NRA Gathers in an Echo Chamber
Second Amendment absolutists complain that gun-control advocates are an out-of-touch elite seeking to destroy the way of life of real men who pack heat, pass weapons on to their sons and are a rampart against government tyranny. It's dangerous out there.
At the National Rifle Association's convention in Indianapolis last weekend, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre warned his members that their lifestyle was under assault.
"I have never seen it on edge the way it is now," he said. "If it's going to be saved, it's in our hands. It's in your hands."
There's no better venue than this gathering to experience the pain and joy of gun owners. To those not steeped in guns, the exhibition hall with weapons arrayed as far as the eye can see is a frightening display. It is also a place where the young and female are pursued. Kids are encouraged to fondle semi-automatics and take virtual target practice. Women have their own events, including one that features the latest fashions for heat-packing ladies. You don't want your Glock to add 10 pounds.
As you watch the lobbying group at play, you swing between thinking its members own the world because the $250 million budget allows the NRA to put on a Las Vegas-worthy show, and the feeling that Big Government is about to burst in and confiscate their guns. Triumphalism punctuated by doomsday scenarios keeps the membership on its toes.
The NRA's 4 million members don't seem to feel a corresponding obligation to understand the 90 percent of Americans who say in polls they would like to see universal background checks for gun buyers.
"It's a cultural thing," Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia told me. He said his "A" rating from the NRA helped the background check legislation he introduced last year with Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania get as far as it did.
Manchin is still using that crossover cred to try to find the five Senate allies he needs to get the bill up for a vote again. He can't explain to me those gun owners who will listen only to Ted Nugent (who gave a speech), or those who cheer stand-your-ground laws (there was a session on how not to have any post-traumatic stress should you shoot someone), or those who applaud the flip-flop of the Reverend Franklin Graham. Last year, after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Graham came out in favor of universal background checks. He quickly abjured the heresy, and has returned to the fold with honor, giving the keynote address Sunday. His current position is that "God has already done a universal background check on all of us."
Politicians were well represented at the convention. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Governor Bobby Jindal and former Governor Sarah Palin, among others, came to pay homage. They can't envision the day when the 90 percent might defeat them, only of past elections when single-issue voters stirred up by the NRA could defeat them.
Since Manchin's background checks went down in Congress last year, about 1,500 state gun bills have been introduced, 178 passed at least one chamber and 109 have become law, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Almost two-thirds of those that passed expand the rights of gun owners; only 39, largely in Democratic-controlled states, tighten controls. Last week in Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal signed into law a bill that would allow concealed weapons in airports -- this after we've spent billions trying to keep even nail clippers out.
For the NRA, part of the cultural divide is between real Americans (its members) and those other Americans who would leave you and your family defenseless.
"Gun rights have become a metaphor for something larger: a feeling, this sense of something that's slipping away," said LaPierre, broadening his mandate to our emotions. Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum echoed this sentiment by evoking the good old days of the O.K. Corral when everyone was armed and the country was better off.
"The NRA can not only save the Second Amendment, you can save America," he told the crowd.
This is the mentality that briefly made Cliven Bundy a hero, as an armed mob trained their guns on federal agents who were trying to enforce a court order to collect 20 years of unpaid grazing fees. One of the militia leaders was Richard Mack, the NRA's 1994 Enforcement Officer of the Year and head of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, who was "strategizing to put all the women up at the front." Had Bundy not imploded in a fit of racism, there may well have been a shrine to him in Indianapolis.
It would be a valuable cross-cultural field trip for LaPierre to take a look outside the hall, where representatives of the 90 percent were gathered. The moms at the gates gladly would have pointed out to him that 82 people die every day because guns fall into the hands of non-law-abiding citizens, curious children, the mentally ill and the suicidal. (Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Everytown for Gun Safety and Mayors Against Illegal Guns are backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.)
These groups just put up a series of gripping ads showing the murderous downside of readily available firearms and have issued a report titled "Not Your Grandparents' NRA." It traces the gun-rights lobby's move away from hunting and marksmanship to defending the rights of felons and terrorism suspects to buy firearms and take them everywhere.
The NRA spends $20 million a year to scare lawmakers into doing their bidding. For the first time, the other side will be spending more. What a great day it will be when LaPierre has to understand that.
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