Once again, in the wake of a horrific mass shooting, Congress has failed to pass even any token gun reform legislation. This time, legislative inaction took a little more than eight days.
Why can’t we do anything about massacres with semi-automatic, high-capacity guns that have helped make ours the most violent advanced nation on earth? Because we have allowed a minority of extremists to control the gun debate.
The only thing stopping real gun reform in the United States is a paranoid fear that has long been quietly peddled by the gun lobby. Any system of regulation, they maintain, would create lists of gun owners that some future, tyrannical regime would use to seize Americans’ guns and impose a totalitarian state.
That might sound like hyperbole (and it is), but propaganda about a federal government registry or list of gun owners is the chief obstacle to meaningful gun reform in the United States.
For decades, proponents of gun reform have avoided the gun lobby’s central argument. Cowed by the NRA, they have chosen to try to make incremental reforms in the vain hope that they might some day build enough momentum to make a difference. That’s what happened when Democratic Senators led a filibuster last week after the Orlando gay nightclub shooting, and proposed reforms including a “no-buy” list for suspected terrorists, and a new “assault weapons” ban.
A “no buy” list would be a step in the right direction, but it would still only stop terrorist suspects who have already been clearly flagged as dangerous. An “assault weapons” ban, if it looks anything like the 1994 ban, would outlaw guns based more on their cosmetic features than their mechanical functions, or proscribe some guns while allowing for other, equally lethal weapons.
Similarly, expanded background checks, a reform proposed after the Sandy Hook school shooting that failed to pass Congress, would deter some gun buyers. But even so-called “universal” background checks, if they were finally enacted, would only marginally help reduce gun violence. In the bills proposed after recent mass shootings, “universal” background checks have been riddled with loopholes for gun shows and private sales.
Over and over, members of Congress have allowed the NRA to deflect, distort and ultimately define the terms of the gun debate. Aging rocker, bona fide Vietnam-era draft dodger, and NRA board member Ted Nugent may be a raging, racist buffoon, but NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre is a master at public communication. He has long quietly struck an ideological chord with NRA loyalists, while making far more pragmatic sounding arguments in public.
NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen at NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia declined to comment for this story.
But NRA spokespeople follow a script, as anyone watching cable news since the Orlando gay nightclub shooting must have noticed. This is how it goes:
- Before trying to pass any new laws, government must first “enforce the laws already on the books.” (Don’t mention that NRA lobbying has ensured that agencies tasked with enforcing gun laws don’t have the resources to do it. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or ATF, prevented by law from using an electronic database to track gun sales, specifically because of NRA pressure. The Centers for Disease Control are barred from conducting research on gun violence.)
- Proposed reforms would not have prevented shooters in recent tragedies from obtaining guns, as LaPierre said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” (The NRA, by the way, is largely right on this point, as I explain above.)
- Bog the discussion down with mechanical minutiae about guns like whether an AR-15 riflewas used in Orlando. Disdainfully point out, for instance, that the Sig Sauer MCX rifle used inside the nightclub operates with a different firing system—gas piston instead of direct impingement- than the traditional AR-15, which the NRA has dubbed “America’s rifle.” Even though the manufacturer markets the MCX as a “next generation” improvement on the AR-15.
Most importantly, wrap yourself in the Second Amendment, saying undermining it is no way to respond to gun tragedies, like Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan did last week after Orlando. Without ever explaining how exactly the Second Amendment allegedly protects an unlimited right to guns, as the NRA claims; it doesn’t, and no court has ever ruled it does.
Finally, start over and repeat the same points ad infinitum, to prevent gun dialogue from advancing any further. The result? After each gun tragedy from Sandy Hook to San Bernardino, from Aurora to Orlando, from Columbine to Charleston, from Virginia Tech to Tucson, we end up talking more about why specific reform measures won’t work than about what actually will. Rarely, if ever, do we begin the conversation with a simple premise, Why can’t we make a difference?
This is the kind of broad question that makes NRA lobbyists nervous, as the answer has the potential to unmask the fallacy of their own core claim: Americans must have unregulated access to unlimited quantities of high-powered firearms to defend our freedom and, if necessary, fight a war or wage an insurrection against the state.
That claim might sound like a B movie pitch (as in the 1984 classic “Red Dawn” starring the late Patrick Swayze and directed by former NRA board director John Milius). But it is the steady drumbeat played by right-wing talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, and Internet outlets including Glen Beck’s DailyCaller.com and Alex Jones’ InfoWars.com. More than a few Twitter streams are similarly flooded with terms like #Molon Labe, a classic Greek phrase for “come and take” them [guns], often juxtaposed to #NRA.
Such views have helped spawn terrorism before. In 1995, on the second anniversary of the Waco siege, Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people including 19 children. McVeigh later said he was acting in revenge for Waco’s federal raid over illegal guns, and in opposition to the “assault weapons” ban that had just passed Congress.
The gun lobby has publicly distanced itself from people like McVeigh, but its leaders clearly support the notion of armed insurrection against the state.
“Our Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment so Americans would never have to live in tyranny,” LaPierre said in 2012 before a United Nations international arms control panel. “Our Second Amendment is freedom’s most valuable, most cherished, most irreplaceable idea.”
“History proves it,” he went on. “When you ignore the right of good people to own firearms to protect their freedom, you become the enablers of future tyrants whose regimes will destroy millions and millions of defenseless lives.”
History proves no such thing, even though Ben Carson made this explicit claim in the case of Nazi Germany both in his book and when he ran for the Republican nomination for president earlier this year. Historians like professor of history and Holocaust studies Alan E. Steinweis at the University of Vermont have debunked this view, and no serious scholar has ever made a credible case for it.
Nor have U.S. courts ever even heard, let alone upheld such a view. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment as ensuring not just the right of state militias to be armed, but also the right of individuals to keep a gun in the home for self-defense. But instead of upholding the gun lobby’s expansive claim of individual gun rights, the Court in an opinion written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia ruled that that the Second Amendment is “not unlimited” and that laws may be passed on “conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
While quietly telling its base that the NRA defends its alleged right of unlimited access to guns, NRA leaders have been far more circumspect in public when asked to address the matter. In 2013, after the Sandy Hook massacre, Sen. Dick Durbin asked LaPierre point blank about the purpose behind the Second Amendment, saying his own constituents in Illinois who are NRA members have told the senator: “We need the firepower and the ability to protect ourselves from our government—from our government, from the police—if they knock on our doors and we need to fight back.”
Wasn’t that the perfect chance for LaPierre to say clearly for all to hear how much the NRA cherishes the Second Amendment for its defense of freedom? But instead the NRA executive director, just seven months after his campy U.N. speech, spoke in a more subdued tone on national television:
“Senator, I think that without a doubt, if you look at why our Founding Fathers put it there, they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again,” answered LaPierre.
The polished NRA communicator then deftly changed the subject.
In today’s world, LaPierre went on, the Second Amendment remains “relevant and essential” for other reasons. People fear “being abandoned by their government. If a tornado hits, if a hurricane hits, if a riot occurs that they’re gonna be out there alone. And the only way they’re gonna protect themself (sic) in the cold and the dark, when they’re vulnerable is with a firearm.”
There is an important distinction between these two types of scenarios. You might be willing to wait for a background check before obtaining a gun to protect your family. But if you are worried about the federal government, you might be concerned that any serious regulation of firearms would generate lists of gun owners could be used by “jack-booted government thugs,” as LaPierre himself put in a 1995 fundraising letter for which he later apologized, to seize Americans’ weapons and impose a rogue state.
The NRA is serious about that idea. In 2013, after Sandy Hook, the universal background checks bill that came closest to passing Congress included language as a concession to the NRA that would have imposed extra penalties of up to 15 years in prison for any official who helps create a federal gun registry.
If change is ever to come, it will mean finally calling out the NRA for a dangerous radicalism that is wholly out of step with the opinions of both U.S. courts and the public.
One of the NRA’s own slogans in this regard could help, but gun reformists must first turn it on its head. “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” Remember that? Right. So, following the lead of the “no-buy” list, we need to focus less on guns, and more on gun buyers.
Let’s make the purchase of any highly lethal weapon as involved a process as buying a car. We should ensure that every new gun buyer has the training and the insurance to properly store and handle his or her firearms safely.
Many gun owners would support such steps, just as they already support universal background checks. Such measures are also nearly the minimum standard in every other advanced nation.
In the United States, many gun buyers first see new products in the glossy, color pages of NRA magazines like American Rifleman produced only for NRA members. The fear that the government might one day come for your guns drives record gun sales, especially of expensive, high-powered weapons like AR-15 or next generation rifles used in Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Aurora and other shootings. And these sales tend to spike after every well-publicized mass shooting.
Many of the same firms that make these weapons also donate a percentage of sales or in other ways contribute to the NRA. That might help explain why both the gun lobby and its allied manufacturers continue to promote inaction, as America endures at least five times more gun violence than any other advanced nation, with a mass shooting that leaves at least four people dead or wounded occurring on average more than once a day.
The gun lobby’s professed fear of government further explains why it claims citizens must maintain access to weapons so powerful that The New York Times editorial page last week said “[n]o civilian anywhere should be allowed to have” them. Because if civilians are really going to defend America’s freedom by standing up to a potentially abusive government, they will need all the firepower they can find. That means not only AR-15-style rifles, but weapons like a .50 caliber sniper rifle along with silencers that can fit almost any kind of gun.
American gun violence is dominated by white males committing suicide, followed by young minorities dying on the streets, and at least 30 people dying every day. For the gun lobby, this is the price of freedom. For the rest of us, it is beyond obscene.
Mustering the courage to enact real reform is not going to be easy, and the struggle is certain to outlast the current electoral cycle. But if we are ever going to curb America’s pandemic of gun tragedies, we first need to face the extremist minority that enables them.
Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist and gun owner who won the Society of Professional Journalists National Magazine Investigative Reporting Award for his Mother Jones exposé,“Unmasking the NRA’s Inner Circle,” after the Sandy Hook shooting. He has also written about the gun lobby in The Village Voice and The Washington Post, and writes often about the NRA in The Progressive.