In the current conversation about weapon legislation, I hope we can all agree that it’s rather astonishing that so many are openly attacking children, for several reasons. First, the National Rifle Association knows when to shut up, as it did right after the Orlando shooting and the Las Vegas shooting. It could have let the March for our Lives just happen, and then go back to controlling the narrative a week later. But no, the NRA and its acolytes had to make up shit about teenagers.
Second, attacking minors means you’ve already lost. Can you imagine pro-bully organizations attacking this kid for faking it? Can you imagine Catholic priests attacking children that were molested in the church? Wait, actually, that did happen. And proved that the priests lost.
Third, if these kids are simply being used and indoctrinated (this line of thinking attacks the kids’ ability to think for themselves), just wondering, does the right also use and indoctrinate kids, or is that only a left-wing thing? Oh, right, no one will ever answer that.
Fourth, what happened to debating an argument on the merits? Can you oppose a message but leave the messenger alone? Can you disagree with a person’s point of view without vilifying that person? Why not just respond “The second amendment guarantees my right and everyone else’s right to own guns as a bulwark against tyranny” or likewise?
I think we know the answer: personal attacks have been working for the right for a long time. And I often hear supposedly disinterested people say that people opposing conservatives need to “beat them at their own game.” And that brings me to my main point today. I’m hearing a lot of people – I saw many of them at the March for our Lives – vilifying the NRA. I am not hearing a lot of people – didn’t see one sign – mentioning their leader, Wayne LaPierre.
You see, there was a time when the National Rifle Association wasn’t this bad. This time was as recent as the 1990s, when LaPierre wasn’t their President. In 1995, LaPierre, as merely the NRA’s executive vice-president, wrote a fundraising letter describing federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs” who wear “Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens.” This caused former President George H.W. Bush to resign his membership, and that in turn caused LaPierre to apologize for painting law-enforcement officials with too broad a brush.
For the next seven years or so, the NRA seemed to content itself with squelching any federal funds used to study gun violence. Of course this wasn’t great – if guns are so safe, why not study them? – but the NRA weren’t even close to the super-villains they have now become.
What changed? In two words, Wayne LaPierre. He became president of the NRA in 2003 and spent the next two years turning the place into The Island of Dr. Evil.
Maybe a few other things changed. 9/11 happened. As an prompt to changes in the gun debate, you could see 9/11 both ways: on the one hand, perhaps fear of invasion proved more people needed more guns; on the other hand, perhaps our willingness to circumvent the Constitution to catch terrorists proved that the Constitution wasn’t really as inflexible as the NRA had suggested.
New Jersey seemed to take the second lesson when it passed Assembly Bill 700, also called the New Jersey Childproof Handgun Law, on December 23, 2002. It said, “The amended bill specifies that three years after it is determined that personalized handguns are available for retail purposes, it will be illegal for any registered or licensed firearms manufacturer or dealer to transport, sell, expose for sale, possess for sale, assign or transfer any handgun unless that handgun is a personalized handgun.”
Around the same time, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine was becoming the highest-grossing documentary film of all time (a record that Moore would himself eclipse with another film two years later), earning about $58 million on a $4 million budget and, in March 2003, winning the Oscar for Best Picture. In 1989, Michael Moore enjoyed a huge breakthrough with Roger and Me, but his 1990s films saw steadily diminishing returns; almost no one saw The Big One (1997), his last pre-Columbine film. But Columbine struck a real chord – no one ever again called that school shooting “Littleton,” nor Moore a has-been.
Bowling for Columbine was also famous, or infamous, for ending with Moore’s on-camera confrontation of then-NRA President Charlton Heston arguably in the obvious throes of Alzheimer’s. The NRA said Moore was wrong to air the footage, and perhaps it was right.
Whether because of Heston’s publicized weakness or for other reasons, when LaPierre took over the NRA around the time of Moore’s Oscar win, he approached the job as though he was Rambo seeking to re-litigate Vietnam. New Jersey’s smart-gun law was first on the dock, and here is where LaPierre re-invented the term “evil genius” for the 21st century. LaPierre told everyone on the NRA’s email list, including every Republican politician, that the law was an existential threat to firearm ownership, and that if even one smartgun was allowed in one state (say, Alaska), it would trigger New Jersey’s law and…leave New Jerseyans defenseless? LaPierre’s language made it sound like it would leave all of America defenseless. Personalized guns are available all over Europe, but somehow, LaPierre has successfully prevented them from being legally sold in the United States for 15 years now. The law has entirely backfired. Not sure Heston could or would have pulled that off.
LaPierre’s next move was to make sure that the 1994 assault weapons ban really did expire in 2004 as scheduled. After LaPierre raised a big stink, Congress and Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry backed off any attempt at re-authorization or even slight amendments. Bye bye assault weapon ban, hello thousands more deaths. This stopped being your daddy’s NRA.
LaPierre probably didn’t need for the NRA to endorse a Presidential candidate for the first time, but they did anyway – George Bush, of course. This was some next-level evil genius: by now, LaPierre knew that his “jack-booted” rhetoric worked better, and that gun sales went up, when Democrats became President. So in a perverse way, Bush’s win was a loss for them…
…but it was a loss they determined to make into a win by further tilting the playing field in a way that the 1990s’ NRA never would have considered. In early 2005 Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce Act (what a name!), which exempted the gun industry from class-action lawsuits. Tobacco and cars and bad food and stock derivatives could and can still be sued on the industrial level, but gun manufacturers and retailers cannot. They’re the only industry to get this kind of legal exemption. Suck on that Charlton Heston!
But LaPierre wasn’t done. Got to have a new goal to keep money flowing in. And LaPierre achieved two huge new goals in 2008. One was seeing Barack Obama elected. (He’s coming for your guns! Buy them now quick!) The other was keeping people like Obama quiet while he inched District of Columbia vs. Heller over the finish line. As long as Bush had to win in 2004, that meant two new Supreme Court justices, and that in turn meant that those two had to be, had to be pressed to prove their gun-rights bona fides. Can’t let that fail to be a conservative litmus test! The Heller decision found, for the first time, that handguns counted as “arms” under the Second Amendment, and also that the government couldn’t restrict them as it had been doing. It was as big a victory as the NRA ever lodged…until four years later.
How the hell did America not do something about guns after 20 six-year-olds were murdered in an hour in a Connecticut elementary school? When huge majorities (including of NRA members!) support stricter background checks? Again, LaPierre is an evil genius. Somehow, many believe(d) Sandy Hook was a hoax. Somehow, LaPierre convinced America, or at least enough politicians, that the best thing to do was nothing.
I sometimes wonder what really goes on at NRA supervisor meetings. I picture something like this:
LaPierre: “Okay, thoughts and prayers worked on Newtown, just barely. But I’m getting a little worried that after the next Newtown, that whole ‘Doing Nothing Is Not an Option’ meme might gain more steam. What else do we have?”
Minion: “Well, if we have to look like we’re doing something, how about arming teachers?”
LaPierre: “Great idea, perfect. Wait for me to play that card, it’s only if I think we’re desperate.”
Minion: “The thing is, there’s no science behind it. It’s not like we can point to any studies.”
LaPierre: “Some teachers are armed though.”
Minion: “Not enough for a study. Well, I guess we can float that nonsense about how most gun crimes happen in gun-free zones.”
LaPierre: “Right. But wait on that too. With any luck, by the time we need that, we’ll have either a Republican President or a Republican Congress. We’ve paid for them and I expect to get what we paid for.”
Minion: “Good point!”
The bottom line: how much more should America accept of this cowardly man, Wayne LaPierre, and how much more should he be allowed to extol the immovability of the Second Amendment while constantly moving the goalposts around it?
What do Barack Obama and Donald Trump have in common? Not a lot, but I believe they were both elected because of a majority of Americans’ desire to Get On With It. To move on from the past. (That’s why Obama’s 2016 endorsement of Clinton was so odd; eight years before, he had said we had to move on from her.) I believe most Americans realize that this country made a lot of mistakes in 2003-05 (*cough*Iraq*cough*housing bubble*cough*torture*).
Outside of Jay-Z and Beyoncé and LaPierre, I can’t think of anyone from 2003-05 who is running America now. Outside of Jay-Z and Beyoncé (one always makes exceptions for Jay-Z and Beyoncé) I can’t think of anyone running America then who anyone wants running America now.
So why are we still clinging to LaPierre? We gave up on Mike Myers. Why do we still need Dr. Evil?
Make LaPierre as famous as Emma Gonzalez.