Into the Abyss

By Wayne M. O’Leary

I feel the need to make a confession: I was once a member in good standing of the National Rifle Association, better known as the NRA. I was nine years old at the time. Back then — we’re speaking of the 1950s — the NRA offered junior memberships (perhaps it still does), and I signed up.

As the proud possessor of a bolt-action BB gun, I visualized myself as part of the heroic firearms lineage that extended from Daniel Boone through Davy Crockett and beyond. Contributing to the allure were the trappings of NRA affiliation. In addition to inspirational printed materials about gun history and marksmanship, the inductee received a really cool shoulder patch — red and blue, as I recall, with crossed rifles or muskets above the organization’s name.

My generation learned about guns early in life. Most of us were the children of World War II veterans. Guns and references to guns were omnipresent. We all had toy pistols, mostly in the shape of Colt six-shooters or Army .45s, and our games always involved shooting. We played “cowboys and Indians,” “cops and robbers,” and everyone’s favorite, “war.” And when we weren’t firing at one another, we went to the movies and watched John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Audie Murphy slap leather.

Fortunately, most of us outgrew our infatuation with guns. After a brief period of target practice in the backyard, my trusty air rifle was packed away and forgotten, and my NRA membership lapsed. I was on to more productive pursuits. It seems, however, that where guns are concerned, many Americans never grow up, which is probably what the NRA had in mind all along; it’s an easy, logical progression from BB guns to the real thing and from the youth auxiliary to a full life membership.

Only a minority of Americans, about one in five according to the latest figures, own guns, but the rest of us are held hostage to their fixation. Statistically, there is one firearm for every person in the US. That means those who do own them tend to own several. For whatever reason — fear of government-imposed limits, NRA-instigated panic, a hard sell by manufacturers — they’re stocking up.

Some of this is legitimate acquisition by hunters and target shooters, and those with reasonable security concerns. But a lot of it is a function of paranoia, anti-social psychosis, or extended adolescence. The most obsessive component, those who love guns for their own sake (to fondle, caress, or gaze longingly upon), includes the hard-core membership of the NRA, four million strong, led by the organization’s chief spokesman and CEO, Wayne LaPierre.

LaPierre, who deserves the sobriquet “The Angel of Death” for his steadfast lobbying against any sensible gun laws aimed at slowing the slaughter on America’s streets, is the end product of 35 years of reverse evolution that transformed the NRA from a safety-minded sporting and hunting association into a halfway house for crazies. By focusing exclusively on the supposed absolute and inviolable guarantees of the Second Amendment, he and his hallelujah chorus of dues-paying automatons have turned the NRA into a kind of armed version of the tea party. The implied threat to use deadly force against anyone who interferes with their collective gun fetish is now an expression of “liberty” or “freedom.”

So, the shooters at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson and Aurora were merely exercising their constitutional rights in acquiring the weapons to act out their delusions. If they went too far, the proper response lay with other Americans exercising their own gun rights. The massacre at the movie theater in Colorado could have been prevented, according to one congressional bonehead, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), if theater-goers had only been armed and ready to apply their own “Second Amendment remedy” by neutralizing the offender in question, thereby multiplying the death count in the process through collateral damage.

The river of blood coursing through the nation — 30,000 gun fatalities each year — owes its existence to 27 words that, since the 1970s, have been willfully misinterpreted, or quoted out of context. They are worth repeating: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Note that the operable phrase does not refer to “an armed citizenry” or “armed individuals” being necessary to guarantee freedom and security, but rather “a well regulated Militia” — the 18th-century equivalent to today’s National Guard. The Founders wanted to ensure that states would retain the authority to maintain public militias and arsenals for the common defense in case of a repeat of 1775, when the British Army marched on Concord to seize the stored weapons of the Massachusetts militia and break the back of the fledgling Revolution.

Harvard historian Jill Lepore has traced with precision (The New Yorker, 4/22/12) the process by which the Second Amendment’s establishment of militia rights has been twisted since the Reagan years into an open-ended guarantee of every individual’s God-given right to carry a firearm. Unsurprisingly, the NRA, which was taken over in the late 1970s by its own extremist elements, has been in the forefront of this change; indeed, it has been the catalyst.

Enraged by the expansion of gun restrictions in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the organization’s conservatives, backed by sympathetic congressional Republicans, began campaigning for a reinterpreted and broadened Second Amendment. Over the ensuing three decades, the lobby effort produced a weakening of existing federal gun laws, along with passage of new, aggressive “right-to-carry” and “stand-your-ground” legislation at the state level. Endorsing each backward step has been an intellectually bankrupt Supreme Court, which views virtually all gun-control laws as unconstitutional, methodically striking them down since 2008 in the name of a nihilistic vision of individual freedom.

The most egregious manifestation of this firearms insanity lies not with the courts, however, but with Congress. On Capitol Hill, a morally challenged bipartisan coalition has negotiated a cowardly, Munich-like non-aggression pact with the NRA. By refusing to undertake even symbolic attempts to renew the lapsed (2004) ban on military-style assault weapons in private hands, it’s effectively signed off on America’s emerged status as a shooting gallery for deranged misfits. Aurora was the latest demonstration; it won’t be the last.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2012

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