Selling Arms to Enemies: From Amsterdam to Arizona, A 300-Year Business Ethics Case Study

It is almost inconceivable that merchants would sell guns to their country’s enemies which were then turned on its forces with great effect. But it is an old story – and a new one.

It is precisely what happened when the Portuguese used Dutch arms to expel the Dutch from Recife in 1654. In 1672, Louis XIV attacked the Netherlands using weapons bought from Dutch merchants.

In 1693-94, Dutch merchants sold grain to France during the Nine Years War which helped Louis avoid defeat by the Dutch and their allies. Louis’s troops fighting on the Italian front in the War of Spanish Succession (1701-13) were paid through Amsterdam to the fury of the English who were allied with the Dutch against the French. Wrote the great French historian, Fernand Braudel:

In Amsterdam, however, no one voiced any criticism of such attitudes…. Business was business. According to the self-appointed moralists from abroad, anything could happen in this country ‘which is not like any other’. [Cites below.]

Now consider an article in the Jan. 26 Los Angeles Times, ‘20 Arrested in Gun Smuggling Case.’ It seems gun merchants in Arizona sold assault weapons to smugglers who, the US government alleges, planned to sell them on to the Narcos in Mexico.

One of the defendants, Uriel Patino, for example, purchased 26 AK-47 rifles from Lone Wolf Trading Co. in Glendale, Ariz., on March 26; 10 more on June 2 from the same outlet; 16 on July 8; and 12 on Aug. 5 — in addition to purchasing a number of other weapons.

The Narcos have put American-bought weapons to use. They have tied down Mexican troops across northern Mexico in a guerrilla war, one writer speculates ,in which more people are dying than in Afghanistan.

During this insurrection, the Mexican government has received billions in financial, military and intelligence support from US anti-drug efforts. Not unreasonably, on Feb. 3 Fox News headlined, ‘America’s Third War: Fears Emerge That Mexican Drug Violence Could Spill Into U.S.’ A Nov. 16, 2010 L.A. Times feature documents it has already. I agree.

Against this backdrop, the L.A. TimesKim Murphy wrote on the Arizona cases:

None of those charged in the indictments are licensed gun dealers. But the indictments identify a number of Arizona dealers that legally supplied large quantities of weapons to individual buyers, often in a single day.

The alleged crimes here weren’t the Arizona sales. They were the defendants’ intentions to resell the guns in Mexico.

At whom their muzzles might end up pointing apparently inhibited the Arizona gun dealers as much as similar implications affected Amsterdam merchants during the wars of Louis XIV.

Profit before policy: In this significant area, little has changed in business practice in 300 years. Nor has the reluctance of a capitalist nation – the people – to restrain such behavior.


The Dutch examples come from Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World: Civilization & Capitalism 15th-18th Centuries, vol. III, (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), pp. 205-06. His discussion of Amsterdam, the culture of the Netherlands in the 17th century, and the ethics of its merchants (pp. 180-206) is worth reading in its entirety.