“The gun lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud … on the American people by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies – the militia – would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.”
—Warren Burger, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, 1969-1986,
appointed by Richard Nixon, conservative Republican, gun owner
It has been gut-wrenching once again to watch this latest episode of inexplicable mass violence: the shooting of high school students and their teachers in Parkland, Florida. We have heard the usual “hearts and prayers” messages – now so trite they have become virtually meaningless. The calls for new gun laws have also become a virtually meaningless exercise. And our new common foe – the mentally ill – are blamed even as we cut mental health budgets and loosen their ability to buy a firearm. Some are still willing to point to any culprit besides the real one: the unrestrained arming of America.
Nevertheless, it is refreshing to hear a few exceptions this time. A small number of Republican politicians saying “enough” and breaking with their party line. Or the major Florida Republican donor saying “no more donations” until something – anything – is done. Or the voter who mailed a check to her Congressman in the amount of “hearts and prayers” written on her check to illustrate the tone deaf hypocrisy of their words. And then there are “the kids” themselves, the Parkland survivors and their compatriots. Young people are the disproportionate share of the victims of these shootings, predominantly perpetrated by other young people who are not always mentally ill. (To the extent that any killing, and any other forms of violence, are not inherently mentally ill.)
These articulate young people are promising to make their own run at Change. Maybe they can succeed where Newtown and Las Vegas and other parents could not. I wish them well in their efforts. I am not one who seeks to stomp on people’s enthusiasm and idealism. But I do believe in knowing one’s opponent well before you go into a debate with them. So students and others taking up this cause, be aware of what the landscape for your venture truly looks like. We need to steel ourselves for the long hard road to be traveled. Examine closely the playing field and the numbers; we need to know what we are up against. Remember that this is not just about school shootings – as horrific as those are. Aurora was a movie theater; Orlando a night club; Las Vegas an open-air concert. All Americans have a reasonable right to live in a safe environment.
The backbone of resistance to any gun legislation of any kind comes from two principal sources. The first is the National Rifle Association (NRA), the high-profile public face of “gun rights” ostensibly made up of everyday gun owners. The second is the National Shooting Sport Foundation (NSSF), a low-profile gun industry trade group (based in Newtown, CT!) made up of: businesses who manufacture firearms; sellers and dealers of firearms and accessories; recreational sporting facilities.
The NRA is notoriously secretive about its actual financial and membership numbers. As of 2016, they claimed that over 20% of American adults own a gun, and that “5M” of those are NRA members (unverified). They raised approximately $350M in revenue across all of its various sub-entities, including an estimated $130M from member dues. It is estimated that they spent around $3.6M in direct lobbying fees, and almost $600K in direct donations to political candidates (amounts being limited due to federal campaign contribution restrictions). But indirectly (primarily through their secretive PAC operation), they spent around $50M in advertising and support for their preferred candidates, including $30M to support Donald Trump and $20M to GOP Senate candidates – including $6M to Senator Burr (NC) and $2-$3M each to Senators Rubio (FL), Blunt (MO), Young (IN) and Portman (OH). Those outsized donations do not come without expectations for services in return. If those services are not delivered, the NRA keeps their politicians in line by threatening to support another candidate in their GOP primary that will be dominated by voters further to the right. So far, they have gotten a good return on their investments based upon the votes and speeches of those politicians.
The NRA’s gameplan is simple and consistent. First and foremost, fight EVERY restriction or limitation that is proposed; allow no crack in the armor, no matter how seemingly trivial. When a shooting tragedy occurs: a) express concern; b) blame the shooter; c) offer token support for some action step (e.g. “arm the teachers”); d) work behind the scenes to kill any really substantive proposal; e) generally lay low, and wait for the public outcry to subside and move on to other issues. On an ongoing basis, keep flooding the airwaves, public discussions and advertising with a fixed stable of old warhorse slogans and code phrases: “The 2nd Amendment”; “Our Constitutional Right to Bear Arms”; “guns don’t kill people, people do”; “they are coming for your guns”; “it’s a mental health problem”; “laws won’t stop criminals from getting guns”; “arm yourself to protect yourself (teachers, homeowners, businesspeople).” These and other knee-jerk fear words and excuses are long-practiced and deeply embedded in the political conversations. But their simplicity, and constant unanswered drumbeat, is effective.
The NSSF claims 12K member organizations, raised $36M in income, and spent $3.5M in political lobbying, and gave grants totaling $236K to local gun organizations and projects. It claims that the firearms industry collectively has a $51B impact on the American economy and supports over 300K jobs. Those numbers are a definition of “big business”; the NSSF will fiercely protect that business, and the jobs they represent, however they need to.
It is the reality of this economic / political juggernaut that America is up against. The battle to be fought for sanity tactically has to recognize the linked interconnection of: 1) the firearms industry’s sales revenues, combined with 2) that industry’s (and others’) political donations shepherded through the NRA to key federal and state politicians to obtain legislation that will shield their legal liabilities while maintaining / increasing their sales, with 3) the inherent priority of their funded politicians to be reelected and retain their (and their Party’s) base of power. It is not a battle over morality, common-sense, safety, constitutional rights, or rational debate. One still needs to debate on those points, but understand that they are not mind-changers. Rather, it is about cash, power, and winning elections. Like it or not, as nonsensical as it may seem, that is the ground on which one must fight the battle. It is this linkage that has to be broken, because if one link fails to hold, the whole structure collapses.
So in the face of this super-imposing Goliath, what can a young David do? That discussion will be the focus of the forthcoming Part 2 of this essay.
© 2018 Randy Bell www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com