A Burning Passion for Guns
Because of what they have gone through, you would assume that the Sandy Hook families would be greeted with universal demonstrations of respect, kindness and sympathy, even by those who disagree with the legislative goals they are pursuing. But you would be wrong. When two of the families went to Hartford for a state legislative hearing in late January, some gun rights proponents made national news by heckling Neil Heslin, whose son Jesse was killed in the massacre. Dozens of activists in the crowd shouted “Second Amendment!” as Heslin testified.
The outbursts in the Connecticut capitol drew widespread opprobrium. Yet this was hardly the worst of what the families have suffered at the hands of some gun-rights supporters. Indeed, a full-fledged conspiracy theory was hatched in the fevered fantasies of some Second Amendment absolutists. They accused the families of creating a “hoax,” of faking the deaths of their children and adult loved ones. Facebook pages and YouTube channels were launched to “prove” this proposition. And some of the families received calls, emails and letters insisting that they were actors and liars, playing their part in an Obama-led scheme to abrogate gun rights.
This harassment of families in the midst of their deepest grief added a new level of barbarity to the debate over guns in America. And it made clear that for some, guns are a flashpoint in our politics that burns as hot as anything we have seen since the civil rights movement.
It is not clear where all of this passion comes from, because the headwaters of the American gun culture have never been discovered. It could be our frontier spirit; it could be our libertarian ethos; it could be the Second Amendment itself. Whatever the source, Americans in much of the country have developed the belief that gun ownership is somewhere on the continuum between being a legal privilege and a nearly sacred right.
Approximately 100 million adults live in a home with a gun. (The term “gun owner” can be slippery when it comes to family-owned firearms.) They break down roughly into three groups: those who own guns mainly for sport, those who own guns for protection, and those who own guns as a bulwark against government tyranny.
Numerous polls show that the overwhelming majority of people in the first two groups (sport shooters and home protectors) is comfortable with the kinds of common-sense restrictions on gun ownership advocated by the Sandy Hook parents. The third group, however, is made up of what we could call the “constitutionalists.” Though a distinct minority, this group has come to control the terms of the gun debate, exercising a power that vastly exceeds their numbers. Their principle mechanism for wielding this power is, of course, the NRA.
The National Rifle Association is nearly 150 years old and claims a membership of 4.5 million. For most of its history, the NRA was a stolid, safety-oriented group: think AAA. They handed out safe shooter patches to summer campers and worked on land conservation. At the annual NRA convention in 1977, however, the “Cincinnati Revolution” upended those traditions. Constitutionalists ousted the old leadership and installed a new, hard-line regime focused on the absolute protection of gun rights and broader conservative political activism.
Who these constitutionalists are and how many they number we don’t know with any certainty. Some are anti-government conspiracy theorists who believe that the “black helicopters” are coming to take their guns. In the 1990s, the most radical of these formed so-called “militias” that refused to pay taxes or honor gun laws. They were the catalyst for the sieges and shootings at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and they spawned Timothy McVeigh, the main bomber of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995.
While most constitutionalists do not advocate violence, they are resolute about gun rights and gun ownership. They believe that gun laws actually make communities less safe by disarming the good guys. Post-Newtown, this was reflected in the NRA’s central proposal, which was to put armed guards in schools and to give teachers gun training. And they reject any gun safety measure, no matter how small, as a Second Amendment violation. When they join the NRA, the constitutionalists subscribe not to American Rifleman, the NRA’s magazine for mainstream sport-shooters; they get America’s 1st Freedom, the NRA’s hardline journal for their most committed core.
By 1991, when staff lobbyist Wayne LaPierre ascended to the post of executive vice president, the NRA had become the uncompromising political behemoth we know today. LaPierre has remained in power ever since, while the more ceremonial post of NRA president has rotated. Sometimes they have camera-ready presidents like Charlton Heston; at the moment they have James Porter, an ultra-conservative Alabama lawyer who calls the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.”
The NRA under LaPierre has never deviated from its goals, never softened its tone, no matter what the context. Only seven months after 9/11, LaPierre gave a speech at the NRA convention where he attacked Americans for Gun Safety for trying to “hijack your freedom and take a box-cutter to the Constitution.” “That’s political terrorism,” he thundered, “and it’s a far-greater threat to your freedom than any foreign force.”
The NRA’s political bullying extends beyond their rhetoric. When AGS recruited John McCain to work with us on the gun show loophole legislation, the NRA turned on him. Despite his previous A-rating, the NRA attacked him publicly and threatened him with political war in private. They’ve done the same with countless other lawmakers, and they have made enemies; former President George H.W. Bush quit the group in disgust in 1995 when LaPierre called federal agents “jack-booted thugs … wearing Nazi helmets and black storm trooper uniforms.”
Similar bullying—of friends who don’t toe the line—occurs even within the gun industry. When the iconic firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson agreed to a deal with the Clinton administration on the issue of trigger locks, the NRA called for a boycott. Smith & Wesson sales dropped 40 percent, after which the company went private, fired its management and abrogated its agreement with the White House.
The gun industry’s trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, has followed the NRA’s lead on all things political. As a result, the NSSF has refused to endorse the Senate gun safety bill. That might not be surprising if it weren’t for one fact: the NSSF headquarters is in Newtown, Connecticut—less than three miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School.