by Ana Marie Cox
As the annual meeting of National Rifle Association members started here this weekend, the gentleman seated next to me said to settle in: “It’s mostly administrative stuff. We vote on things.” He paused for emphasis: “It’s the law.”
He’s somewhat mistaken, of course. The NRA doesn’t have any state-mandated obligation to hold an annual meeting. What’s more, the NRA has very little respect for the law. A half an hour later, at that very meeting, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre exhorted the crowd to a morally obligated vigilantism. He drew a vivid picture of a United States in utter decay and fragmented beyond repair, Mad Max-meets-Hunger Games, divided by Soylent Green:
We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and car-jackers and knock-out gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping-mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all.
LaPierre’s bleak vision is exaggerated dystopianism in service of sedition, a wide-ranging survey of targets that put justice against the intrusions of the IRS on a continuum with (as an advertisement he ran during his speech put it) workplace “bullies and liars”.
Talk about mission creep. At its convention in 1977, the NRA rejected its history as a club for hunters and marksmen and embraced activism on behalf Second Amendment absolutism. Rejecting background checks and allowing “convicted violent felons, mentally deranged people, violently addicted to narcotics” easier access to guns was, said the executive vice president that year, “a price we pay for freedom.” In 2014, 500 days after Newtown and after a year of repeated legislative and judicial victories, the NRA has explicitly expanded its scope to the culture at large.
The NRA is no longer concerned with merely protecting the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms – the gun lobby wants to use those arms on its fellow citizens. Or, as the NRA thinks of them: “the bad guys”.
It is useless to argue that the NRA is only targeting criminals with that line, because the NRA has defined “good guys” so narrowly as to only include the NRA itself. What does that make everyone else?
“I ask you,” LaPierre grimaced at the end of his litany of doom. “Do you trust this government to protect you?”
This is not one of the items the membership voted upon. Indeed, Wayne LaPierre’s confidence in making this question rhetorical is one of its most frightening aspects, though of course it’s his prescription that truly alarmed me:
We are on our own. That is a certainty, no less certain than the absolute truth – a fact the powerful political and media elites continue to deny, just as sure as they would deny our right to save our very lives. The life or death truth that when you’re on your own, the surest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!
You cannot defend this as anything other than the dangerous ravings of a madman. LaPierre’s description of the world is demonstrably untrue, and not just in concrete, objective terms. To cite just one example: crime rates in the US have been falling for 20 years – a statistic that some gun rights advocates brandish as proof of the selectively defined cliché, “more guns, less crime.” Just as troubling is LaPierre’s internal inconsistency about what it means for NRA members to be “on their own”.
He rattled the audience with a listicle of abuses of power that included Solyndra and and Benghazi (those are Second Amendment issues now, I guess!), but consoled those gathered with the factoid that there are 100m gun owners in America – a third of the country. He railed against “the elites'” rejection of the NRA’s “more guns in schools” solution to Sandy Hook, but reassured his listeners that “city after county after school board after statehouse” adopted the strategy anyway.
You cannot have it both ways. You cannot be both winning and losing, alone but united, the minority but the majority. It is almost (almost!) as if Wayne LaPierre intended to mislead his audience with this whiplash oratory, intended to dizzy them into acceptance of his underlying message, which is almost disappointingly mundane: give us money. Give the NRA money. Give us money so we can create the legal environment that allows gun manufacturers to make more money so that they can give us more money.
Conspicuously absent from LaPierre’s list of grievances was any serious consideration of the economic system that might have a role destabilizing the society for which he pantomimes such concern. He referenced losing jobs to “hypocrites”–the kind of immediate and tangible grievance about which one can imagine an immediate and tangible retaliation. (And one of the reasons waiting periods for gun ownership are such a good idea.) He did not indict the powerful machinations of capital and power that limit people’s ideas about their future to only the immediate and tangible, the system that has turned the gap between rich and poor into an ever-widening gyre. (If there’s an apocalypse coming, look in that direction.)
The members of the NRA who cheered LaPierre, I’m quite sure, don’t think that they’ve turned against their country; they believe the country has turned on them – a distinction that the seceding states of the south made as well, but the distinction only really matters after the war is over and someone gets to write the history.
I could scare you with a sketch of what America might look like in a world where LaPierre’s urging leads to concrete and lasting political change. I think it would be grim and dangerous, though not as dangerous to LaPierre’s allies as it would be to everyone else. But that dystopia is beside the point, because I don’t believe LaPierre and his cronies actually want an armed uprising, or complete political supremacy. Arms dealers are never interested in victory, just eternal war.
On some level, the NRA is correct when it turns the problem of gun violence into the schoolyard litmus test of good guys and bad guys. Maybe firearms, as objects, aren’t the problem, or they’re not the problem with the NRA. Anyone backing with full faith the argument made by LaPierre likely made up their minds long before they ever stepped on a target range or fired a round. The problem with the NRA lies with the people who lead it.
I was somewhat undercover at the convention this weekend. And being among people who believe they are surrounded by other members of their tribe does mean that they say things they might not otherwise say – but to be unguarded, to be vulnerable, doesn’t always reveal the worst in people. It can reveal the best.
I’m not sure if I opened any door other than the one to my room the entire weekend. People smiled and scooted over to make room on seats. Strangers said “howdy.” I was instructed in the proper stance for shooting a Glock by a former police officer that saw my interest (and ignorance): “Just so you don’t look like a beginner once you get to the range.” One middle-aged woman let me take a picture of her garter belt holster, an act of the kind of stunning bravery and intimacy one usually only sees on the battlefield.
And throughout, I marvelled: these are friendly, apparently prosperous people, surrounded by physical evidence that their belief system is thriving – Over 9 Acres of Guns and Gear! – both economically and culturally. Why are they so incredibly frightened?
I sat in on a lecture on home defense, expecting a more localized version of LaPierre’s speech. (HOME INVASIONS!) But the instructor was impressively subdued and sober about his subject, emphasizing that he taught defense, which ideally does not include using a gun. Evasion is an honorable outcome, he told us. Have a safe room. Know the routes out of the house. “Legally and morally,” he said, “Shooting someone is always the last resort.”
Afterward, I told one of the sponsoring company’s instructors how impressed I was by the conservativism of the presentation. I admitted I hadn’t expected that; I thought anyone teaching a home defense workshop would probably rattle off as many scary scenarios as possible. He disagreed. People who are really paranoid about home invasions aren’t going to take a class, he observed. They’ll just buy a gun. “And who knows if they ever learn to use it.” If they do take a class, he continued, they won’t absorb the lessons very well – they’re too busy being afraid.
“Of course, there is such a thing as just the right amount of paranoia,” he smiled. “But any instructor who tries to scare people into taking his class is just trying to ramp up business … or pump up his ego.”
I don’t think he realized he was describing the business model that surrounded us that very minute.