For the first time in a decade, the firearms industry has become a primary target in the gun debate. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton regularly hammered Bernie Sanders during the primaries over his vote for a 2005 law that grants gun manufacturers and retailers broad immunity from liability lawsuits. And the families of Sandy Hook victims are now challenging that legislation in a lawsuit against Remington, the parent company for the Bushmaster rifle used by the gunman in the 2012 elementary school rampage.
This focus on manufacturers recalls earlier times, when gun reform measures targeted gun makers, not gun owners. In the early 20th century, the gun industry saw pursuing commercial sales as the most prudent path to long-term solvency, following near ruin in the aftermath of World War I. Gun makers also viewed some proposed federal firearm restrictions, such as a ban on submachine gun sales to civilians, as a reasonable tradeoff for shielding handgun manufacturing from regulation.
In the aftermath of the war, the National Rifle Association had not yet developed into a full-fledged lobbying organization, but had already begun to articulate the ideology that defines the group today. Confronted with federal regulation that sought to restrict access to certain types of military-style firearms, as well as taxes on handguns, the NRA rallied its members in opposition. Its stance was less categorical than it is today, as the organization declared itself “absolutely favorable to reasonable legislation” that confined itself to submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns, exclusively. At the same time, the group was developing the argument that gun restrictions on any kind of firearm were the first step on a slippery slope to a federal registry and excessive gun taxes.