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Recoil Operation

The U.S. has long supplied the world with AR-15 rifles. But only when we see its grim effects at home do politicians call for restricting its sale.

In the first five years of President Obama’s tenure, government-approved arms sales topped the total sum of those concluded during both terms of the George W. Bush administration by more than $30 billion dollars. Adjusted for inflation, Obama’s presided (in just five years!) over more arms sales than any US administration since World War II. From 2010 to 2015, foreign purchases of US military hardware rose 118%, and budget requests for grants to subsidize foreign purchases show no sign of slowing down.

Admittedly, much of this increase in sales has been in direct response to the foreign policy misadventures of the previous administration. But this gets at a key point: unlike, say, jet fighters, helicopters, or guided missiles, small arms are low-maintenance, incredibly cheap, and easy to store, transfer, and conceal. Thus, they tend to wander from the hands of a given allied nation’s establishment “arms bourgeoisie”. Small arms are easily seized and turned to new uses. After all, the lethality of ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq has been dramatically magnified by their possession of thousands of M-16s and M-4s that the US originally sold to the Iraqi army. Some of these are now available for sale to the highest bidder, on Iraqi Facebook groups.

Meanwhile, back home, debates over guns in the US have become inextricably mingled with debates over terrorism, but in a typically blinkered way. Democrats cudgel Republicans with the image of AR-15-wielding mass shooters pledging allegiance to ISIS (despite those shooters’ inevitably all-too-American profile). Senators Chris Murphy, Elizabeth Warren, and Harry Reid have all co-signed the allegation that the GOP “wants to sell weapons to ISIS,” but ISIS, in the Middle East at least, has had little problem acquiring US arms. What matters for political purposes is pandering to the fear that “ISIS” will acquire arms here.

For her part, Hillary Clinton has called for a renewed Assault Weapons Ban, to keep “weapons of war off our streets.” She has also backed a lawsuit by the families of Sandy Hook shooting victims against Remington Arms, whom, the suit alleges, marketed the AR-variant used in the massacre “in a militaristic fashion.” Of course, in her role as Secretary of State, Senator Clinton approved the sale of thousands of assault rifles to our “partners” in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a 2011 contract of $4.2 million for Remington specifically. The outrage is over whose “streets” such weapons wind up on, and where the “militarism” of the arms industry comes to roost.

All of this means that connections between America’s implication in violence abroad and violence at home are foreclosed from the get-go; the more troubling answers to the question of how “a weapon used in Vietnam and streets of Fallujah” ended up in an elementary school Connecticut are easily deferred when blame can be tidily left at the door of a single manufacturer. But we shouldn’t be surprised. The American capacity to wash our hands of blood while simultaneously pointing fingers is nonpareil; when it comes to small arms, our exceptionalism is so much NIMBYism. Not on “our” streets – but yes, by all means, on yours.