An unspeakable massacre requires an unblinking stare into the angriest and most troubled part of the national soul.
By Tim Connor
If I read my daughter correctly, it was too soon the day after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, to write or talk about gun control, or get fixated on how and why twenty young school children were, along with seven adults, were murdered in cold blood.
My daughter is 19 now. It seems only months ago that she was six, a garrulous pixie with two bunches of blonde hair bundled with rubber bands. I can’t fathom how I would have gone on living if someone had ended my six-year-old’s life, and done so with such incomprehensible malice. So, I agree there is a decent interval in which such cruel information has to register its bruise on the heart.
But then it becomes work for any healthy conscience. We live in a democracy, so we do have the power to change things. That’s true even for those of us who favor stricter gun laws in an era in which the gun lobby has a degree of political influence that even the oil lobby must envy.
I’ve had a gut sense about guns since a boyhood friend of mine—a very bright, funny, and seemingly happy guy—blew most of his head off with a shotgun, in his room, after a routine argument with his parents. That wound in my memory instilled a belief that it’s just better not to have a gun within grasp during an argument, or during moments of frustration or despair. Nothing I’ve seen since has changed my mind, including the epidemiological evidence that, overall, people who bring guns into their homes are putting themselves and their family members at greater risk for violent deaths (primarily suicides) than people who don’t live with guns. Not enough has been made of the fact that the very well-armed Nancy Lanza was shot by her troubled 20 year-old son, who then took his mom’s weapons to inflict the carnage in Newtown.
This also gets to the plainest truth in great American debate over guns which is that we have nearly as many guns as we have people, and that’s far too many for our own good. As Harold Meyerson and others note, our gun ownership rate translates to a homicide rate that is four times that of any other western democratic society.
The fact that I have no desire to carry or even own a gun does not make me an anti-gun zealot. I have close friends and people I respect who hunt with guns, and I don’t lose sleep over how they pursue their happiness. I do lose sleep, and I think we should all be losing sleep, over what the leaders of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun-advocacy organizations are saying about their rights to bear arms, specifically high-capacity assault weapons, even after the massacre at Sandy Hook. If you’ve been thinking, until now, that the love of guns, or the love of the freedom to own firearms, is the sum of what defines the NRA and other politically-active gun rights advocates, then you’re only half right. And if you’ve been thinking, until now, that the primary justification for gun lobby opposition to banning assault rifles is the “slippery slope” argument—that it will lead to bans on hand guns and even hunting rifles—then you’re still only half right.
What you’d be missing is the breath-taking constitutional argument that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is rooted in the need for citizens to be sufficiently equipped to resist the tyranny of their government. This actually is the main argument being advanced for why people should be able to buy weapons, like the Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle used by Adam Lanza.
I was reminded of this just three days after the Sandy Hook massacre when I saw an interview with Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, who appeared on Chris Matthews’ MSNBC program on December 17th.
Pratt gave a version of the “slippery slope” argument but when pressed by Matthews on the issue of freedom, and whether America would be a “less free” nation if citizens couldn’t own assault rifles, he unabashedly said yes.
“Because we have guns fundamentally, protected by the Second Amendment, in order to control the government,” Pratt explained.
A hard truth of democracy is that you win some and you lose some and, frankly, losing always stinks. It absolutely can feel as though you’re losing some right (i.e. to drink clean water, to breathe clean air), and some freedom, when your cause does not prevail. But the idea of hoarding assault weapons as a hedge against losing a political argument is not patriotic. It’s dangerously anarchistic, if not outrightly treasonous. It’s the kind of thinking that led a former soldier, Timothy McVeigh, to detonate a massive bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including nineteen kids under the age of six.
Pratt was on television that day in part because, as one of his associates explained to another reporter, the NRA had essentially gone into seclusion. It wasn’t until Friday the 21st, that the NRA’s firebrand leader, Wayne LaPierre, emerged to say—to no one’s surprise—that the answer really is more guns, and additional public funding so we can station armed police officers at every school in the country. As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg noted in an interview over the weekend, the NRA’s success in promoting the proliferation of lethal weaponry in our society would be the main reason we would even have to consider armed guards at schools.
As I write, LaPierre’s December 21st press event is being castigated, even by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, as a public relations disaster. “Craziest Man on Earth,” was the headline on Saturday’s New York Daily News.
The kindest criticism is that LaPierre is proving to be “tone-deaf” in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. And still, what was missing from his no-questions press conference were the grand arching themes of the NRA’s world view with which he’d constructed his speech at the NRA’s national membership meeting last spring. There in St. Louis, in front of an overwhelmingly old, white, and adoring audience, LaPierre portrayed gun ownership as a bulwark against the tyranny of American government, arguing that private ownership of firearms was all the more vital now that the country had entered “the most dangerous times in American history” under Barack Obama.
You can watch the entirety of LaPierre’s speech here. It is classic demagoguery, as LaPierre tees up one obscure slight to gun owners after another, and then piles on the rhetoric. Notice his over-rehearsed mannerisms. Notice the way he injects the United Nations as a straw man, and then with the skill of a trained arsonist, sets fire to it. Then listen to him say this:
“The Second Amendment has never been more relevant as it is today. When all is said and done, we may have nothing left but our gun rights. But that’s the one right that gives us a fighting chance to reclaim freedoms lost and reclaim all of our rights, and all of our freedom.”
Like Pratt, what LaPierre was suggesting is that is both legitimate and necessary at times to take up arms against the government. They are both saying that this is what the founding fathers had in mind with the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
Just for ease of reference, here’s what the Second Amendment says:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Because it’s so poorly written, the Second Amendment is construed in different ways and is subject to interminable debate about what the “founding fathers” really meant. But the notion that the framers were empowering militias to be standing armies against state governments and a future federal government is preposterous. As author Robert Spitzer points out, the Constitution is clear that making war against the government is treason, and that, if anything, the framers were empowering militias to put down insurrections, not start them. Even in the Supreme Court’s controversial 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller—carving out an individual right to possess firearms—there’s nothing to support the idea that individual ownership is justified as a preparation for taking up arms against the government. (If anything, the Heller decision cuts the other way because it de-couples the modern right to bear arms from the prefatory clause about the “well regulated Militia.” And, of course, to hold onto the “militia” clause, you have to then take its purpose as defending the “security of a free state”—not making war on the state.)
I’m not just offering these up as talking points for your next argument with your gun-loving uncle Billy. To grasp what’s going on here you have to put the legal arguments aside at some point, take a deep breath, and grasp that what is being argued is a right to decide when it’s okay to shoot, or threaten to shoot, government officials who are enforcing our laws. This is of a piece with the subversive and treasonous rhetoric still being used to justify easy access to military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines.
The other thing people should pay attention to is the unhinged anger that is being fomented in these circles and how it is being used to delegitimize our democracy, generally, and President Obama in particular.
Although LaPierre heaped molten scorn on “politicians,” “elites” and “the media” in his St. Louis speech, his main target is Obama. Never mind that Obama gets an “F” from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence for his lack of action—thus far—on gun control. LaPierre and the NRA still cast him as the personification of a broad “collapse of American freedom” in “ways our forefathers could never have conjured in their worst nightmares.”
Would it surprise you that an example of the freedom-robbing actions of the Obama Administration is health insurance reform? Another alarm LaPierre sounded is the specter that the Department of Labor, in its zealous enforcement of child-labor laws, was planning on arresting parents in farm families where kids help their mothers gather eggs. LaPierre said this “spells the beginning of the end of free enterprise in America and the beginning of the end of American family values.”
Actually, what the proposed Department of Labor rules were trying to address is the troubling number of deaths and injuries among children operating heavy farm machinery. Because it didn’t serve his purpose, LaPierre also didn’t report that the proposed rules would have exempted  family-owned farms. In any event, the “dangerous” Obama Administration caved within days of LaPierre’s speech and withdrew the proposed regulations.
To grasp what’s going on here you have to put the legal arguments aside at some point, take a deep breath, and grasp that what is being argued is a right to decide when it’s okay to shoot, or threaten to shoot, government officials who are enforcing our laws. This is of a piece with the subversive and treasonous rhetoric still being used to justify easy access to military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines.
I’ve had my own concerns about our government. I’ve marched against our policies in Latin America, the Iraq war, and once leafletted the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard to protest the mega-death packing nuclear warheads packed on Trident submarines. I worked hard to shut down plutonium production at Hanford and to protect asthmatic kids from hazardous air pollution.
I’ve just never thought that packing heat would help my causes. To the extent that I’ve experienced success as an activist it’s been by working with others to organize and win arguments. No offense to my friends who thrive on such campaigns but I find them to be tedious and repetitive and a challenge to my people skills.
But that’s the grim, hard work of democracy. You win some and you lose some and, frankly, losing always stinks. It absolutely can feel as though you’re losing some right (i.e. to drink clean water, to breathe clean air), and some freedom, when your cause does not prevail. But the idea of hoarding assault weapons as a hedge against losing a political argument is not patriotic. It’s dangerously anarchistic, if not outrightly treasonous. It’s the kind of thinking that led a former soldier, Timothy McVeigh, to detonate a massive bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including nineteen kids under the age of six.
What makes the rhetoric all the more toxic is the unapologetic nastiness of the many of the voices that the NRA promotes and sanctions. Wayne LaPierre is no Patrick Henry. But neither should we overlook Ted Nugent, the aging rock star and NRA board member. Nugent’s love of guns is legendary but he’s also a bigot and a misogynist who regularly promotes vigilantism against people with whom he disagrees. Among other things, Nugent has labeled Hillary Clinton a “two bit whore for Fidel Castro.”
And this is just what he has to say about Hillary Clinton. There is, by now, a large collection of truly vile Ted Nugent quotes from concerts and interviews that are actually too disgusting for me to want to share. Much of it is political hate speech with a strong dose of vigilantism. Again, Nugent is an NRA board member.
The NRA wasn’t always this repulsive. It was created in the aftermath of the civil war by former union soldiers alarmed by the poor marksmanship of their fellow troops. As Adam Winkler noted in a lengthy piece for The Atlantic last year, for much of its existence, the NRA actually favored gun control measures. But that changed in 1977 when a cadre of hard-line gun rights advocate mounted a successful coup on the organization’s leadership.
Because of its roots and connection to promoting gun safety and the use of guns for hunting, the NRA is still accepted as a mainstream organization. You hear a lot from LaPierre about media bias, and particularly liberal media bias. But ask yourself this: what if Planned Parenthood, or the NAACP sanctioned the insurrectionist rhetoric—with the thinly veiled hint of mass violence—that is now the NRA’s stock and trade? Wouldn’t Bill O’Reilly and the rest of the gang at Fox News be demanding that the Justice Department prosecute them for sedition? You can be sure they would.
The problem with guns in American society is too overwhelming to suggest that it can be solved by an assault weapons ban, though it would be a good place to start. The deeper problem is that we’ve let a well-organized group of ideological zealots intimidate our political leaders into subservience and silence.
It’s sickening to think that it may have taken a massacre of children in Connecticut to change this. The only thing more sickening would be if it doesn’t.
—Note: Tim Connor’s commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Justice.