Democrats, gun manufacturers battle over violence, white supremacy at heated hearing

Democrats battled with the leaders of several major gun manufacturing companies on Wednesday at a House Oversight Committee hearing focused on the role gunmakers play in gun violence across the country.

The hearing was held immediately after the panel released a new report that found gun manufacturers earned more than $1 billion from military-style assault weapons in the last decade. The report said that revenues for Daniel Defense and Sturm, Ruger & Company, two gun manufacturers whose CEOs testified at Wednesday’s hearing, tripled between 2019 and 2021.

The committee’s report also said the companies have used “manipulative marketing campaigns” to sell assault rifles to Americans, including young Americans. It also said that sales and marketing materials obtained by the committee made “sly references” to “violent white supremacists like the Boogaloo Boys.”

Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) early on in the hearing asked the two CEOs who attended if they felt any responsibility for the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 elementary school children and two teachers were killed.

The two CEOs condemned recent mass shootings in Uvalde and Highlight Park, Ill., where shooters used AR-15s, but stopped short of agreeing to end the sales of such weapons. 

Marty Daniel, CEO of Daniel Defense, said he is “deeply disturbed” by the string of mass shootings and that such acts need to be stopped. 

“I believe that these murders are local problems that have to be solved locally,” he added. 

Christopher Killoy, president and CEO of Ruger, argued against labeling the “modern sporting rifles” his company makes as weapons of war and said the rifles are inanimate objects not to be blamed for tragic events.

Maloney said those responses reflected a “staggering lack of accountability” due to the high profits their companies had seen.

Republicans on the panel offered support for the gun manufacturers. GOP lawmakers have largely opposed efforts in the House and Senate to move major pieces of gun legislation, though one bill did reached President Biden’s desk after the Uvalde shooting.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said it was “absurd” to target manufacturers instead of addressing the issue of rising violent crimes.

Sales of guns have changed since the pandemic, with The New York Times reporting that 2021 saw half of new gun owners were women, a fifth were Black and a fifth were Latino.

The fastest growing gun owner demographic is now Black women, said Antonia Okafor, the national director of women’s outreach for Gun Owners of America and a gun-owning Black woman who testified Wednesday. This is in part due to violent crime perpetrated against them, she said. 

Having access to an AR-15 provides a sense of safety for women without discomfort other guns might cause, Okafor argued. 

“The No. 1 reason that women buy firearms is for self-defense,” she said. “The AR-15 allows women to have a larger firearm without having to absorb the recoil as much as one does with a smaller handheld firearm.” 

But Kelly Sampson, senior counsel and director of racial justice at Brady: United Against Gun Violence, said the “good guy with a gun” narrative perpetuates racial inequities. 

“Good guy with a gun is usually code for white, resulting in disparate treatment for Black gun owners,” said Sampson. “Police shot and killed Philando Castile, a Black licensed concealed carry permit holder during a traffic stop whereas police were peacefully able to take an armed white man into custody who’d fled after shooting and killing seven people at a July 4 parade in Highland Park.”

The racial discrepancies were pushed again by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who said the advertising of gun manufacturers encourages white nationalists and white supremacists to purchase assault weapons. 

“As long as gun manufactures have immunity to sell their weapons of war using harmful marketing tactics, Black and Brown communities will continue to be targeted,” said Pressley. 

When questioned by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on symbols of white nationalism and supremacy in their advertisements, such as the white-supremacist adopted Valknot, both CEOs denied having been aware of such symbols. 

But Ryan Busse, senior advisor at Gifford Law Center and former firearms executive, said the use of such imagery in marketing is “looked away from.” He added that racist imagery is “not properly controlled or addressed” in the gun industry.

“There is an aura and an approach that any single gun customer is good no matter how detestable their views or actions may be,” said Busse. “I saw dozens of examples throughout my career of the acceptance of looking away of racist things.”

Wednesday’s hearing was the committee’s second on the gun crisis in America. The first heard from victims of shootings in Uvalde, and the supermarket killings at a Buffalo, N.Y. grocery store where victims were targeted because they were Black.

But the hearing also showcased the deep partisan divide on addressing gun violence, with Democrats pushing for an end to the sale of AR-15s, or at least holding manufacturers responsible if their products are used in violent offences. Republicans reprimanded their colleagues for attempting to limit the rights of law-abiding citizens. 

Maloney said she will introduce legislation to hold gun manufacturers accountable for damage inflicted by their products.

House Democrats separately punted on a planned vote on gun measures.