After each gun-related massacre, the U.S. news media waves its collective finger at politicians for permitting today’s insane tolerance of gun violence, but the media lacks the courage to call out specific individuals who bear most responsibility. One of those people is the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, says Peter Dreier.
By Peter Dreier
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has a 62-page list of mass shootings in America since 2005. It is Wayne LaPierre’s resume. For the past 21 years, LaPierre has been the National Rifle Association’s executive Vice President and chief political strategist.
It is tempting to say that these shootings — including the most recent one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday — reflect something basically wrong with American culture or the nation’s very soul. But the majority of Americans favor strict gun control laws. No, let’s not burden Americans with collective guilt. The problem is more narrow — and more fixable — than that.
The long list of killings is due in large measure to the political influence of the NRA, and the campaign finance system that allows the gun lobby to exercise so much power. But an outraged and mobilized public can beat the NRA’s influence and pressure Congress to put strong limits on gun sales.
The blood of the 26 victims of the Connecticut shooting, including 20 young children, is on LaPierre’s hands. Of course, LaPierre didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s the NRA’s hit man when it comes to intimidating elected officials to oppose any kind of gun control and the nation’s most vocal advocate of gun owner rights.
There should be special place in hell reserved for LaPierre. He likes to fulminate about gun owners’ rights. But so far he’s has been silent on the nation’s most recent gun massacre.
Although LaPierre likes to portray the NRA as representing grassroots gun owners, the bulk of its money comes from gun manufacturers. LaPierre is a corporate lobbyist and his clients are corporations whose profits grow when there are few restrictions on the sale and ownership of guns and ammunition. He does not speak for America’s gun owners. In fact, a majority of gun owners support stricter gun laws.
The NRA not only lobbies on behalf of “stand your ground” laws, but also offers insurance to members to pay for the legal costs of shooting people in “self-defense.” The NRA also defends the right of Americans to carry concealed weapons, including handguns.
Adam Lanza, the 20-year old man who walked into the Connecticut school with two firearms (a Glock and a Sig Saurer) and had another gun (a 223 Bushmaster) in his car is no doubt deranged. He’s not alone. There are lots of crazy people around. But if we make it easy for them to obtain guns, they are more likely to translate their psychological problems into dangerous and deadly anti-social behavior.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011, there were 15,953 murders in the United States and 11,101 (30 a day) were caused by firearms. Suicides and unintentional shootings account for another 20,000 deaths by guns each year. Of course, many more people are injured, some seriously, and permanently, by gun violence.
Most gun-related deaths are committed by people who purchase their weapons legally. Others purchase or steal them illegally, but their ability to get access to guns is due to our lax laws on gun ownership. LaPierre’s job is to make it easier for people to buy and use guns. And so far he’s been very successful. Since the 1994 assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn’t enacted any major gun regulations.
It is no accident that the United States ranks first in the world, by a wide margin, in gun-related civilian deaths and injuries. Compared with every other democracy, we have the most guns and the weakest gun laws.
The shooting in the Connecticut school was not an isolated incident. We’ve almost become used to a regular diet of gun-toting rampages. The most visible of them, like Columbine, the Virginia Tech killings, the murders in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, and the Arizona shooting that nearly claimed the life of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and left six others dead , stick in our minds, but there are many others. Even more Americans are killed each year in one-on-one shootings.
The NRA has two knee-jerk responses to this. The first is that the Second Amendment gives all Americans the right to possess guns of all kinds, not just hunting rifles but machine guns and semi-automatics. Efforts to restrict gun sales and ownership is, according to the NRA, an assault on our constitutional freedoms. The second is the clichÃ© that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Both of these arguments are bogus, but the NRA has the money and membership (4 million) to translate these idiot ideas into political clout to thwart even reasonable gun-control laws. To the NRA, gun laws have nothing to do with the epidemic of gun-related killings.
Even in countries with strong gun-control laws, some people will get their hands on a weapon and destroy others’ lives. The tragic killing in Norway last year is testament to this reality. (Although let’s recall that Anders Breivik bought $550 worth of 30-round ammunition clips from an American gun supplier for the rifle he used to kill 69 Norwegian kids at a summer camp. Thanks to American laws, it was a legal online purchase.)
But the shooting in Norway was an infrequent occurrence; it is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world. In contrast, the U.S. is off the charts in terms of murder rates. In other well-off democratic countries, gun violence is rare and shocking.
According to the recent comparative figures, the U.S. had five murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. Finland was next with only 2.3 murders per 100,000 residents, followed by Canada (1.8), Belgium (1.7), France (1.3), England and Australia (both 1.2), Netherlands (1.1), Sweden (1.0), Germany (0.8), Norway (0.6) and Japan and Austria (both 0.5). In other words, America’s murder rate is more than eight times greater than Norway’s.
The news media will spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to figure out what was in Lanza’s head before he put on his protective gear, carried two guns into the school, and began his shooting rampage. Although the psychology and motives of the murderer may be fascinating, it should not be the major focus. There are plenty of deranged people in the world, but in most well-off countries they can’t easily get their hands on a firearm.
The U.S. has more guns per capita than any other well-off democratic country. But the danger isn’t simply the number of guns; it is the type of guns we allow people to legally purchase. Other countries permit hunting rifles. But many Americans believe it is their right to own an assault weapon.
Here’s where the NRA comes in. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, the gun rights lobby, led by the NRA, has contributed $29.2 million to candidates for Congress and the White House, 87 percent of it to Republicans. In the most recent election cycle, gun rights groups donated $3.1 million to political candidates and spent another $5.5 million in lobbying.
In contrast, since 1990 the gun control lobby has donated only $1.9 million to politicians, 94 percent to Democrats. In the most recent election cycle, these groups contributed only $4,000 to candidates and spent only $420,00 on lobbying.
Of course, Democrats are not immune from the NRA’s influence. This summer, 17 House Democrats recently voted in favor of criminal contempt for Attorney General Eric Holder for his oversight of Operation Fast and Furious. Not surprisingly, each of them received campaign contributions from the NRA in the previous two election cycles.
[Editor: There was a right-wing conspiracy theory that the Obama administration intentionally bungled the Fast and Furious undercover operation, which allowed some guns to reach Mexican drug cartels, to create the pretext for new gun-control laws.]
At the top of the gun-rights food-chain is the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre. It is hard to know if he’s mentally unstable but he’s certainly crazy like a fox (and Fox News). Under LaPierre’s leadership, the NRA has aligned itself with the most reactionary forces in American politics, including the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, and the American Legislative Exchange Council. For example, For example, LaPierre gave a speech earlier this year to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in which he said that President Obama was part of a “conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep.”
LaPierre added: “All that first term, lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term.” He also warned that everything that “gun owners across America have fought to achieve over the past three decades could be lost” if Obama won a second term.
Well, Obama did win a second term. In a statement soon after the Connecticut massacre, Obama called for “meaningful action” to curb gun violence. “Meaningful action” does not mean educating young people about bullying and violence. It does not mean instructing gun owners to be more responsible. It does not mean, as Mike Huckabee suggested on Friday, restoring God in our schools. It means pushing for strong gun control laws.
If Obama does take this kind of leadership, he will have the support of an overwhelming proportion of Americans who support stricter guns laws. For example, 82 percent of Americans support limiting the sales of military-style assault weapons. Also, 87 percent of Americans support background checks on private sales of guns, including sales at gun shows. And 79 percent support requiring a police permit before the purchase of a gun. Almost all (94 percent) police chiefs favor requiring criminal background checks for all handgun sales.
Every American grieves for the families and friends of the people killed and injured in the Connecticut shooting. But until we tame the power of the NRA, we can expect more killings like this, as well as the deadly daily diet of murders throughout America committed by angry and in some cases crazy gun-toting people whose “freedom” to own weapons of mass destruction LaPierre defends.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College. His new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, was published by Nation Books in July.