“The election season's overheated political rhetoric is adding fuel to the fire," [said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.] The more polarized the political scene, the more people at the extremes.” Many Americans are enraged by what they see as America's decline, and opportunistic politicians have done their best to stoke those fears and demonize President Obama in the process.
-- The Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012 report.
It's time for America to wake up to a new reality -- that for more than a generation, a radical fringe group has held sway over the American political process, a cadre that now traffics in conspiracy theories as loony as many militias or "Patriot" groups, that has with no evidence accused the president of planning to grant himself dictatorial powers while embracing "black helicopter"-style tropes about the U.S. surrendering its power to the United Nations, a posse that's clashed with America's police chiefs over issues like so-called "cop killer" bullets and has thwarted all efforts to eliminate weapons that are only good for committing mass murder.
This is not about the millions of decent, law-abiding American gun owners are not only responsible in handling their weapons but who overwhelmingly support reasonable steps toward preventing violence. No, this is about the leadership of the National Rifle Association -- a group that has veered far, far away from its 20th Century origins as a sensible gun-safety group -- and about their allied merchants of death who've learned that paranoia can be profitable, and about a handful of radical foot soldiers who pretend to speak for all.
The horrific events that took place last Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School -- the systematic mass murder of 20 first-graders and six teachers and administrators -- should make America finally think differently about the NRA, and any role it will play in in the national conversation. The NRA should not be silenced -- that, too, would un-American -- but it must be marginalized, pushed to the far fringes for promoting hysteria and enabling violence, drowned out by the voices of the majority of Americans who desperately desire gun sanity.
Candlelight vigils in the wake of our all-too frequent mass killings are just the first first baby step of a thousand-mile journey. This must be a radical movement -- brave Americans willing to take direct action to get in the face of the extremists who run the NRA...every single day. Politicians who've accepted money from the NRA and done its bidding should be shamed, and then defeated, regardless of their party, and the cities that agree to host its convention should be embarrassed, even boycotted.
It must be shameful to have your name linked to the NRA. That's radical. But that's what it takes.
It didn't have to be this way. The overwhelming majority of Americans -- regardless of ideology -- support reasonable, well-regulated (in the language of the 2nd Amendment) gun ownership, and there was a time when the National Rifle Association served the interests of its members well. It's hard to believe now, but the NRA -- in addition to supporting gun safety and proper training -- actually endorsed the common-sense, limited gun control measures enacted in 1934 and again in 1968, the year that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated.
That was all before the great unraveling, the post '60s backlash and the rise of a radical right-wing that learned that learned through its talk-radio megaphone what the gun manufacturers soon also discovered: That selling fear and paranoia could be hugely profitable, and maybe win a few elections in the process. After the 1994 passage of an assault weapons ban and the NRA's role (along with a lot of other factors) that fall in ousting some of the Democrats who voted for it, the Gun Rights Express veered further and further to the extreme right.
I saw this first hand in 2009 and 2010 as I reported my book on the rise of Tea Party movement. I spent a couple of days in Kentucky at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot (yes, that's a thing) where the NRA set up a tent in the center -- telling anyone who would listen about Obama's gun or ammo confiscation, or both, that was surely coming even if he hadn't even mentioned guns in his early days in office -- while groups like the Ohio Valley Freedom Fighters militia worked the fringes. Later, I spent time in a Pittsburgh-area gun shop called Braverman Arms, which featured an NRA-produced poster highlighting Obama as "Firearm Salesman of the Year," since fear of our first black president and his "coming gun ban" had sparked record sales. It was there that a troubled young man named Richard Poplawski made weapons purchases -- before his fear of the supposed Obama firearms confiscation fueled his murder of three city cops.
Incredibly, the NRA grew even more extreme in the years that followed, to the point where its official, high-level rhetoric differs little from some of the fringe right-wing groups that have been cited as hate groups by watchdog groups like the SPLC. Just read this:
In a fundraising letter last spring, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre charged that, “all of our freedoms, all of our rights, all of our values … All of them will be lost if Barack Obama is reelected.” In an October column in the NRA’s flagship publication, “First Freedom,” LaPierre wrote: “With four more years of Obama, your firearms freedoms are gone. And we’ll spend the rest of our lives mourning the freedoms we’ve lost… Every freedom we cherish as Americans is endangered by Obama. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Meanwhile, extreme rhetoric dovetailed with extreme policies. In the last generation or so, the NRA has opposed any and all regulation of firearms -- even when its opponents are admired law-enforcement officials like the police chiefs. The NRA has thwarted any number of common sense proposals from background checks at gun shows and other private sales (comprising 40 percent of gun transactions) that could prevent weapons from reaching criminals or the mentally ill, as well as legislation to stop the high-capacity magazines that allow mass killers to kill and maim so many people in a matter of seconds. In this crazed climate, there are far more guns in U.S. circulation than ever before, even as fewer households own weapons, and a corresponding rise in mass killings, leading to the current crescendo of violence.
The NRA has created an un-virtuous cycle. Its fear mongering over the non-existent threat of government gun confiscation has caused gun sales -- and donations from members -- to soar, enriching the gun manufacturers who return some of those profits back to the NRA and its political arms. In recent election cycles, the NRA has outspent the overwhelmed gun-control groups in both donations to politicians and in lobbying by ratios as high as 25-1. That's created the current climate, where even an assassination attempt on a U.S. congresswoman did not spur her colleagues to action, where even a tepid gun-control commentary like the one from NBC sportscaster Bob Costas-- provokes an outburst of hateful scorn. In July, an unnamed Democratic congressional staffer said of the NRA to GQ: "We do absolutely anything they ask."
The irony is that the leadership of the NRA has grown so extreme that it no longer represents its own members. Most Americans don't even realize that even before Newtown, some 74 percent of NRA members said they support background checks for all weapons purchases, and most support other reasonable regulations. And yet we've allowed the NRA's highly paid cadre of extremist leaders and its most radical supporters, who flood the airways and newspaper comment sections, to control the debate.
Today, in the wake of Newtown, the decent majority Americans will have to reassert themselves. with numbers -- and with dollars. It will be hard work, and time consuming. When the NRA gets its most fanatical 60,000 to show up in Houston in May for its convention, the gun sanity folks should ring the building with 70,000 people. The gun sanity movement should outspend the NRA 25-1 instead of the other way around. And it will mean difficult political choices, backing gun sanity candidates not just against Tea Party Republicans but in primaries against Democratic enablers.
Frankly, I never thought this could happen until today, when a Democratic congressman, New York's Jerry Nadler, declared that "we are at war" with the NRA leadership, when leading gun-control activist Sarah Brady called for radical action against the pro-gun lobby, and when the editors of Mother Jones published this, which I could not agree with more:
What would such a movement look like, arising out of Newtown? Would it be mothers—of those slain children, or those who never want to find themselves in their place—donning black and holding candlelight vigils each Friday night? Would it be fathers, siblings, loved ones of children murdered in schools and shopping malls and their own living rooms across the nation, taking to Facebook and to the National Mall? Would it look like Argentina's Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who dared the world to forget their disappeared kids? Would such a movement take a page from Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, who led 200 children, some missing limbs from mining accidents, in a march on Teddy Roosevelt's home? Instead of "We Want to Go to School and Not the Mines," would the placards read "We Want to Be Safe at School"? Yes, it might sometimes appear corny, sometimes crude, sometimes cringe-worthy, but movements that make a difference are sometimes all those things. They engage the gut as well as the brain. They batter down cynicism and conventional wisdom and groupthink, and they take on the merchants of doom.
Personally, I think it would look like the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, brave young men and women who took the matter of desegregating interstate buses into their own hands, risking life and limb -- and winning. Real social change only comes through courage, and never from compromise. And so who will be the Freedom Riders of gun sanity?
When I started researching this piece, I wondered if it was fair and appropriate for society to label the NRA as a hate group. That's probably not the right term -- the traditional definition of a hate group is one that targets a defined racial or religious minority. But then the reality is that when a group will so callously fan the flames of fear and intolerance and promote societal inaction while gun violence claims so many U.S. lives, it doesn't really matter what we call them. What matters is that we push the leadership of the NRA off to the far sidelines of the American playing field, while the rest of us fight for our better future.