by Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.orgOn December 14, a young sniper brought a civilian version of a military assault rifle into a grade school in Newtown, Connecticut and mowed down 27 people, 20 of them schoolchildren. It was at least the fifth major mass shooting in the U.S. this year, and like the heroine of the musical Cabaret, advocates of sane gun policies briefly came out of the woodwork and dared hope, “Maybe this time … ” Maybe the horror that most of the victims were children would provoke a reinstatement of the 1994-2004 federal ban on private ownership of assault weapons and a retreat from the madness that has given the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its even more radical spinoff group, Gun Owners of America, virtual veto power over U.S. firearms policy.
Instead, the NRA came out swinging and, in a bizarre press conference on December 21 — just one week after the Newtown massacre — unveiled their solution. Not fewer guns, more guns. Wayne LaPierre, whose official title with the NRA is executive vice-president but who has been the public face of the organization for decades — in 1995 he sent out a fundraising letter denouncing federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs” and causing former President George H. W. Bush to resign his lifetime NRA membership — started his presentation with an attack on “gun-free school zones” which, he said, “tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”
After a few snipes at Hollywood and the video game industry — LaPierre singled out movies like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers and games like Bullet Storm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Combat, Splatterhouse and Kindergarten Killers — he expressed his and his organization’s philosophy succinctly in 18 words: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He said that we trust people with guns to go to war for our country, protect our President and come to our aid when we become victims or witnesses to crimes, so why don’t we “put armed security in every school”?
LaPierre called on Congress to fund at least one armed police officer for every school in the country, and also said, “Right now, today, every school in the United States should plan meetings with parents, school administrators, teachers, local authorities, and draw upon every resource that’s out there and available to erect a cordon of protection around our kids right now.” And he offered the services of his organization, which he called “America’s pre-eminent trainer of law enforcement and security personnel for the past 50 years” (huh? I thought police had their own training academies!) — to “bring all its knowledge, all its dedication and all its resources to develop a model national schools shield emergency response program for every single school in America that wants it.”
And LaPierre brought out former Congressmember Asa Hutchinson (R-Arkansas) as his appointee to head what Hutchinson called an NRA “team of security experts to assist our schools, parents, and our communities.” Then the event ended without giving reporters any chance to ask questions.
From the description National Journal reporter Fawn Johnson, who covered it, published at http://www.nationaljournal.com/nra-offers-free-advice-on-arming-schools-20121221, it seems as if the NRA was determined to make their own media event a showcase for their claimed expertise in security. “Reporters were required to show I.D. twice before checking in to a crowded ballroom in a downtown Washington, D.C. hotel, where they had already pre-registered, while sniffer dogs roamed between their legs,” Johnson wrote. Despite the precautions, LaPierre’s presentation was disrupted by anti-gun protesters at least twice, but he dismissed them as easily as one swats a fly.
The NRA’s response to the Newtown shooting — and the other, similar incidents (at least four this year in the U.S. alone) in which armed-to-the-teeth mass murderers have mowed down innocent civilians — may seem bizarre at first. But it’s only a nightmare intensification of what has become basic wisdom to much of the American Right: the world is a dog-eat-dog place, and if you want to survive in it you not only have to make your own way in the economy without government help, you also have to take responsibility for protecting yourself and not count on the government to be able to do that for you either.
LaPierre’s press conference shows a yin-and-yang attitude towards law enforcement. Sometimes he praised their expertise (while saying the NRA helped them develop it) and boasted of the millions of police officers who either belong to the NRA or have taken its classes. Sometimes he talked about “millions of qualified and active retired police, active Reserve and retired military, security professionals, certified firefighters, security professionals, rescue personnel” as the kinds of people the NRA could recruit for their volunteer school security teams. Sometimes he made fun of people who trust police, soldiers and Secret Service agents to have guns but don’t want other people to get them. And sometimes he seemed to be saying that we can’t rely totally on official law enforcement to protect our schoolchildren, that we have to do it ourselves, and the only reason anyone could have for opposing his proposal is they’re “so consumed by fear and hatred of the NRA and American gun owners.”
The content of LaPierre’s remarks, as well as their combative tone, underscored how committed he and his organization are to a Wild West vision of society in which everyone is armed to the teeth, and our main line of defense against a crazy person with a lot of guns is a whole bunch of presumably non-crazy people with their own guns, ready to take out the next Jared Loughner or Adam Lanza before he can kill anyone else. One would think that the head of an organization that boasts of its commitment to safety and other aspects of firearms training would understand what just about every police officer I’ve seen interviewed, and every one I’ve talked to personally, has said: that the worst thing that can happen in a shooting situation is a lot of civilians with guns. At best, they’ll get in the way; at worst, they’ll just up the body count. Even if they’re the kinds of people LaPierre was talking about — folks who once served with the military or the police and therefore had firearms training at one point — it’s likely that their skills have deteriorated with age and lack of practice.
The NRA has basically won the debate on gun control in the U.S. As David Frum noted after the July massacre in Aurora, Colorado (http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/23/opinion/frum-guns/), U.S. support for a ban on private ownership of handguns, “weapons whose only function is to kill people at close range,” dropped from 60 percent in 1959 to less than 25 percent today. The NRA’s independent political campaigns helped turn over control of Congress to the Republicans in 1994 and kept Al Gore out of the White House in 2000 by costing him his home state of Tennessee. Since then, gun control as a political issue has become so toxic that in the hours after Newtown all President Obama dared to say was that we needed “meaningful action,” without any hint that that meaningful action might have anything to do with reducing the number of guns or making it more difficult for Americans to arm themselves.
In addition to controlling the political debate on guns, the NRA has also propagandized for an almost paranoid view of society that has encouraged people to buy guns. It’s why, as George Skelton reported in the December 17 Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-cap-guns-20121217,0,2779922.column), the California Department of Justice received a record 601,000 requests for background checks on gun buyers in 2011 and expects the number to top 800,000 for 2012 — while the number of requests for hunting licenses in the state has dropped from 543,000 in 1981 to 282,000 in 2011. “The broad support for healthy recreational gun ownership that my generation grew up with has faded,” Skelton concluded. “It has been replaced with a narrower gun worship based on a fear of other humans.”
And, as Atlantic contributor Jordan Weissmann noted December 18 (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/12/whom-does-the-nra-really-speak-for/266373/), the NRA has sound commercial as well as ideological reasons to push that point of view. Weissmann analyzed the NRA’s tax returns and found that in 2010 the group grossed $228 million. Membership dues and fees brought in $106 million of that, and another $18 million came from charges for their education programs. Much of the rest, Weissmann said, came directly from gun manufacturers, $20.9 million to buy ads in the NRA’s magazines and up to $38.9 million in direct contributions through an outreach program called “Ring of Freedom” the NRA started in 2005.
Though not all the donors to “Ring of Freedom” are gun companies or people who own or work for them, Weissmann said, they “include 22 different gun makers, including famous names like Smith & Wesson, Beretta USA, SIGARMS, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. that also manufacture so-called assault weapons. … These connections have fueled the theory among some gun-control advocates that the NRA is just another corporate front. That might theoretically explain why the group has opposed politically popular measures such as requiring background checks at gun shows and banning sales to people on the terrorist watch list, proposals that even its own members have been found to support. For gun makers, the fewer rules, the better.” Weissmann quoted former NRA operative and consultant Richard Feldman as saying that the NRA was stoking the fires of its members’ anti-government paranoia to keep them donating and enable the group to pay LaPierre nearly $1 million a year.
Years ago, after the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, I wrote that events so horrible give people on all sides of the ideological spectrum a chance to vent by blaming them on their pet peeves. We’ve seen this pattern after Newtown as well. Gun advocates and opponents have gone back and forth on the issue. Arguments that Newtown proves that the assault weapons ban should be re-instituted are met with counter-arguments that the ban was in place when Columbine happened and. Arguments that mass shootings of this type are a uniquely American phenomenon are met with reminders that they’ve also taken place in countries like Norway, with tough anti-gun laws and a more cooperative, less competitive popular spirit. Pro-gun commentators pointed to a similar incident in a school in China in which the assailant, unable to get hold of guns under Chinese law, used knives — and supporters of gun restrictions countered that at least the victims in China, wounded and traumatized though they may be, are still alive.
Even the attacks on violent movies and video games for having supposedly contributed to the prevalence of mass shootings in the U.S. have a kind of chicken-and-egg quality about them. Do such entertainments inspire people to commit ghastly crimes, or do we find them entertaining because we’ve already been taught a warped view of our history as a nation that emphasizes the gun and its power to kill? A few days after Newtown I finally saw the film The Dark Knight Rises on DVD. It’s a powerful movie that will forever be tainted by its association with the Aurora shooting, in which a young man obsessed with the Batman mythos opened fire during a midnight screening. Writer-director Christopher Nolan created a film in which the residents of a major city are pushed and pulled by people with weapons, some called “good” and some “evil,” and he staged the violence in ways that emphasized both its cruelty and its beauty. Ironically, the film’s ending sent the message that for our security we need to rely on the institutions of a democratic society and the duly constituted law enforcement authorities, not on rich vigilantes on either side of the moral divide.
Do entertainments like The Dark Knight Rises or the two LaPierre mentioned, Natural Born Killers (which was actually a spoof of the way serial killers get exploited by the media) and American Psycho, actually cause massacres like the ones at Columbine, Aurora and Newtown? Or is there an already existing strain in this country’s cultural psychology that produces both the handful of real-life killers and the millions who buy tickets to such films and find them entertaining? We’re a country that has seen its history largely in terms of the gun: “clearing” the frontier by massacring the indigenous population, “defending our homes,” building a cult around the military that has led us to spend more on “national defense” than the rest of the world’s nations combined. In a way, the NRA’s response to Newtown — that to protect ourselves we need more armed people, not fewer — fits all too well with a disturbing but long-established part of our national psyche.