Not surprisingly, last week’s post about gun violence, “Why Can’t I Own an M-1 Tank?,” elicited a lot of, uh, passionate responses, particularly from people I will respectfully call gun enthusiasts. Some of them were reasonable and informed and ready to engage in a rational debate; we generally disagreed, but we had a civil dialogue. But many others were sneering and insulting and had counterarguments consisting of little more than one-word critiques like “libtard!”
Of course, that mentality is part and parcel of the whole problem. The prevailing feelings from those folks were anger and paranoia…..and in case you were in danger of getting a good night’s sleep, let’s remember that these same people have guns. But of course, their anger and paranoia are often the reason they got those guns in the first place.
A lot of these correspondents reflexively deployed their standard “you’re obviously ignorant about firearms” retort, automatically presuming that no one on the other side could be an experienced soldier or well-acquainted with the smell of cordite. Confronted with someone who takes issue with their dogma but doesn’t fit the stereotype of a chablis-sipping liberal elitist, their cognitive dissonance is extreme and the flimsiness of their arguments is exposed. More tellingly, their much-professed respect for the military miraculously vanishes in favor of partisanship and vitriol (much the way our fake president’s does when he attacks Gold Star families, his own generals, or the US intelligence community).
These folks usually proceed from a snotty condescension based on a claim to superior knowledge or experience; deprived of that, they resort to repeating NRA talking points that are deliberately deceptive and frequently wrong. On the Constitution, their commitment to the “individual right” interpretation borders on the fanatic, and brooks no intellectual curiosity or willingness to listen to other points of view or historical research. Hard to have an intelligent conversation on that basis.
A surprising number focused—with no discernible irony—on how the real problem with owning a tank is that it would tear up the streets, or that it’s hard to get ammo, or similar logistical concerns, which suggest (in case there was a lot of doubt) that this is a group that really has trouble locating that elusive forest because of all those goddam trees. (Don’t worry—Ryan Zinke will soon cut them all down.)
And so it goes in the debate over gun violence. So this week, at the risk of incurring more wrath from Yosemite Sam Nation, let’s look at one of the most important dynamics at the core of the issue, which is the relationship between the NRA and the GOP.
THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS AND MORE THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS
Parkland may finally have broken the tedious regularity of politicians offering “thoughts and prayers” in response to mass shootings, instead of concrete action. We may at last be witnessing the long overdue end of that banal mantra, forced into retirement by long simmering outrage, frustration, and contempt for the utter hypocrisy of that emptiest of gestures. The Florida state legislature recently voted—narrowly—to ban bump stocks, raise the legal age for all firearm purchases from 18 to 21, and institute a three-day waiting period for most gun sales. (Under the previous state law, Nickolas Cruz was too young to buy a handgun, but old enough to buy an AR-15.) But it declined even to take up a proposed ban on assault weapons, and then turned around and passed a motion declaring pornography a “public health risk.” Stay tuned for Florida’s upcoming vote on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
That our elected officials are daring to take even small steps in defiance of the NRA is both heartening (journey-of-a-thousand-miles-wise) but also a chilling reminder of the power of the gun lobby. The usual formulation is to blame the NRA for flooding our political system with obscene amounts of money, and to blame politicians—largely but not exclusively Republicans—for accepting it, making them beholden to the gun lobby. But that’s an oversimplification that lets politicians off the hook.
Yes, the NRA uses the GOP, but the GOP also uses the NRA.
Republican politicians know that guns are a wedge issue they can use to lock down a fanatically passionate chunk of single issue voters who will reliably turn out every Election Day without fail and vote the party line. Accordingly, “beholden” is not the right term for the GOP‘s relationship with the NRA, as it implies duress. Republicans like being in league with the NRA.
It was not always thus. Hard as it now is to believe, the NRA legitimately began as what it now speciously claims to be: an innocent association of sportsmen and hunters. Ironically, the modern American gun control debate began with white panic over the Black Panthers arming themselves in the late 1960s. Only a few years before, after Lee Oswald assassinated John Kennedy with a mail order bolt action Italian rifle, the executive vice president of the NRA testified before Congress in favor of banning that weapon, which in terms of rate of fire is a peashooter by the standards of a modern assault rifle. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the NRA began its current political activity and adopted the “individual right” interpretation of the Second Amendment, reversing 200 years of legal consensus on the matter. The GOP immediately recognized this a winner in terms of galvanizing its segment of the electorate. (Indeed, that may have been the motivation for the shift within the NRA in the first place.) But it was really in the 1980s that the Republican Party realized that it could leverage gun “rights”—like other hot button topics such as gay rights, abortion, and race—to drive reactionary voters into its arms.
The NRA’s CEO at the moment is the grotesque Wayne LaPierre, maybe the worst human being in American public life, which is saying something at a time when Donald Trump is in the White House. (The odious Stephen Miller is also a strong contender.) After Parkland, LaPierre gave an unhinged speech in which he portrayed efforts at gun control as the first step in a communist takeover of the United States. That, of course, is perfectly in line with the entire transformation of the NRA and its current function within the Republican Party.
Among the NRA leadership, LaPierre is continuing in a proud tradition. David Keene, the NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013, had a son who was sentenced to ten years in prison for brandishing a gun in a road rage incident. In 1981, the NRA’s executive vice president at the time, Harlon Carter, was revealed to have been convicted of murder as a teenager for shooting a another teenager in the chest with a shotgun.
Why almost all of the mass murderers in question are white males is far beyond the scope of this essay or my feeble expertise, but I’m hardly the first to suggest that if most of them were brown or black or Muslims, the GOP would be leading the charge for gun control in the US of A. (Ask the aforementioned Black Panthers.) But of course, an obsession with guns fits very well into the whole reactionary mindset, “the paranoid style” in Richard Hofstadter’s famous phrase, even as it co-exists in apparent dissonance with the law-and-order mentality. As Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times:
(O)ur lethal inaction on guns, but also on cars, reflects the same spirit that’s causing us to neglect infrastructure and privatize prisons, the spirit that wants to dismantle public education and turn Medicare into a voucher system rather than a guarantee of essential care. For whatever reason, there’s a faction in our country that sees public action for the public good, no matter how justified, as part of a conspiracy to destroy our freedom.
Is it any wonder, then, that the NRA and GOP have made common cause, even if it is not altogether clear who’s using whom?
TEACHER, LEAVE THEM KIDS ALONE
In the wake of Parkland, one particularly moronic proposal rose to the forefront of the national conversation on how to stop these mass murders, thanks to its championing by a particularly moronic president: that of arming schoolteachers.
This idea is so idiotic and ignorant—asinine is a word I’ve frequently seen used, and that seems about right—that the arguments against it don’t bear repeating in detail. (Why stop with the teachers, as Jimmy Kimmel noted; let’s arm the students too.) But as John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker, the issue “vividly illuminates the collective madness that beckons when you have an unprincipled man like Trump in the White House, the GOP in control of Congress and the majority of states, and a dogged refusal to do what practically every other civilized country does: introduce some meaningful restrictions on gun ownership.”
In a culture like ours where guns are so appallingly prevalent, it certainly—sadly—makes sense to have armed security guards at schools. But at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, there were FOUR (count ‘em, four) armed sheriff’s deputies were present, including one assigned to the school full time, and all of them cowered outside and the building and failed to do anything while Nikolas Cruz was on his killing spree. Yet Trump thinks paying bonuses and giving guns to “weapons talented” teachers is the answer? It’s an idea right out of the NRA playbook—the solution to gun violence is more guns. But it should hardly surprise us that the Very Stable Genius went right for it. How one man can reliably be on the wrong side of EVERY SINGLE ISSUE is pretty astounding.
The stupidity of this idea should have all been patently obvious even before a teacher in Georgia barricaded himself in a classroom and fired a shot from his privately own handgun just two weeks after Parkland. A popular Tweet by the comedian Tim Hanlon noted that the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most accomplished sniper in US military history and the subject of a hit movie by Clint Eastwood, was himself killed in a one-on-one confrontation with a handgun-toting mentally ill acquaintance. Hanlon tweeted: “So we just have to train the teachers a lil better than Chris Kyle.”
Of course, Trump characteristically boasted that, had he been on the scene, he wouldn’t even have needed no damn gun, as he would have gone in and disarmed that killer with his bare hands. It’s the kind of wolf ticket that would be met with ridicule even on a grammar school playground, let alone coming out of the Oval Office. But I’m glad to hear that his bone spurs have healed.
Yet, as idiotic as it is, the “arm the teachers” argument leads into a number of instructive points.
The notion that just having a gun makes you John Rambo is a consistent trope in the gun-loving community of armchair heroes and Wild West fantasists. But I can tell you as a former infantry officer, that the training, fortitude, and warrior mentality it takes to close with an armed enemy and destroy him by fire and maneuver is a skillset that infantry soldiers, special operators, and police officers take years to develop.
And given that Cruz had an ArmaLite, what does Trump suggest the teachers carry, an M-249 SAW? (Oh, and those teachers’ weapons are also supposed to be concealed somehow.) Numerous gun advocates argue that a semiautomatic pistol is just as effective as a semiautomatic rifle like the AR-15. If you’d like to get in a gunfight where you have a pistol—of any kind—and I have an AR, with its far greater accuracy, range, and muzzle velocity, not to mention a bottomless supply of 100 round Magpul magazines loaded with 5.56mm ball ammo, be my guest. It will literally be your funeral.
Another contention is that knowing that the teachers are armed would deter would-be school shooters. Of course, the presence of armed security guards does not seem to have deterred any of these guys, but whatever. The larger point is that a mentally disturbed individual like most of these mass murderers is not deterred by anything. They are by definition mentally disturbed, and most of them go into their killing sprees fully expecting to die. A trigonometry teacher with a Glock is not going to make them think twice.
Even more to the point, let’s posit for the sake of argument a school that is an armed camp, and a potential shooter who is therefore deterred from attacking. There are plenty of other softer targets to which he can turn. (And yes, the shooter is always a “he”). Are we going to harden every post office, every hospital, every office building, every McDonald’s, indeed every single public space in the country? Even if it were logistically possible, what kind of society would that be? A police state, essentially, which is the very thing that NRA / Tea Party / Trump types were highly vigilant about (to the point of hysteria) when a black guy was president. Now, not so much.
Which leads us to an even more disturbing aspect of this debate, circling back to its very origin.
In last week’s essay we discussed how the distorted “individual right” interpretation of the Second Amendment came to be, and to carry the day. But even under this radically wide interpretation of the Bill of Rights, there is plenty of reason to believe there can and should be limits on what weapons are allowed on the streets of the republic.
Many many observers have noted that when the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment, “firearms” meant black powder muskets that had a range of mere yards, laughable accuracy, and took minutes to reload—not an M-16 with a cyclic rate of 800 rounds per minute. It’s hard to imagine that they meant to give the citizenry the right to own something with the astonishing killing power of a modern battlefield assault rifle, especially not if they were alive today to see the bloodbath to which such ownership has led. (Alexander Hamilton, of course, was himself the victim of a senseless shooting. If Aaron Burr had been armed with an AR-15 instead of a black powder pistol, they would have had to scoop up Hamilton with a spatula.)
Writing in the New Yorker Jill Lepore reports that in an amicus curiae submitted to the Supreme Court in the landmark 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller (which affirmed the so-called “individual right” argument), fifteen eminent American history professors including two Pulitzer Prizes winners wrote:
Historians are often asked what the Founders would think about various aspects of contemporary life. Such questions can be tricky to answer. But as historians of the Revolutionary era we are confident at least of this: that the authors of the Second Amendment would be flabbergasted to learn that in endorsing the republican principle of a well-regulated militia, they were also precluding restrictions on such potentially dangerous property as firearms, which governments had always regulated when there was “real danger of public injury from individuals.”
At any rate, for those fixated on following the word of a group of 18th century Deists as if it were gospel, let us remember that the only people to whom the Bill of Rights applied when it was ratified in 1791 were white landowners, many of whom were slaveholders whose need for guns to maintain the captivity and servitude of their enslaved human beings was essential. Nine of our first eleven presidents—including Washington, Jefferson, and Madison— were slaveholders themselves. So perhaps we can dispense with the mystical “originalism” that seems to animate so many conservatives, including—dare I say—several members of the current Supreme Court.
(For more on the slavery issue, see the bottom of this essay.*)
In fact, in the current climate, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether we ought simply to dispense with all this legal debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment and just repeal it altogether.
Sacre bleu! I know we act like the Constitution is sacrosanct (sometimes), but there was a good reason that the Founders built in a mechanism by which to amend it. It is a living document, and that goes for the Bill of Rights too. I’m less worried about the people who want to repeal the Second Amendment than the ones who want to repeal the First.
If America was born in the original sin of slavery, then the Second Amendment is part of that, and there is no more reason to maintain it than there is to maintain—or restore—the “peculiar institution” that motivated it. (Don’t get any ideas, Stephen Miller.)
To take a less incendiary and more pragmatic tack, as I noted last week, many gun enthusiasts argue that banning AR-15s or similar rifles makes no sense as it still leaves lots of equally dangerous—or nearly as dangerous—rifles, pistols, and other firearms still on the market. That’s plenty debatable, but OK, fine: let’s concede that. All the more reason to repeal the Second Amendment full stop.
I realize that in saying this I am treading into dangerous territory that might hurt my own cause. The notion that gun control advocates all secretly want to get rid of the Second Amendment and “take away your guns” is the central motivating fear for many gun owners, and for that reason the hysterical fearmongering at the heart of much of the NRA’s propaganda.
Needless to say, repeal is a very hard row to hoe—if we can’t ban bump stocks nationwide, do really think we can shitcan the whole Second Amendment? But as laid out last week in the first part of this essay, there would be no need to repeal it if we would simply reject the twisted interpretation that now holds sway—that a “well regulated militia” formed to defend the country from invasion somehow equates to the right of private citizens to own assault rifles—and come to our senses.
But as long as the NRA and GOP distort that amendment and hide behind its shameless mischaracterization to prevent the implementation of common sense gun laws in this country, repealing it ought to be on the table, if only to provoke rational debate.
JUST A SHOT AWAY
In closing, may I just ask, what the hell is wrong with America? I don’t recognize it any more.
How long are we going to let our country be held hostage and repeatedly brutalized and bloodied just to indulge the juvenile fantasies of a bunch of pathetic, overgrown boys who can’t get over their inferiority complexes? How long are we going to let the right wing plutocracy exploit that demographic in order to maintain its chokehold on our republic?
The madness of the American obsession with guns has always been with us, but the proliferation in civilian life of battlefield weapons made for no other purpose than to kill human beings as fast as possible has lately brought that madness to new depths. It is especially soul-wrenching in the context of the election of the most monstrous and counter-qualified president in American history, and with him, the brazen re-emergence into daylight of intractable racism, the validation of misogyny (even as a backlash arises), the abdication of American leadership abroad; the outright deceit over taxes and wages and labor; the shameful turning of our backs on the poorest among us we lavish further gifts on the richest; the celebration of xenophobia and betrayal of America’s immigrant heritage as we deport Dreamers and talk of building pointless and impossible walls; and perhaps above all, the triumph of propaganda and an increasing lack of concern for objective reality and the simple truth.
These are difficult and complex problems. But gun violence, ironically, for all the passion it inspires, is not really one of them. It ought to be easy. There are common sense solutions about which reasonable people can agree. Will we at last do the right thing and fix this literally life-and-death problem? Or will history look back on us someday and, mystified at our stupidity, conclude: that country got what deserved?
Yosemite Sam illustration: IrishManReynolds
#JillLepore, #JohnCassidy, #PaulKrugman, #PedroHenriquesdaSilva, #TimHanlon, #DahliaLithwick, #BillPilon, #Parkland, #gunviolence, #NRA, #BoycottNRA, #paranoidstyle
*Some dispute the claim of slavery being at the heart of the Second Amendment, though the Venn diagram overlap of the American South and gun fanaticism ought to settle the matter. But you care to dive into it, here are three articles with divergent opinions on the subject:
Battleground America by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
The Lost Amendment by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
To Keep and Bear Arms by Garry Wills, The New York Review of Books
The Second Amendment Hoax by Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
How the Gun Lobby Rewrote the Second Amendment by Cass Sunstein, Bloomberg