US Militarism Fuels Domestic Gun Violence

With easy access to guns of all types, but especially the AR-15 military style assault rifle, there continues to be devastating gun violence in America’s cities and towns. Wholly or in part, all these preventable deaths have one driver in common: US militarism.

by Nancy Goldner and Cate Henning

Since we wrote this article, 3 people in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 3 people in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 5 people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 19 children and 2 teachers in Uvalde, Texas, a person at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California, 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and hundreds of other people have been killed by gun violence in the United States. These losses are devastating. As we all grieve, please read this article with caution. 

The use of force by the United States as a driver of foreign policy is directly linked to gun violence within this country. There is a deep-seated and ongoing connection between episodes of violence domestically and armed interventions by the US military around the world. For example, veteran gun suicides and the military style weapons used in mass shootings are, in part, a consequence of the United States’ culture of militarism that pervades civilian life. 

Gun violence: A greater threat at home than in combat  

The prevalence of domestic gun violence disproportionately impacts veterans. Since 2001, 114,000 US veterans have died by gun suicide, a result of militarism and its impact on veteran health and American gun culture.

Direct involvement in war zones is highly correlated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses in veterans, all of which are exacerbated by the military’s hegemonic masculine culture. The military creates and relies on a culture that emphasizes toughness, a moral responsibility to serve, prioritization of the unit and mission over personal needs, and taking the blame for actions and consequences over which individual members have no control. These values are so ingrained in military members that they often avoid seeking mental health care. Many even choose to remain in the military for longer periods of service despite severe emotional distress, including suicidal ideation.

Taking a break to get mental health care is at odds with the military’s expectation of perseverance and selflessness at all costs. Active members of the military and veterans who are indoctrinated with these values often do not receive needed mental health care because seeking such care is perceived as a weakness. This lack of treatment worsens veterans’ risk of suicide.

Increasingly, military members are returning to combat again and again, compounding this mental health crisis. Members are going back because they feel pressure and responsibility to be strong and protect others, even at such a high cost to themselves. Returning to combat increases their physical and mental trauma, and the risk of suicide after discharge or retirement.

Serving in the military significantly increases the likelihood of the use of a gun for suicide. This exacerbates the veteran suicide crisis because suicides using firearms have a 90% fatality rate, compared with 4% for other suicide methods. Gun ownership itself triples the risk of suicide, and 44.9% of veterans own guns, more than double the rate of non-veterans. As a result, in 2019, firearms were used by 69% of the veterans who took their own lives, compared to 53% of non-veterans. The high rate of gun ownership among veterans is lethal and is largely the result of militarism.

In the US, 70% of veterans with guns cite self-protection as the primary reason for owning a firearm. In reality, research about gun violence shows that firearms are rarely used for self-protection, and that owning a gun does not make a person safer. This contradiction exists because people with past traumas are more likely to perceive a higher risk of threat to their safety congruent with their past experiences, thus heightening their assessed need for protection with a gun. This is especially the case for veterans, many of whom served in war zones and survived threats and injuries in combat.

Perception of risk influences gun ownership, as well as overall desire for self-protection. The US government misrepresents the threat of terrorism to gain support for its militarism abroad by frightening civilians into believing such action is critical for safety. This fearmongering tactic primarily used to support US militarism also increases the perception of risk that drives veterans to obtain firearms, yet another way in which US militarism worsens the risk of suicide for veterans.

The impact of US militarism is limiting access to healthcare for veterans with mental illnesses and suicidal ideation, while simultaneously promoting gun ownership and increasing the fatality of suicide attempts. The effects of US militarism are also worsening domestic gun violence affecting everyday civilians in the United States.

The US military’s deadly assault rifle in civilian hands

US militarism and its culture has pervaded American society, worsening domestic gun violence against civilians. In the early 1960s, during the Vietnam War, the South Vietnamese were outgunned by the North’s use of a smaller automatic rifle, the AK-47. After an aggressive sales pitch to Defense Secretary McNamara and General Curtis Lemay by Colt, the US military and the South Vietnamese began using the M-16, originally known as the Armalite Corporation’s AR-15, a lightweight rifle specifically designed for military use. The weapon’s simple design and low recoil made it easy to learn to operate, while its high muzzle velocity (speed of the round as it leaves the barrel of the gun) and fast cyclic rate made it exceptionally lethal. To this day, since buying the right to manufacture the M-16 version of the AR-15, Colt is still providing the M-16 to the US military.

By the 1960s, Colt had reached saturation with the sale of its M-16s to the military and was looking for something new to expand its profitability. At that time, Colt determined that the civilian market was potentially larger and more lucrative than gun sales to the US military or law enforcement. There was already a glut of handgun sales to civilians, so Colt converted the M-16 for civilian use, retaining its original name, the AR-15. The simple design of the AR-15 added to its appeal to prospective gun buyers. Even though the AR-15 had limited automatic firing capability, its self-loading feature brought a new round into the firing chamber immediately after a round was fired, allowing for continuous firing. The use of high-capacity magazines further expanded this feature.

Colt introduced the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle for sale in 1964 and held its patent until 1977, after which multiple gun manufacturers began to manufacture and sell their own versions of semi-automatic assault rifles. Currently, prospective buyers can choose from 23 different models of the AR-15 from 18 different makers. At latest count, almost 18 million AR-15s are privately owned.

Not surprisingly, the manufacturers’ marketing strategy touts the military pedigree of AR-15 style rifles. Their strategy is deliberately designed to appeal to largely young, white, male prospective gun buyers who are attracted by the “tactical coolness factor” of the AR-15. Advertising incorporates the kind of militaristic language and images routinely found in first person shooter video games that utilize real guns and accessories.  For example, advertising for the Bushmaster Assault rifle, manufactured by the Remington Outdoor Group and used in Newtown, highlights the use of the weapon in offensive, anti-personnel situations and environments. Language used in these ads includes: “Bravery on Duty,” “Versatility on the Range or During Patrol,” “React with Proven Confidence,” “The Leader, Others Follow,” and “Control Your Destiny.” A new junior size AR-15 named the JR-15 “that looks, feels and operates just like Mom and Dad’s Gun” is being manufactured and marketed by WEE1 Tactical. On their website it states: “The JR-15 is smaller, weighs less…and looks cool, too. The brand is meant to be edgy.” Advertisement of these weapons is impacting gun ownership and use, and is infiltrating US society with military culture and ideals.

How deadly is the AR-15? A list of multiple sites of mass shootings across America between 2011 and 2022 that involved the use of an AR-15 style rifle reveals a horrifying roster of its lethality: Boulder, Orlando, Parkland, Las Vegas, Aurora, Newtown, Nashville, San Bernadino, Midland/Odessa, Poway, Sutherland Springs, Pittsburgh, Washington DC. In the Washington, DC shooting that occurred on April 23, 2022, the shooter stated online that he was an “AR-15 aficionado.” The shooter in the Buffalo mass shooting that just occurred on May 14, 2022, killing 10 people, used a semi-automatic rifle and wore military garb, according to police. 

After each mass shooting, gun control advocates speak out and demand that the Federal government enact legislation. Instead, gun sales often spike after shootings in reaction to fears of potential gun bans. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 expired in 2014 in accordance with its sunset clause. New Federal bans have been proposed numerous times since then without Congressional action. In March 2022, after the Atlanta spa and Boulder mass shootings in the same week, Biden proposed a new ban, but it has yet to be taken up by the Congress. 

A recent legal victory in a civil suit brought by parents of 9 of the victims murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown may offer another avenue at least for accountability. The families settled for $73 million with Remington Arms, the manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle used in the massacre. This is a landmark settlement as it is the first time a gun manufacturer faced liability for a mass shooting. 

In the years since the launch of the “Global War on Terror,” there have been thousands of preventable civilian deaths in the Middle East while thousands of American veterans and civilians have died from domestic gun violence. With easy access to guns of all types, but especially the AR-15 military style assault rifle, there continues to be devastating carnage in America’s cities and towns. Wholly or in part, all these preventable deaths have one driver in common: US militarism. 

How does this relate to the work of Massachusetts Peace Action?

At Massachusetts Peace Action, the call for funding healthcare, not warfare, is critical. US militarism’s culture of fear convinces people of a need for increased military funding, meanwhile veterans are dying from gun suicide and civilians are being murdered with military-style assault rifles at horrifying rates. Mental health care for veterans is lifesaving and MAPA’s fight for funding and accessibility is crucial. 

MAPA’s work against militarism and for non-violent foreign policy is also critical. There is an opportunity to connect MAPA’s focus on US militarism abroad with the work organizations are doing to address domestic civilian violence. On June 11th, members of MAPA will join the March For Our Lives rally at Boston Common to demand that President Biden and lawmakers take action immediately to stop the gun violence epidemic. Another next step might be to collaborate with the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, which was formed after the Sandy Hook mass shooting and now has over 120 member organizations. MAPA can contribute to the work of these organizations by informing and collaborating on work to address gun manufacturers’ militaristic marketing to civilians and the disproportionate rate of gun ownership and suicide among veterans. 

And, finally, the connection between US militarism and domestic gun violence is not limited to veteran suicides and the use of military weapons in mass shootings. The militarization of police in the United States, partially through the 1033 program (read more about this program here), is killing civilians. MAPA will continue to work on abolishing the 1033 program as a critical step in addressing gun violence in the United States. 

Nancy Goldner has been advocating for world peace and against US militarism since the 1960s.

— Cate Henning studies health science and environmental studies at Northeastern University, and is an intern at MAPA.