What do the Great Oz and the National Rifle Association have in common? Both make a lot of noise and try to intimidate anybody who questions them, but unlike the Great Oz, the NRA has real power.
State Rep. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, articulated the NRA’s position in June 2012: “Our Second Amendment rights have been infringed countless times in the past. If we let someone come and take one right away from us … we diminish what it means to be an American.”
Actually, Johnson is wrong. Over the last 200 years gun control has diminished. While guns have always been part of American culture, so too has gun control, states Adam Winkler in his book, Gunfight, the Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. In the early 1800s, concealed carry was banned in Kentucky, Louisiana, Indiana, Tennessee and Virginia as a means to limit the potential for violence. Carrying firearms was once “strictly prohibited” in Dodge City, Ks., and most frontier towns used gun control to minimize violence and promote economic activity. Whatever restrictions may exist today, guns are readily accessible.
Winkler traces the history of the NRA and the conflict between the “gun grabbers” and the “gun nuts.” When founded in 1871, the NRA’s primary activity was to promote better marksmanship. The NRA’s original slogan was “Firearms safety education, marksmanship training and shooting for recreation.” Prior to serving as the NRA’s president in the 1930s, Karl Frederick helped draft the Revolver Act of 1923, which required permits for concealed carry and required dealers to maintain records for handgun sales. The NRA supported legislation in 1934 and 1938 that taxed certain firearms, required gun registration and created a licensing system for gun dealers.
Things changed in 1977. The NRA’s motto became, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” and any attempt at gun control is now viewed as an assault on the Second Amendment and a first step toward total gun confiscation. The NRA fought the Brady Bill and its five-day waiting period in 1993 and opposed a ban on bullets, known as cop killers, that can pierce Kevlar vests.
After the 1999 Columbine killings, the NRA didn’t see a problem with the student-killers having evaded background checks by purchasing their guns from private dealers; the problem was that school officials weren’t armed. No surprise, the NRA’s response to Newtown, Conn., massacre is more guns, not limiting access to assault rifles.
Like all rights, Second Amendment rights are limited, a point the NRA is loath to admit.
When striking down the Washington, D.C., handgun law in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, Justice Antonin Scalia, wrote, “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
The NRA can afford to be dogmatic. According to OpenSecrets.org, between 1989 and 2012 the NRA made political contributions of nearly $28 million and spent almost $19 million in political ads in the 2012 federal elections. The NRA also draws on the vocal strength of its members. Question whether more guns are a good idea, and you are subject to ugly personal attacks. I know from personal experience.
After challenging in The Dispatch whether more guns actually result in less crime, I was criticized on the web for “anti-rights bigotry” and “adolescent gamesmanship” and for “puking up a hackneyed, bigoted rant.” The crowning blow, I was called the “idiot of the day” by someone who believes that guns are a “basic human right.”
Even gun advocates are criticized when they advocate reason. Alan Gura, who argued for the gun owners in Heller, received several “vicious, nasty responses” from gun advocates. Why? Because he conceded before the court that machine guns are not protected by the Second Amendment. In Gura’s words, the hard liners “are crazy.”
Few politicians have the mettle to suffer caustic attacks from the NRA. It’s safer to acquiesce to the NRA’s very narrow dogma—and the campaign contributions are nice.
The challenge with dealing with the NRA is that it sees unfettered gun ownership as a way of addressing violence in America and posits the Second Amendment as the means to get there. That approach is wrongheaded. The question should be, how do we ensure that criminals and the mentally impaired do not have access to guns, and how do we reduce violence, all in a way that is consistent with the Second Amendment? This kind of discussion, however, requires the NRA to moderate its dogma.
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