Back on May 11, when the most vivid impressions of the carnage of gun violence were still coming from Parkland, Fla., the conservative TV commentator S.E. Cupp defended the gun industry with a tweet stating that the industry had "created 91,000 jobs over the past 5 years." She added, "That's people, not profits."
Cupp was responding to a tweet from Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, praising Dick's Sporting Goods for its decision to limit firearm sales in its stores.
We asked Cupp via Twitter for the source of her statistic. She hasn't responded, but no matter: We know the source. It's the gun lobby, specifically the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which identifies itself as "the firearms industry trade association."
Cupp's statement comes directly out of the group's economic impact report, published in March. The report states that the industry "created about 91,000 new, well-paying jobs over the past five years" and adds that it's "proud to be one of the bright spots in this economy."
Is that so?
Leaving aside the unwittingly gruesome timing of Cupp's tweet, which came a mere seven days before a gunman killed two teachers and eight students at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, the claim warrants some close analysis, which it has received most recently from Invictus, a financial industry figure who posts pseudonymously at Barry Ritholtz's Big Picture blog, in a post Monday.
As Invictus and others have observed, it's only fair that any assertion of the gun industry's contribution to the U.S. economy be netted out against its cost. We don't have figures for firearm-related deaths for the last five years, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that from 2011 to 2015, firearms took the lives of 169,396 people in the U.S. About 60% of these were suicides.
The CDC reports that the highest death rates from firearms consistently occur in the 25-to-34 age group, which encompasses people just beginning their careers, and the 15-to-24 cohort, which includes those just preparing to enter the workforce. That doesn't even include injuries that limit or eliminate gunshot victims' opportunities for gainful employment.
The economic loss created by the deaths and injries of tens of thousands of Americans over five years is literally immeasurable. But take them all together, and the ledger of economic gain from employment versus economic loss from death and injury plainly is written in blood-red ink.
What about the gun industry's actual jobs figures? They were generated for the trade association by John Dunham & Co., a New York firm that appears to specialize in producing economic rationales for industries facing costly regulations, such as beer, tobacco, and scrap recycling. Dunham himself is a former economist for Philip Morris.
The firm offers to "arm our clients with compelling economic talking points, tables, maps and reports that can be used to educate policy makers, members of the media and other key stakeholders on important issues."
Mostly based on Dunham's calculations, the trade association asserts that the gun industry was responsible for 310,908 jobs in 2017. These include workers directly employed by gun manufacturers and distributors, by suppliers to those firms, and as an extra fillip, "induced" employment — that is, "the economic effect induced by re-spending by industry and supplier employees," according to Dunham's client brochure. This is an attempt to capture the nebulous "multiplier" effect.
"If I work for a gun manufacturer and I go to lunch at a diner across from the factory, that's induced employment," John Dunham told me in an interview.
That brings us to the claim of 91,000 new jobs over the last five years. The calculation appears to be based on the growth in direct, supplier, and induced employment Dunham calculated from 2011, when his firm says it was 220,130, through 2017, when it was 310,908. The calculation yields 90,778 new jobs, though it covers six years, not five.
But there's a lot of leeway in defining how many people actually are directly employed in the firearms industry. The government's Bureau of Labor Statistics says they numbered 45,600 in March, up from 41,700 at the beginning of 2011. The bureau statistics apply to employment in "small arms, ammunition, and other ordnance and accessories."
The Dunham firm puts the figure at 149,113 workers. The trade association's statistical brochure says that includes "firearms and ammunition manufacturers, as well as companies that manufacture products such as ammunition holders and magazines, cases, decoys, game calls, holsters, hunting equipment, scopes, clay pigeons and targets." But the Dunham count also includes direct employment in "wholesale distribution and retailing of these products." John Dunham says the retail component is the major source of the discrepancy between his figures and the bureau's.
That gives the gun industry enormous latitude for statistical massage, since "retail trade," according to the bureau, employs more than 15 million people in the U.S. Determining who counts as employed in firearm wholesaling and retailing seems as much an art as a science. For instance, if you're a cashier at a sporting goods store that stocks guns among its basketballs, water bottles and camping equipment, are you directly employed in gun retailing?
Dunham says his firm uses a census of retail trade to determine how much of a retailer's sales are in firearms, and applies that to employment. "If you work at a Walmart with 400 employees, and 10% of its sales are guns, then we calculate that 10% of its full-time equivalent employees" are involved in gun retailing.
Invictus, in his post about the jobs figures, puts his finger on the essential fatuousness of the gun industry's economic claims: They're necessarily selective. By the industry's logic, he observes, "it stands to reason that some number of ambulance drivers, police officers, hostage negotiators, surgeons, physical therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists and, of course, morticians, even the guys who dig the graves, all of whom deal with victims of gunshot wounds, would also be included among firearms industry employees."
The most mystifying aspect of the industry's effort to justify its existence by appealing to employment economics is that it only reminds us of the appalling toll of gun violence in America.
By the Bureau of Labor Statistics' reckoning, gunmaking is one of the smallest segments of the durable goods manufacturing sector. If you think its economic benefits outweigh its costs, ask the families of Glenda "Ann" Perkins, Cynthia Tisdale, Jared Conrad Black, Shana Fisher, Christian "Riley" Garcia, Aaron Kyle McLeod, Angelique Ramirez, Sabika Sheikh, Christopher Jake Stone and Kimberly Jessica Vaughan. They're the two teachers and eight students who lost their lives at Santa Fe High School on May 18. How do we measure their loss?