beholden to them thanks to huge campaign contributions and direct appeals to voters to vote for candidates who would vote for policies that benefited the industries.

Virtually all of the efforts to reduce gun violence have focused on the gun industry alone. These efforts have mostly failed because of the political influence of the gun lobby, which has gained its strength by playing on the fears of a segment of the population that is particularly susceptible to claims that the government will take away one of their rights.

Would efforts to reduce gun deaths be more successful, if the issue was looked at as just another way in which an industry’s practices were shaped and maintained by their profits? Would it become easier to achieve policies that reduced the harm of gun marketing, if our society developed generic standards for assessing the benefits and harms of every industry? Suppose that all of the organizations that were working on the harms created by one or another industry banded together to create policies that applied to every industry? I address this issue in detail in Rebooting Capitalism.

The Invisible Hand

Dominating narratives guide our thinking about most things, including our views of what is possible or impossible, desirable or undesirable. We see our world through the lens of the stories that we hear (and tell) about what is important. We can be blind to the things our stories never mention.

Consider smoking. In the 1950s, cigarette smoking and ads for cigarettes were everywhere. You could smoke in restaurants, offices, airplanes, even in doctor’s offices. Indeed, in 1946, R J Reynolds Tobacco Company ran ads for Camel cigarettes that sported the slogan, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.32,33 The dominant narrative in the 1950s was that smoking was sophisticated and fun and everybody did it, including teens. I started smoking in 1959 at the age of 15; no one objected. That dominant narrative about smoking blinded us to the terrible health consequences of smoking. Decades later, we now see smoking in a very different light.

Is it possible that the problems we face as a society are the product of one powerful narrative? A narrative even more pervasive than the stories we heard about cigarettes? Is it possible that this narrative organizes our thinking about most of what happens in society, blinds us to the obvious, and dissuades us from tackling things that badly need changing?

I think it is. We are in the grip of a narrative that obscures the ways that our current economic system is harming many people – a narrative that centers on the metaphor of the invisible hand.

In 1776, Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher published a book titled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.34 Economists now consider this the seminal work in the development of economics. Here is his famous statement about the owner of an industry:

By directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Many economists have taken Smith’s concept as the essential organizing principle for understanding our economic and political system. It was central to Milton and Rose Friedman’s seminal book Free to Choose.35 They argued that virtually every aspect of society would benefit from trusting that, as people pursue their own gains in a market, it not only delivers goods and services to others, it also enhances our freedom.

However, in the hands of advocates for free-market ideology, Smith’s metaphor morphed into a philosophy that makes the achievement of wealth the paramount virtue in society. Free market economists, acting as allies of wealthy business people, have taken Smith’s insight to extremes, and they have been very effective in taking control of the dominant narrative. As a result, Americans now believe that:

  • Governments will always be less beneficial to us than free markets. Under the thrall of this mantra, we have privatized prisons, schools, much of our war making, and even the provision of parking spaces in our cities. We have even privatized emergency services, so that the fire department may charge for putting out a house fire.35,36 Even before Donald Trump became president, we were cutting government spending on education, infrastructure development, regulation of business, environmental protection, and human services because “experts” have told us that the private sector will do a better job of meeting these needs.
  • The material worth of something is a complete and accurate indication of its value. According to this view, market forces tell us what things are worth, because the market consistently rewards what is objectively valuable. If Jamie Diamond, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, makes 865 times as much as a starting employee of the company,37 it must be because he is worth that much more to the company. It has nothing to do with policies that have undermined unions or restricted increases in the minimum wage, or because the network of very wealthy people who sit on the boards of major corporations support each other’s astronomical salaries. From this standpoint, the only justification for protecting our environment must come from showing what people will pay to preserve it. We must measure the worth of the natural world in dollars.

There are other ways of viewing value. Speaking in 1968, here is what Robert Kennedy said about measuring our society in terms of its gross national product:

Gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. … It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl…Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. …It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.38

Free market advocacy has convinced many people that unregulated markets will do a better job of ensuring everyone’s wellbeing than “government bureaucrats.” It has narrowed their focus to the sole question of whether a practice enriches them.

This distorted view has corrupted virtually every sector of society. Consider the gun industry. The leaders of the industry simply set out to make a product that would do well in the market place. But unlike the industry leader Adam Smith wrote about, their pursuit of their “own interest” did not promote the “interests of society.” It is harming society. It is as though an invisible hand produced the 35,000 gun deaths that make our nation the world leader in gun carnage.

In sum, the two most important assumptions of free-market economic theory are simply wrong. Unregulated markets will not always lead to good outcomes. The pursuit of economic gain does not necessarily benefit everyone. Indeed, as I document in Rebooting Capitalism, the widespread belief in these myths has destroyed the political and cultural pillars of American life.

Action Implications


  1. If you own guns, lock them up.
  2. If your children go on play dates at friends houses, make sure that if they have guns they are locked up.
  3. If someone you know seems depressed, suicidal, extremely angry, see what you can do to make sure they don’t have access to guns.
  4. Don’t Argue with Gun Rights Advocates. The last segment of the population that is going to support laws that reduce gun violence are those who are already explicitly supporting the gun lobby. You may feel angry and frustrated that people would oppose allowing people with dangerous tendencies to own an assault rifle. However, expressing anger or derision toward gun rights advocates plays into the hands of the gun rights organizations. It makes it easier for these organizations to convince some people that all their guns are going to be taken away.

Public Policy

  1. EveryTown for Gun Safety (https://everytown.org/moms/) has identified a set of legislative priorities that are designed to begin to make the nation safer from gun violence. Many of these initiatives could be enacted at the state or local level.
  • Background checks on all gun sales. Currently only sales by a licensed dealer require such checks.
  • Red Flag laws that empower family members or law enforcement to temporarily block a person from having guns if they pose a danger to themselves or others.
  • Prohibit bump stocks, such as the one that enabled a Las Vegas shooter to murder 58 people by harnessing the recoil of a semi-automatic firearm to make it function like an automatic weapon.
  • Alert law enforcement when convicted felons attempt to buy guns.
  • Close the “boyfriend loophole” that allows abusive boyfriends to buy and possess firearms, even if there is a restraining order on them.
  • Close the “Charleston loophole.” It is a provision of federal law that says that if the background check is not completed within three days, the person is allowed to buy a gun. It enabled a young man in Charleston South Carolina to buy a gun and kill nine parishioners.
  • Prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines. Rifles with magazines that hold large numbers of rounds were involved in the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Orlando, Aurora, Sutherland Springs, Fort Hood, San Bernardino, and Newtown.
  • Raise the minimum age to 21 years old for the purchase of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns.
  • Prohibit the sale of assault weapons.


  1. Support Gun Control Organizations. Before you conclude that it is impossible to get effective gun control measures enacted, take another look at Figure 2. Gun rights organizations are spending vastly more money on this issue than gun control organizations. An analysis by Politifact found that, between 1998 and 2016, the NRA spent $203.2 million on political activities.39 Check out the organizations that are working to reduce gun violence and support one or more of them. The popular wisdom has long been that it is simply impossible to overcome the gun lobby, but that popular wisdom has discouraged us from giving the issue the support it needs. Here are gun control organizations that I think are worthy of financial support and your volunteering.
    1. EveryTown for Gun Safety https://everytown.org/moms/. This is a relatively new organization that began with funding from Michael Bloomberg. It is advocating for background checks and measures to reduce gun trafficking. It supports candidates as well.
    2. EveryTown’s affiliate organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, https://momsdemandaction.org/, is organizing in communities throughout the nation. Such grass roots organizing is vital to changing the accepted wisdom that there is nothing we can do. Rather than focusing on federal law, this group is working in communities throughout the nation to build support for local and state-level laws that will reduce gun violence.
    3. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, http://www.bradycampaign.org/, is working universal background checks, banning assault weapons, and laws to temporarily take guns away from people who are in crisis and are at-risk to kill others or commit suicide.
    4. Giffords Courage to Fight Gun Violence, https://giffords.org/, was created by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, after she was shot at a politic event in her district.
    5. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, http://lawcenter.giffords.org/, is affiliated with the Giffords organization. They are involved in litigation to support effective gun policies.
    6. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, https://www.csgv.org/, includes 48 religious, social and political organizations. They are working to oppose concealed carry laws and to prevent suicides involving guns. Suicides account for the majority of gun deaths.
  2. Do advocate for people who share your concerns to support gun rights advocates. Effective advocacy involves getting people who agree with you to take action. For many years Americans have favored laws that would reduce gun violence. They have not gotten what they wanted because they have not made this an issue that would be make or break for a candidate. When those who support sensible gun policy refuse to support candidates unless they support these policies, we will finally make progress on this issue.

Read the Full “Cultural Evolution of Social Pathologies” Series by Anthony Biglan:

1. Introduction by David Sloan Wilson

2. How Cigarette Marketing Killed 20 Million People

3. The Right to Sell Arms

4. How and Why the Food Industry Makes Americans Sick

5. Big Pharma and the Death of Americans

6. How Free-Market Ideology Resulted in the Great Recession

7. The Fossil Fuel Industry: The Greatest Threat to Human Wellbeing

8. The Crisis of Capitalism


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Published On: March 12, 2020

Anthony Biglan

Anthony Biglan

Dr. Biglan is an award-winning leader of worldwide efforts to evolve more nurturing societies. His book, The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World, earned him the Scientific Translation Award from the Society for the Advancement of Behavioral Analysis for increasing public understanding of the power of behavioral science. In Rebooting Capitalism, he takes the next step by describing how behavioral science can help reform our political and economic system so that it works for everyone.

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