The Tokugawa gun control plan

A cheap buyout of gunmakers as a gun control strategy.

Japanese musketeers, 16th century

Early firearms were heavily used in Japan in the civil wars of the 16th century, including by the Tokugawa faction that came out on top in 1600 and established the shogunate that lasted until the Meiji restoration of 1868. The Tokugawa ideal was a rigidly stratified and static traditional society, isolated from the outside world. Guns were among the disruptive European innovations that threatened this model, and had to be tamed as part of the overall strategy. The Tokugawa plan for gun control was one of slow strangulation. Gunmakers had to move to the capital Edo and work for the court. Demand was thus steadily shifted to luxury weapons, produced in smaller numbers. Guns did not disappear, but they were successfully marginalised in a now peaceful and regimented society.

American gun control advocates have focused entirely on demand, to little effect. It’s time to take a look at supply. A comprehensive policy would have to cover manufacture, distribution and imports. Let’s start with manufacture.

The guns sold to American civilians in such startling numbers are not made in the USA by divisions of big Pentagon contractors like Lockheed (F35, Gatling minigun), but by much smaller specialists. Some like the Barrett Company that makes large-calibre and very expensive sniper rifles ($8,500 each) are privately owned boutiques. As in most industries, the great majority of new guns sold are accounted for by a few larger companies. I relied on a good Mother Jones survey plus financial googling. Leaving out the foreigners, the American firms include:

  • American Outdoor Brands (AOBC) – owns Smith & Wesson brand. Sales $903m, Market cap $548m.
  • Sturm Ruger (RGR) – owns Remington, Bushmaster brands. Sales $679m, market cap $830m.
  • Vista Outdoor (VSTO) – Savage rifles, ammunition, other sporting goods. Sales $2.08 bn, market cap $988m.
  • Remington Outdoor Company (privately owned, in Chapter 11). Sales $865m (2016), net income $19m, debt ca. $950m. It could probably be bought for the face value of the debt.
  • O.F. Mossberg – privately owned, makes pump-action shotguns. Estimated global sales $185m. Valued at the Ruger ratio, approximate value $233m.

Have I left anybody out? Corrections welcome.

So the market value of the bulk of the American domestic gunmaking industry is about $3.5 bn. Any liberal multibillionaire (perhaps with an assist from crowdfunding) could buy the entire industry for $5bn or so. For the government, it’s pocket change.

The ownership strategy would not be profit-maximising. It would include:

  1. Maintaining current sales to the military and (with less marketing effort) law enforcement;
  2. Dropping all sales to civilians of semi-automatic weapons, keeping only two-shot shotguns, one-shot bolt-action hunting rifles, and revolvers;
  3. Selling only through retailers committing to an enforceable code of practice including full background checks;
  4. Setting up an attack-dog legal department to protect patent and trademark IP very aggressively, to discourage new entrants;
  5. Dropping all connection with the NRA or other gun advocacy organisations.

For a few years, the gunmakers would lose money. So you have to add maybe another $1bn for restructuring costs. These would never be recovered, and represent the permanent net cost of the operation.

Nationalisation is clearly the first choice. It would mark a return to the early days of gunmaking, when as a critical industry for dynastic or national security it was typically carried out in state arsenals. Coercive nationalisation is the only way of making the takeover comprehensive. The liberal billionaire has no way of forcing say Ronnie Barrett to stop selling upmarket sniper rifles to the few civilians capable of using them, or others from starting new firms.

But it’s not likely that this would be a major problem. The trade has very high regulatory and reputational risks, and would be unattractive to most venture capitalists. Money talks, and the boutiques could still sell to the military and law enforcement. Their products would be expensive from the small scale of production. (According to the website of the famous London gunmaker Purdey, a second-hand shotgun can be had for £89,000, and a new single-shot hunting rifle for a mere £25,000. Ieyasu would have bought both.) Hardly any money would find its way to the NRA, breaking the cash and ideological nexus between gunmakers and gun nuts.

A chokehold on supply of new domestic weapons would only be a start, but it creates a breathing space to tackle two other issues.

Imports could flood in replacing the lost domestic weapons. This could only be stopped by federal government action: bans on semi-automatics or very steep tariffs. The political point here is that Beretta, Glock, Sig-Sauer and Taurus – much less the nameless makers of cheap Saturday-night specials – have few votes in the states and little leverage in Washington. If nationalisation is politically feasible, so are import controls. It’s a bigger problem for the altruistic billionaire: the money could be wasted, and the investment would be a leap of faith in Democratic control in Washington.

The other problem is much bigger: the massive excess inventory. The USA has over 300 million firearms in civilian hands, three times the rate in the next highest rich countries, Norway, France, and Austria. Reaching this unambitious bar would still involve scrapping 200 million weapons. Guns are extremely durable with a modicum of care, so natural attrition from corrosion, damage and loss is very slow. Australia bought back banned weapons coercively. In the USA, a voluntary buyback under pressure might be  feasible. If you set a federal gun license of $100 per weapon per year, that would fund a large ongoing buyback. Another funding stream could be taxes on ammunition – say $0.5 a round. Responsible hunters don’t use much and would not be significantly affected. The second-hand market would have to be regulated, again with heavy fines and bans for violators. Breaches of other state or federal safety ordinances would lead to confiscation and destruction. One illegally modified rifle or improper gun storage, and all your weapons are taken.

BTW, this tough-nanny policy is all entirely compatible with the Second Amendment as interpreted in Scalia’s majority opinion in Heller. The US Constitution is even more protective of property rights than of the right to bear arms, and the rights of ownership include the right to refuse to sell and the power to destroy. Take that, gun socialists.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

27 thoughts on “The Tokugawa gun control plan”

  1. "The US Constitution is even more protective of property rights than of the right to bear arms, and the rights of ownership include the right to refuse to sell "

    Not to snark too much, but you're aware that Dick's Sporting Goods and Walmart are already being sued for their refusal to sell a 20-year-old his weapon of choice?

    1. Does the plaintiff really have a chance? Non-discrimination laws override the shopkeeper's whims and policies, so presumably Walmart can't refuse to sell guns to black shoppers only. That's a narrow and specific exception. They could also develop a religious objection to selling guns to 20-year-olds. I don't see how this could become a serious problem for the Purdey-Tokugawa Gun Corporation (props. Bloomberg, Steyer and Gates), purveyors of fine weapons to the gentry through select retailers like Neiman-Marcus.

      Dick's Sporting Goods has a market cap of $3.4 bn, about the size of all domestic gunmakers combined, and Walmart of $263 bn., enormously higher. The buyout strategy that I suggest for gun manufacture is infeasible for their distribution.

      1. And not if you found four altruistic billionaires, "competing" on a level other than financial.

        1. I'll sign up to your revised plan. Bloomberg, Steyer, Gates and Buffett buy one each.

          1. Buffett recently sold $3.3B of his Phillips 66 stock, which was considerably less than half his holding. He typically owns LARGE holdings in LARGE companies. I guess he could do this proposed deal without sweating the numbers.

  2. The Tokugawa plan for gun control was one of slow strangulation

    To be fair, that was the Tokugawa plan for just about everything that could possibly arise as a threat to their hegemony.

    1. History is not a niceness contest. Ieyasu was not an attractive personality but you can't deny he was a master of statecraft. 250 years is a very long time for a political régime to survive more or less unchanged. Cyrus and Augustus also managed it. Alexander and Qin Shi Huang conspicuously did not.

  3. aajax is a lot of fun to read as an exercise in judging for style. Like some interpretive dance ensemble.

  4. Having just watched a new documentary on the Waco massacre and its roots as an intended diversion from crimes committed by federal agents at Ruby Ridge, I'm freshly reminded of the necessity of the 2nd amendment. And while it's true that American citizens were more or less helplessly slaughtered by government agents despite their camps being well-armed in both cases, the response of patriots from all over the country to 200+ heavily armed federal agents converging on the Bundy ranch over a grazing dispute and the outcome of that conflict on the ground and in the courts proved that well-organized armed citizens can still prevail against a powerful government intent on using violent force to achieve a goal.

    So I plan to head over to Bass Pro this weekend and pick up one of the new Savage Arms MSR15 models, maybe counter some of the negative press both companies have been getting lately for not kowtowing to people who just don't get firearms and don't realize that their efforts, though well-intentioned, would probably be better spent working to make swimming pools safer for children, for instance. (Or maybe keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of mentally unstable government agents – Got a plan for that?)

    1. It is one of the merits of my proposal, and of any other scheme targeting supply, that it does not rely on persuading people like you lost in an adolescent fantasy of heroic armed resistance to a tyrannical government. Odd that in Europe this can be found mainly on the far left.

    2. the response of patriots from all over the country to 200+ heavily armed federal agents converging on the Bundy ranch over a grazing dispute and the outcome of that conflict on the ground and in the courts proved that well-organized armed citizens can still prevail against a powerful government intent on using violent force to achieve a goal.

      In some circles those who offer armed resistance to perfectly legitimate government law enforcement efforts are known as "criminals," rather than "patriots."

      1. Perhaps, though the courts disagreed in this case. In any event, what we didn't see was another Ruby Ridge or Waco type event. That's a plus in my book. That people were willing to risk criminal prosecution to prevent that is awe-inspiring to me.

        1. Actually, they didn't really. There were problems with the prosecution, and I don't think the courts ruled that Bundy didn't have to pay the fees that were at the heart of the dispute.

          Admire a deadbeat scofflaw if you want to, but don't make him or his supporters out to be great patriots. They're not. They're assholes.

          1. I didn't say that the courts ruled in Bundy's favor on the grazing fee issue. We were talking about criminal prosecution for bearing arms in resistance to "perfectly legitimate government law enforcement", remember? And I didn't say I admire Bundy. I didn't admire David Koresh either, but what the federal government did at his compound had nothing to do with legitimate law enforcement.

            Yes, there were "problems with the prosecution", but they didn't start there. The government brought an army of snipers to a cattle round-up at the Bundy ranch. The patriots I admire noticed similarities to the lead-ups to Ruby Ridge & Waco and moved to prevent it. Successfully. Without firing a shot. Now THAT's some modern-day well-regulated militia action. The courts threw the cases out because the government overstepped their bounds at every turn from the very beginning.

          2. The government's "army of snipers" was there because of the treat of armed resistance to the roundup, which was fully justified.

            There would have been no issue had undo simply complied with the law. The "patriots" were there to help resist legitimate law enforcement. Admire these thugs if you like, but remember that the whole thing started because Bundy put himself above the law, and resisted peaceful compliance for many years.

          3. Irrelevant. You could say the same about Ruby Ridge and Waco. Doesn't justify what the government did. Does justify taking action to prevent a repeat. And don't make me laugh about the threat of armed resistance to the roundup. Read the news articles from the time – the big threat they repeatedly cited to justify calling in the hordes was that Bundy was referring to it as a "range war". The feds were the ones that made it so. The militia was a response to that. Don't you see that the idea that "we're the government and you must comply with our every command or we'll send in an overwhelming army of snipers and start killing your people until you do" is the very definition of tyranny? Why would any citizen want to support that? Tell me, do you feel like justice was served at Waco? Would justice have been served at the Bundy ranch if snipers had killed his wife standing in her doorway with her baby in her arms like they did to Randy Weaver's wife?

            The courts saw all the evidence in the Bundy case. They found that the government's behavior was so egregious that they dismissed the case with prejudice. That's a lot more than a few procedural "problems with the prosecution". You might find it enlightening to read the verdict.

          4. "we're the government and you must comply with our every command or we'll send in an overwhelming army of snipers and start killing your people until you do" is the very definition of tyranny?

            I'd say,"You must obey the laws" is anything but tyranny.

            How should the grazing fee issue have been settled? What is the proper response to refusals to obey lawful court orders? How should the government have acted when Bundy threatened "range war," which, sorry, was not made so by the feds, but by Bundy and his thug buddies.

            I'm tired of this. You've swallowed a lot of "sovereign citizen" and related nonsense and keep distorting the facts. By the way, I'm also tired of the whole western shtick of hardy self-reliance that hates the government, when the whole region is on the government teat, on top of which it enjoys vastly disproportionate power in the government it purports not to need.

            Take your Jihn Wayne fantasies elsewhere.

          5. We're a nation of laws, and that applies to the government equally as it does to citizens. The government didn't obey the laws either. That's my point you keep missing. You're welcome to your own opinion, of course, but as I said; the courts saw all the facts in the case and came to their verdict based on those facts.

          6. Look I'm done debating this too (many thanks for the conversation), but if you're interested in the facts of the case, might I suggest the Mother Jones article The Government Has Screwed Up The Bundy Case Even Worse Than We Realized. 4th Google hit for navarro ruling bundy standoff.

          7. The "overwhelming army of snipers" consisted of at most 200 federal law enforcement officers, not the military. The former are trained to use minimum force; the latter, to use maximum force until the objective is achieved. It's not at all the same thing. Militia were generally ineffective even in eighteenth-century warfare, with similar weapons, and Britain actually disbanded its version after the long Napoleonic Wars in which the militia had played no part. The gap between amateurs and professionals has only widened since. Second-line Wehrmacht units had no trouble dealing with the Vercors incident and the Slovak National uprising. The image of beer-bellied weekend good old boys facing off against the 82nd Airborne is heartlessly pleasant to contemplate, but it won't happen – the boys can't generate a threat that would justify repression using half of the full power of the US military.

            I'm calling a halt to this off-topic side thread. Further comments please only on issues raised in the post.

          8. Further comments please only on issues raised in the post.

            I tried that and my comment was held for moderation. Still not up.

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