“Aw, geez, now they’re really gonna try to take my guns...!”
As the news started to roll in from Newtown, CT, on December 14, I overheard that reaction. Maybe you overheard it, too, or maybe you said or thought it yourself. Let’s not rehash the heated discussions that followed the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary; those discussions, after all, have been repeated, practically word-for-word, so many times in recent years that we could probably repeat each side’s talking points in our sleep.
The guy whose mutterings I overheard isn’t a bad fellow, or a wild-eyed “gun nut.” He’s quite intelligent and kind-hearted. The same is true of another acquaintance of mine, who corralled me on the sidewalk a couple of days later just to make sure I understood his pro-gun viewpoints. But there’s a simple reason why one of the first responses of these otherwise reasonable men to the painful human tragedy of Newtown was to think, not just of the bereaved families or the shattered community, but of the possible consequences to their own lives, and specifically to fear the nightmare of government confiscation.
They had been conditioned, assiduously and over years, to think that way. And the man who trained them is named Wayne LaPierre.
LaPierre, as you probably know, is currently the CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and it’s most public spokesman since the resignation of former NRA President Charlton Heston. LaPierre has carried on the incendiary, fear-mongering tradition of the “new guard” that took over the NRA more than a generation ago. (For a fascinating history of the transformations that the NRA underwent during the 1970s, see www.vpc.org/nrainfo/chapter2.html .)
In his speeches and fundraising campaigns, LaPierre has perfected the art of invoking the bogeyman. In 1995, LaPierre sent out a letter describing federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents as “jack-booted thugs” who could “...take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” (That letter, by the way, led former president, and NRA life member, George H. W. Bush to publicly terminate his membership in the NRA.) Here’s LaPierre in a fundraising letter after the 9/11 attacks: “Your guns are now a target in the war on terrorism, and the future of your Second Amendment rights will soon be up for grabs on the floors of the U.S. House and Senate.” (For more LaPierre gems, see thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/12/21/1368881/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-nras-wayne-lapierre.) Each polemic, of course, is accompanied by a plea to “send the most generous contribution you can,” and when appropriate, exhortations to vote—usually for Republicans. Any suggestion of any kind of gun or ammunition control is painted as the first step in a slippery slope that ends in firearm confiscation and the enslavement of law-abiding citizens.
His techniques have been enormously successful for the NRA—both in terms of money and political clout—but they have poisoned the very atmosphere, and made rational discussion about guns among American citizens almost impossible. These tactics have led gun owners to adopt a kind of bunker mentality, and also have fed the suspicions of the non-gun-owning public. They have not served the best interests either of gun owners or of the American public in general.
I therefore encourage you, dear readers, whatever your stance about guns, to contact individual NRA board members and urge them to dismiss LaPierre immediately. I believe that no other single action could do more to lessen the mutual fear and distrust now present in this country. With LaPierre out of the picture, we may be able to have a productive dialogue; as long as he has any say in the matter, we will only continue to rehash the same tired arguments, and to replay the tragedy of Sandy Hook (and Aurora, and Blacksburg, and Columbine, and... ) again and again and again.