Fintan O’Toole: Orlando, Cerberus and the profits of mass murder
Group that bought Nama’s NI portfolio also owns an assault rifle maker
What links the blood-stained walls of the Pulse nightclub to an office block in Belfast? Money. And the way people who have enough of it always get what they want.
In April 2014, the Irish state, in the form of Nama, gave a lovely business deal to the people who make assault rifles of the kind that Omar Mateen used to kill 50 people at the Pulse LGBT nightclub in Orlando on Sunday. Nama sold, for just €1.6 billion, a portfolio of properties in Northern Ireland with a book value of €5.4 billion to Cerberus Capital Management. Cerberus, a US fund humorously named after the monstrous three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hell, is now well known to Irish readers because its purchase of those loans from Nama is the focus of criminal and parliamentary investigations.
But Cerberus is also very big in guns. It is run by people for whom everything is just business, from firesales to firearms, from Irish property deals to selling weapons of war to anyone who wants them. The connection between Belfast and Orlando reminds us of a truth that is easily forgotten - behind every mass shooting by a deranged psychopath in the US is a very profitable industry owned by Ivy League graduates with clean hands and manicured nails, respectable people who fund politicians in Congress and host charity galas in Manhattan. If they had a slogan it would be the old Roman adage, pecunia non olet - money has no smell.
Cerberus got into guns for exactly the same reason it got into the ownership of shops and offices and apartments in Belfast and Bangor and Newry - because there’s money in it. It purchased Bushmaster, which makes the most popular range of semi-automatic assault rifles on the US consumer market, in 2006. Then it set up what it called the Freedom Group, a conglomerate of arms manufacturers that, in 2013, sold 1.8 million firearms and 1.2 billion rounds of ammunition.
But it ran into trouble in 2012. A psychopath called Adam Lanza caused a PR problem for Cerberus. He used one of its guns, the Bushmaster XM 15 assault rifle (marketed under the slogan “React with proven confidence”) to murder 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The kids were six and seven year-olds. The XM 15 literally blew their heads off.
Cerberus thought that Lanza would bad for business. In the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook, Cerberus announced that it would “immediately engage in a formal process to sell our investment in Freedom Group”. It presumably thought that public horror would make it impossible to be both a dealer of death and the kind of fund that could, for example, engage in massively profitable deals with entities like the Irish state. But such fears proved to be groundless - and the blood money kept rolling in. In the year after Sandy Hook, Freedom Group’s profits actually rose by 35 per cent, to $240 million - fuelled in part by greatly increased sales of the XM 15. It turned out that Lanza murdering kids was in fact very good for business.
So Cerberus quietly dropped its promise to stop dealing in death. And the massacres went on - even in schools. As Iain Overton points out in his chilling book, Gun Baby Gun, “in the 18 months before Sandy Hook there were 17 deaths recorded nationwide in 17 documented shootings at US schools. In the 18 months following Sandy Hook, 41 deaths were recorded in 62 incidents, an increase of 141 per cent.”
Most people thought Sandy Hook would be a turning point - and it was. It galvanised the gun industry, with Cerberus at its centre, to ramp up its efforts to ensure that even more guns could be purchased by even more people with even fewer restrictions. Overton reports that since Sandy Hook, 27 US states have passed 93 laws expanding gun rights, including the right to carry concealed weapons in classrooms and churches.
None of this is accidental. Cerberus and its associates and the other gun profiteers fund the National Rifle Association, which in turn controls politicians, especially Republicans. In December 2013, George Kollitides, chairman and CEO of the Cerberus-owned Freedom Group, vice chairman Wally McLallen, and president Scott Blackwell were all inducted into the National Rifle Association’s “Golden Ring of Freedom”, which honors those who have given the NRA at least $1 million. Cerberus and Freedom Group continued to pump money into the Republican Party. These are wise investments.
Cerberus stand to benefit if Omar Mateen proves to be as good a salesman for assault rifles as Adam Lanza turned out to be at Sandy Hook. For Donald Trump and the Republicans and the NRA, Orlando will be another “proof” that Americans need still more access to yet more lethal weapons. Profits will keep rising and there will be no whiff of cordite off the money that will flow into the bank accounts of Cerberus’s discreet investors. Whether it comes from the rents on an apartment block in Belfast or the pushing of machines for murder, the money will be all the same.