The NRA's Real Mission
After the usual shock and horror, my reaction after hearing about the latest United States mass shooting perpetrated by a demented white male with an assault weapon was, sad to say, “Here we go again.” I waited for the standard cycle to run its depressing course.
The venues and details are different each time, of course, but the story is always the same: a demented psychopath with weaponry and ammunition made available to him through loose gun laws. He wreaks mass-murderous havoc on soft-target innocents. Often the shooter dies, too. Sometimes—like the teenage Nikolas Cruz, who is alleged to have killed 14 of his fellow high school students in Parkland, Fla., three weeks ago—the mass murderer lives.
First come the ghastly details of murder, maiming and mayhem. Then come the breathless reports on the shooter and his history, the press conference with the authorities, the statements of dismay, condolence and prayer from the governor, the president and other public personalities and officials.
And then comes the debate. Liberals and moderates in media and politics advocate gun control, pointing out the obvious fact that military-style assault weapons magnify psycho-killer body counts to a horrifying degree and have no place in a civilized society.
Liberals call for elementary restrictions, such as banning assault weapons and more stringent background checks. Gun control advocates note that other nations do not experience the astronomically high levels of gun violence and murder rates that plague the U.S., thanks in great part to the civilized gun laws they have in place. This “left” opinion is, and has long been, shared by most of the populace.
We learn again that the really big bloodbaths are just the tip of the U.S. gun-slaughter iceberg. Multiple-death gun incidents occur with shocking regularity in a nation saturated by lethal firearms. As The Guardian reported last fall after the record-setting massacre in Las Vegas, “No other developed nation comes close to the rate of gun violence in America. Americans own an estimated 265m guns, more than one gun for every adult. Data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive reveals a shocking human toll: there is a mass shooting—defined as four or more people shot in one incident, not including the shooter—every 9 out of 10 days on average.”
Led by the powerful National Rifle Association, the right pushes back. It’s time, pro-gun politicos say, for prayers, mourning and healing, not for “politicizing a great tragedy.” Many “conservatives” blame the bloodbath on sheer evil. The more sophisticated “conservatives” say it’s a mental health issue, not a gun policy problem: “Guns don’t massacre people, crazy people do.” We are expected to think they seriously believe that diminutive and cowardly psychotics like James Holmes, Adam Lanza and Dylann Roof could have shed the same amount of blood with a machete as they did with guns.
Some on the right advance the dangerous notion that more people should be armed and ready to fight it out with mass shooters. The solution, these reactionaries think (or claim to think) is more high-power guns in circulation, not fewer. (The ridiculous Trump-approved call for teachers to be armed has never been run up the right-wing flagpole with such amplification as it has in the wake of the Parkland killings.)
The post-shooting argument ends in stalemate and nothingness. Another momentary upsurge of domestic popular revulsion against American gun madness gives way to resignation and retreat. We count the days until the next big gun massacre.
Could the aftermath of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School be different? It seemed possible. It sparked a more impressive and potentially influential wave of gun-control activism than have high-profile mass shootings of the last two-plus decades. As The New York Times reported in a recent Page 1, above-the-fold news story:
“The mass shooting … in Parkland, Fl., has thrust gun rights into the midterm campaign, scrambling traditions in both parties as the debate shifts toward firearms restrictions. … A host of House Republicans and a handful of the party’s governors are beginning to distance themselves from their party’s gun-rights orthodoxy, signaling an openness to restrictions that reflects the rising anger among suburban voters. …. Democrats are under even more pressure from within to recalibrate their position on the issue. Even as they attempt to reclaim governorships and congressional seats in red-tinged regions, moderates recognize that bearing the mark of the N.R.A. could be fatal in their primaries … the grim spectacle of [repeated mass shootings] … by individuals wielding military-style semiautomatic rifles has mobilized gun control advocates in a new way—and pushed even red- and purple-state Democrats to move abruptly in their direction. …”
Popular support for gun control usually rises a bit after mass shootings. But Parkland was different. As Politico reported, “Support for stricter gun laws has spiked in polls conducted after the fatal South Florida school shooting, hitting its highest level in at least a quarter-century. … The percentage of Americans [68 percent] who want more restrictive gun laws is greater now than after any other recent shooting” (emphasis added).
No less an NRA-backer than President Donald Trump was moved to sound as though he’d been turned into a gun control advocate. In an hourlong televised White House gathering with congressional representatives, Trump freaked out Republicans by voicing openness to a variety of Democratic Party gun proposals. He appeared to embrace a reform package including a prohibition (supported by 77 percent of Americans) on bump stock devices that “turn legal weapons into machine guns” (Trump’s words); the raising of the minimum age for legal assault weapon purchase from 18 to 21 (supported by 81 percent); a significantly improved system of background checks (supported by 88 percent). It sounded as though Trump was ready to call for bringing back an assault weapon ban, which is backed by just over two-thirds (68 percent) of the populace. “Take the guns first, then go to court,” Trump said on the topic of crazy people with weapons.
But then the NRA and Republican Party rebelled, calling Trump’s liberal gun rant “surreal” and an un-American threat to “freedom” and “due process.” Trump huddled in the Oval Office with NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and top NRA lobbyist Chris Cox. LaPierre certainly reminded Trump of the significant backing the NRA gave Trump in 2016—and of the remarkable passion with which its “14 million members” will resist even the slightest abridgement of their cherished “right to bear arms.”
The NRA intervention seems to have worked. So what if 68 percent of Americans want gun control? On Thursday night, NRA leaders triumphantly tweeted that “POTUS & VPOTUS support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don’t want gun control.” By Friday, a White House official told reporters it was unlikely the president would push for raising the minimum age for purchasing assault weapons because of a “lack of support” for such a change. Trump’s scowling press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, announced that “nothing had changed” in the president’s views on policy. Thrown into full scramble mode by Trump’s strange spasm of liberal-sounding comments, the White House failed to deliver on its promise of a comprehensive gun policy package by the end of the week.
Reporters were confused. “Nothing had changed” from what? A CNN report Friday was titled “No One Knows Where Trump is on Guns—Perhaps Including Trump.”
Beneath Trump’s mixed messages and the by now standard, new-normal White House dysfunction lie some harsh political realities. Given the intense personal, cultural and political hold that guns possess for much of the Republican Party and Trump’s heartland, white-nationalist base, a drift left on gun policy could cost the president support from a significant component of the small but so far durable group of Americans (from 32 percent to 40 percent of the U.S. populace, depending on which poll you consult) that has backed him no matter how idiotic, dangerous and clueless he has shown himself to be.
What has been different about the latest mass shooting and its aftermath? Part of it may simply be about cumulative effect, as the sheer number of these soul-numbing and nation-disgracing incidents pile up on top of each other: Columbine (a high school attacked by neo-Nazi students); Virginia Tech (a college); Aurora, Colo. (a movie theater); Sandy Hook (an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.); Charleston, S.C. (a black church); Orlando, Fla. (a gay dance club); Sutherland Springs, Texas (a white church); Las Vegas (an outdoor concert); and now Parkland.
Another part has to with the age of the people murdered. The killing of the young in and around their schools is a particularly ghastly crime. It is precisely the sort of thing no civilized society tolerates. The younger and more defenseless the victims, perhaps, the more hideous the violation. But unlike the young Sandy Hook survivors, the surviving Parkland students were old enough to take up the cause of gun control on their own. Student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have emerged as some of those most compelling and eloquent gun policy reform advocates in history. They’ve inspired fellow high school and junior high school students to walk out, march, protest and pressure policymakers across the county.
Another factor, perhaps, is the graphic failure of local and federal authorities to pick up and act upon clear signs that Nikolas Cruz was a menace to his fellow students. This malfunction exposed the pathetic weakness (in many states and locales) of the supposedly stern regulations the NRA claims are already in place to restrict Americans’ holy Second Amendment right to own weapons of mass slaughter.
Also relevant, perhaps, is the political timing and context. The latest assault weapon massacre has taken place as the primary campaigns for the midterm elections are starting to heat up against the backdrop of an epically unpopular and maddening presidency.
There’s another twist to the Parkland story: It elicited some strange and revealing comments from the NRA’s longtime CEO, Wayne LaPierre. He responded to the renewed and escalated calls for gun reform by going to the Conservative Political Action Conference to give a classically hard-right and paranoid-sounding speech denouncing liberal and moderate gun control advocates as radical socialists. LaPierre concluded his unhinged oration with the same ridiculous advice he gave in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre five years ago: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
This time though, LaPierre went beyond the gun issue to tackle other and, he felt, related aspects of government and society. He worried about national intelligence leaks and alleged liberal media bias. He criticized the FBI. He trumpeted “free market capitalism” as the source of America’s “greatness.” He railed against American universities he accused of advancing a socialist revolution by assigning the teachings of Karl Marx. He manically claimed that “during the last decade, the Obama decade … a tidal wave of new European-style socialists … seized control of the Democratic Party … a party that is now infested with saboteurs who don’t believe in capitalism, who don’t believe in the Constitution, who don’t believe in freedom, and who don’t believe in America as we know it. Obama may be [gone] but their Utopian dream marches on. President Trump’s election, while crucial, can’t turn away the wave of these new European-style socialists bearing down upon us … How about Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, Andrew Cuomo, Cory Booker, Christopher Murphy and Keith Ellison? … They hide behind labels like ‘Democrat,’ ‘left-wing,’ and ‘progressive’ to make their socialist agenda more palatable, and that’s terrifying” (emphasis added).
LaPierre warned that America is moving toward “a growing socialist state. … What [gun control advocates] want are more restrictions on the law-abiding,” he said; “they hate individual freedom … their solution is to make you, all of you, less free. … If they seize power … our American freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever.”
LaPierre’s neo-McCarthyite take on the corporate-neoliberal Democratic Party and on the standard mild liberal and moderate calls for a glimmer of gun sanity was, of course, ridiculous. But for many of us on the actual left (something rather different than the positions of Barack Obama, Andrew Cuomo, et al.), the NRA boss was ironically correct to frame the gun issue in broad systemic and ideological terms. That’s because the gun madness that plagues America is fundamentally rooted in the nation’s atomizing, alienating and dehumanizing system of savage capitalism (which keeps the U.S. further from socialism than any rich country on the planet). A recent World Socialist Web Site reflection by Patrick Martin reminds us that “this latest massacre, like all the previous episodes of mass killings, is a manifestation of the extreme dysfunctionality of American society.” Further:
“The brutal harshness of every-day American life extracts a terrible toll in human suffering. Loneliness and alienation underlie the depressive illnesses that afflict so many millions of Americans. The social despair leads all too frequently to suicidal impulses. But it also erupts in episodes of homicidal violence … the Parkland tragedy exposes and refutes the ruling class’ delusionary evasion of the terrible truth about the state of this country. … American capitalism has produced a society in which the killing of children as they attend school has become a common occurrence.”
It isn’t just about anomie. As Chris Hedges recently noted in Truthdig, guns provide millions of capitalism’s victims a way to feel powerful in a society that has turned them into marginal and surplus Americans:
“The gun culture permits a dispossessed public, sheared of economic and political power, to buy a firearm and revel in feelings of omnipotence. A gun reminds Americans that they are divine agents of purification, anointed by God and Western civilization to remake the world in their own image. … As jobs and manufacturing are shipped overseas, communities crumble, despair grips much of the country and chronic poverty plagues American families, the gun seems to be the last tangible relic of a free and mythic America. It offers the illusion of power, protection and freedom. This is why the powerless will not give it up.”
How darkly appropriate it is that Stephen Paddock—a multimillionaire poker aficionado and former Lockheed Martin auditor—set a new single-shooter body-count record in Las Vegas, the world’s gambling capital, last fall. The madness related by Martin and Hedges is precisely what the arch-capitalist Casino Society created by America’s vanguard “free market” neoliberalism has wrought.
It is a perfect match for the NRA’s dream of a nation in which every (white) household is stocked with the latest tools of rapid-fire mass killing. This dream, or nightmare, is perhaps the epitome and embodiment of the capitalist vision of possessive individualism: Each against all; divide and conquer. The idea is to turn as many American households as possible into atomized self-defense and survival units—to create a nation of armed Robinson Crusoes, each stuck on his own little island. The citizenry of such a nation never joins hands in defense and advance of democracy, social justice, peace, ecological sanity and civil and human rights—the common good. It never demands something better than inadequate wages, savage socioeconomic and racial inequality, environmental ruin, abject plutocracy, rampant sexism, virulent racism and endless war.
The arch-neoliberal NRA vision of widely weaponized, possessive individualism claims to advance popular “freedom” from “big government,” but the real goal and result is very different. It is dedicated to starving the liberating and egalitarian—the parts of government that provide safety, security and inclusion for the poor and working-class majority while helping to distribute wealth and power downward to the people. It feeds and expands the repressive and regressive “right hand of the state”: the parts of government that concentrate wealth and power further upward while punishing the poor, oppressing and excluding minorities, waging permanent war, imprisoning, criminally marking, surveilling and generally repressing the majority nonaffluent populace.
The logical outcome is a vast, militarized police state: Hobbesian chaos leading to authoritarian state power in the name of law and order. Beneath the multimillionaire LaPierre’s warnings against alleged creeping authoritarian socialism, one can discern the real trajectory he and his “freedom”-touting, right-wing ilk want to put America on—toward fascism.
It isn’t just about class. The people who are most repressed, tortured, incarcerated and branded by the right-handed state that LaPierre promotes in the name of liberty are very disproportionately black, Latino and Native American. The massacres typically carried out by crazed white males become a pretext for the strengthening of a police and mass-incarceration state that is fundamentally committed to—and largely rooted in—the white-supremacist project of keeping blacks, Latinos and Native Americans down in their socioeconomic and related geographic places. The NRA is all about guns for white people above all. And many of the white people who cling to their guns as prized and precious possessions across a “gunfighter nation” forged in violent racial conquest see their weapons as protection not against the actual rulers of America—Bernie Sanders’ “billionaire class”—but rather, as Hedges observes, against “the black and brown underclass, an underclass many whites are convinced will threaten them as society breaks down.”
Will the nation tighten its gun laws in the wake of the Parkland massacre? If the nation were a democracy, based on majority rule, that would be a done deal. Two-thirds of the nation’s registered voters support stricter gun control. Just a quarter of the electorate opposes gun reform.
But so what? On guns, as on so many other key issues (take the “Dreamers” and the border wall, for just two among many examples), alas, the nation is not a functioning democracy—not even close. The majority does not rule; an oligarchy of concentrated wealth does. The majority doesn’t have democracy so much as it has, to quote George Carlin, “owners.” If the owners thought that widespread gun ownership threatened their rule with an armed uprising, Hedges rightly notes, “a draconian form of gun control would instantly be law.” But the masters, hidden and guarded in gated enclaves of sumptuous hyperopulence, fear no such thing. They are content to let the carnage continue as the news cycle moves off guns until the next massacre.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for serious reform this time.