Thanks to the heroic determination of high-school students, the gun-control movement is on the march in the United States. Companies around the country are distancing themselves from the NRA. Yet media giants like Amazon and Apple still purvey NRA propaganda; major financial companies like Visa and MasterCard keep facilitating gun sales; and the storied insurance company Lloyds of London persists in insuring the NRA and gun shows.
The immovability of these big targets makes clear the challenges of a consumer-boycott strategy against an industry historically at the heart of modern life. Arms manufacturing has been entangled with our financial system from the beginning, and excising it from the economy will not be easy.
Britain’s military engagements and colonial excursions in the 18th century helped drive industrialization. Military contracting fueled the development of metallurgical industries. In 1752, Birmingham boasted that “above Twenty thousand Hands” were employed “in useful Manufactures…greatly serviceable to the Government.” The town worked to quash any legislation threatening its booming firearms industry, convinced that injury to it would damage the entire region, throwing a “considerable…portion of its population” out of employment.
Britain’s biggest gun-making firm was owned by Samuel Galton Jr. Galton was a Quaker, and the Religious Society of Friends is a sect known for its pacifist commitments. In 1796, responding to concerns raised in his church, Galton defended his business by arguing that there was no industrial work he might do that did not in some way contribute to war. Indeed, fellow Quakers in town included families like the Lloyds, his iron suppliers, whose war profits laid the foundation of Lloyds Bank. Galton’s logic did not persuade the Quaker church; he was officially disowned. The church refused to receive “further Collection from him or to admit his attending our Meetings,” but he defiantly continued to attend the worship, and the Quaker Ackworth School and other Quaker charitable organizations continued to accept his donations. Meanwhile, as war with France went on, the Galton gun fortune skyrocketed. The family used this wealth to establish a bank in 1804. The Galton bank later merged with Midland, now part of HSBC.
Soon after, government-spawned innovation in firearms manufacturing again drove industrial revolution. After decades of patient investment, the US federal government enabled the production of firearms with interchangeable parts. The resulting “American System of Manufacture” was adopted in machine-tool, sewing-machine, and other industries. British gun makers followed suit, adding bicycles, cars, and other essential modern goods to their offerings. At the end of the 19th century, global arms sales were thriving. European and American arms companies obtained banking partners that gave loans to client states. Cartels formed as business alliances emerged to divide up world markets.