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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

Who Is Missing in the Assault Weapons Debate?

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On April 14, 1994, seven heads of American tobacco companies were called before Congress to testify in hearings about regulating their products. They denied under oath that nicotine was addictive -- even though there were whole file rooms of evidence that the addictive nature of nicotine was the very reason cigarettes existed.

As we watch in horror, the carnage caused by assault weapons and high capacity clips mount -- from happy moviegoers to innocent schoolchildren -- there is a puzzling question. Where is that cigarette moment? Why haven't the people who sell products that so efficiently kill fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and children been called in to answer -- why?

Just as curious: Why don't we even know who they are? Anyone could have named the top tobacco companies. The names and faces of the executives were headline news for days. But who today can come up with the names of the top makers of semi-automatic weapons: like Bushmaster, Sig Sauer, Colt, Smith & Wesson, ArmaLite, DPMS and others.

The reason most people can't name these sellers of products specifically engineered to kill as fast as possible is one of the niftiest sleights of hand in commercial history. As they stay in the shadows, the NRA takes the spotlight. And as the NRA positions itself as the defenders of the rights of hunters and target-shooters, the gun industry quietly and largely anonymously goes about the business of turning out civilian versions of military weapons designed to shred human beings at high-velocity.

That would explain Wayne LaPierre.

The gleefully belligerent executive is the angry face of the NRA, railing against the myriad and imminent threats to our personal safety and security. Consider this from a recent Fox News segment: "If you limit the American public's access to semi-automatic technology, you limit their ability to survive. If someone's invading your house, I mean you shouldn't say you only have five or six shots. You ought to have what you need to protect yourself, not what some politician thinks is reasonable."

There is a whole catalogue of LaPierre's signature rants. A few samples collected from various sources in a recent piece on Atlantic Wire: President Clinton is allowing "a certain level of killing" to gain support for gun control. "Forget Stalin's Russia. Forget Hitler's Germany." American media is the "mightiest propaganda machine the world has ever known." And recently: Only "armed security in our schools (will) protect our children." One more from another Fox News segment. As widely reported, he declared that a United Nations Treaty regulating global arms sales "says to people in the United States, turn over your personal protection and your firearms to the government."

The question is: How many heads of trade organizations could make such statements, and hold on to their jobs?

Make no mistake. Wayne LaPierre is very good at his job -- and is paid a million dollars a year to do it. Behind his seemingly irrational podium pounding and spectacular untruths is a well-oiled strategy. As long as we're talking about LaPierre's blustering on about an assault rifle in every home, we're not talking about the people who would make a lot of money by putting them there. The NRA is the bad guy; not the makers of these very efficient appliances of death.

That freedom to quietly keep cranking out automatic weapons is increasingly important to the industry. As interest in hunting has steadily declined over the years; so has the purchase of rifles. As reported in Rolling Stone magazine, as recently as 2008, hunting guns made up half of all civilian gun sales. Today they are a quarter, with the hunting industry forecasting a 24 percent drop in revenue by 2025.

A 2011 report from the Violence Policy Center argues that selling military-style assault rifles -- rebranded as "modern sporting rifles" -- to civilians has been a key part of the industry's marketing strategy since the 1980s.

Women, say gun control advocates and the industry alike, are a high marketing priority. The gun makers insist it's for their protection. Critics point to the availability of the lethal AR-15 (used in both the Aurora and Newtown killings) that comes in pink. (Available now at GunGoddess.com)

The debate over assault weapons rages on, with both sides of the issue hardening positions with each event. But amid the high-decibel back and forth, one voice is curiously silent: the companies that make a profit by putting these weapons on our streets.

It would be educational to hear the heads of the major providers of assault rifles sit under the harsh lights of a Congressional inquiry and answer questions about their marketing plans for assault rifles; why a homeowner needs the same firepower used in military operations; why the industry fights virtually every attempt at even the slightest limitations of availability and if they feel any responsibility that their products are the weapons of choice for people who want to kill a lot of people quickly.

That won't happen. A Congress reluctant to even sustain meaningful debate on assault weapons is unlikely to call their makers in for a serious chat. They're just as happy to keep talking to Wayne LaPierre.