Weaponizing tragedy

Everytown for Gun Safety, which styles itself as “the movement to end gun violence,” holds a counter rally to the annual NRA convention in Indianapolis on April 26, 2014. Jacob Byk/News21.

In December 2012, after the The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on December 14, Stephen Hunter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former film critic of the Washington Post, scorned “….the orgy of recrimination, faux solemnity and glycerine tears of the past few days on the issue of ‘What can we do?’”

This struck me as a bit too cynical. The horror and revulsion was genuine (how could it be otherwise) and unadulterated among politically inattentive people. But politicians, pundits and guilty bystanders who are perpetually attentive to political combat (e.g., me) can’t escape reflexive political calculations. It has become lodged deep in our brains over the years and can’t be eradicated.

The New York Daily News saw an opportunity in 2012. “The powerful gun lobby’s iron grip on Washington,” its liberal editors wrote on December 17, “showed signs of loosening Monday in the wake of the massacre of 20 children in Connecticut…” Ex-senator Ethan Strimling (D-Portland) seized the opportunity to call for a referendum to force the Maine legislature’s hand, while arguing that “The NRA and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine will pour tons of resources into defeating even the most reasonable public safety law.”

The UMA professor Robert Klose wrote a column for the Dec. 19, 2012 Bangor Daily News demanding repeal of the Second Amendment. “Once it is gone,” he argued, “meaningful firearms legislation will finally be possible — converting gun possession from a right to a privilege, like a drivers license — and the NRA will be relegated to background noise, a hysterical mob with no constitutional basis for its oblique philosophy that the more firearms the better.”

The 2012 Newtown monster was not a National Rifle Association (NRA) member. Nor would he have been disarmed by any of those laws opposed by the NRA. Nevertheless the NRA, almost invariably called the “Gun Lobby” (you see nobody loves a “Lobby;” no one hates an “Association”) stood out as the target, then as now. Michael Moore tweeted: “The NRA hates freedom. They don’t want you to have the freedom to send your children to school & expect them to come home alive.” The prolific author Joyce Carol Oates tweeted: “If sizable numbers of NRA members become gun-victims themselves, maybe hope for legislation of firearms?” CREDO, a “progressive grassroots group” wrote on its Facebook summons to a protest rally “To stop the senseless killing we must first stop the NRA.”

University of Rhode Island history professor Erik Loomis immediately sent foam and spittle through cyberspace. “Looks like the National Rifle Association has murdered some more children” he tweeted. “Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick…F*** the NRA. Wayne LaPierre should be in prison…Can we define NRA membership dues as contributing to a terrorist organization?” John Cobarruvias, a member of the Texas State Democratic Party’s Executive Committee, labeled the NRA a “domestic terrorist organization.” “Can we now shoot the #NRA,” he asked, “and everyone who defends them?” MSNBĆs Lawrence O’Donnell called Wayne LaPierre “the lobbyist for mass murderers.”

Five years and three months have gone by. Wayne LaPierre’s head is still on his neck. Homeland Security hasn’t designated the NRA a terrorist organization. It claimed 4.3 million members in 2012. An Association spokesperson for the NRA is now claiming ‘more than five million’ on its website. Time has reported recent membership increases in gun rights groups in the United States. I cannot verify these claims, although I can report a recent visit from an unarmed fisherman who just joined the NRA in reaction to the furious hatred unleashed against gun owners.

The adolescent mobilization following the Parkland slaughter has stimulated Control-Nut hopes. A random selection of headlines tells the tale:

“Has the NRA Finally Met its Match? After Parkland, a generation is rising up, giving hope for a bold new gun-control movement,” (The Nation).
“Parkland Students Aren’t Going Away. American teens are shaping a new kind of debate about gun violence,” (The Atlantic).
“Remember this Week It’s the Beginning of the End of the NRA’s Reign of Terror…And the Parkland Kids are leading the charge,” (Daily Beast).
“After Years of Dejection Proponents of Gun Laws See Hope,” (AP).
“Urgency and Frustration the Never Again Movement Gathers Momentum…the Parkland students have managed to force their agenda,” (The New Yorker).
“Parkland school shooting seen as turning point for gun control debate,” (USA Today Networks).
“‘We Just Had a Gun to Our Heads.’ The Florida Shooting Survivors Are Transforming America’s Gun Debate,” (Time).

What has transformed America’s Gun Debate? The slogans, accusations, and cliches are not much different from what we heard in 2012. It has been adolescent victimization, passion and fear that gives new authority to familiar agitation. A 17-year-old named David Hogg has  become the current supreme hero of the Control Nuts. He has nothing new to add. He aims at the old familiar targets with the old familiar rhetoric. Donald Trump is the only novel element in his fulminations. His authority comes from his status as a survivor and the vehemence of his orations. His “authenticity” allows free vent to the hatred the Control Nuts feel for the NRA and Republicans. He can make any accusation, indulge in any falsehood, smear any Republican candidate with impunity. He can’t be contradicted, mocked, or dismissed without retaliation and condemnation.

Gun-phobia (a hoplophobic manifestation) is real enough among many middle-class suburbanites. They don’t own guns, don’t like guns, don’t understand why anyone wants a gun and don’t see why government allows people to be different from themselves. Left-Lurchers know they can appeal to these voters, but their own motives have a more explicit political purpose. They commonly attribute Republican political successes to NRA support. Some, I suppose, really believe this, but the central objective is to discredit and defeat their political enemy by a familiar process: vilify the NRA and then attack the GOP by a familiar guilt-by-association strategy.


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