Why the NRA Is Still Winning the War on Guns
In the wake of the Newtown school shooting — and a year full of gun violence — it's worth remembering that the NRA's favorite laws are passing.
The National Rifle Association has been able to maintain its reputation as a respectable organization by portraying itself as a defender of the right to own weapons as a crime deterrent — a means to a less violent society. That's the genius behind its little slogan "guns don't kill people, people kill people." But in the wake of the Newtown school shooting — and a year full of gun violence — it's worth remembering that the NRA has been unmistakably advocating for a more violent society, one in which there are more and more scenarios in which there are no consequences for killing people. And the NRA's favorite laws are passing. The NRA is winning.
It's not just that the NRA has pushed for the end of a ban on weapons that are very effective at killing a lot of people in a few minutes — like the assault rifle that reportedly was used to kill more than two dozen people in Connecticut Friday morning. (Photo of a .223 Bushmaster at right.) The NRA has pushed for laws allowing people to bring guns to work in 17 states. It's pushed for "Stand Your Ground" laws in more than 20 states that encourage the use of those weapons. These laws expand the "castle doctrine," which once allowed people to use lethal force in self-defense in their homes when they fear their lives are at stake but now allow lethal force to be used outside the home, or just to prevent someone from entering a home, without requiring the shooter first retreat. The most famous case this year was in Florida, when George Zimmerman shot to death the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. (Defenders of Zimmerman suggested he must have felt his life was threatened because Martin used curse words on Twitter.)
As Slate's Emily Bazelon points out, the people actually in charge of making sure we have a less violent society — cops, prosecutors — hate these laws. "It's an abomination," former Broward County prosecutor David Frankel the Orlando Sun Sentinel. "The ultimate intent might be good, but in practice, people take the opportunity to shoot first and say later they had a justification. It almost gives them a free pass to shoot." That statement was made after a man shot an unarmed homeless man several at an ice cream store, but before Martin's death. In 2012 we've seen an accelerated repetition of a familiar American cycle: a mass shooting, public outcry, political inaction, followed by a historic victory for the gun lobby.
February 26: Trayvon Martin is shot to death, and his shooter is initially not arrested as he's covered by Florida's Stand Your Ground law.
July 20: 12 people are killed in the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, and 58 are injured.
September 22: In Kalispell, Montana, Brice Harper shoots and kills Dan Fredenberg, who entered Harper's garage unarmed and had not started a violent confrontation. Harper was having an affair with Fredenberg's wife.
October 9: Flathead County prosecutor Ed Corrigan refuses to indict Harper because Harper is protected by Montana's expanded castle doctrine law. The law allows you to kill people just to keep them from entering your house. The state has the burden to prove your use of force wasn't justified.
October 20: Saturday Night Live accurately portrays the essence of President Obama and Mitt Romney's response to a debate question about whether they would do something to control gun violence. "Nothing." "I would also do nothing."
December 11: The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals strikes down Illinois's ban on carrying concealed weapons in Moore v. Madigan. Illinois was the last state with such a ban.
December 13: "Concealed weapons could be allowed in 'gun-free zones' under bill headed to Michigan Gov. Snyder," Michigan Live reports.
While the NRA wins court fights, laws allowing more guns in more public places continue to spread, often for reasons that defy logic. For example, take the reasoning offered by Alabama state Sen. Roger Bedford, a Democrat, when explaining to Bloomberg earlier this week why he introduced a bill that would allow people to keep their guns in their cars in the workplace parking lot. "This provides safety and protection for workers who oftentimes travel 20 to 50 miles to their jobs," Bedford said. What does this mean? If there's a workplace shooting, people need to be able to have their guns in the parking lot to turn the place into a true shootout? Or does he just mean that maybe people need to be able to shoot to kill while driving down the highway on the way to work?
The fear of the NRA is so engrained in American politics that the group doesn't actually have to be successful in punishing gun control advocates anymore. The Sunlight Foundation reports that the NRA's political arm earned just a 0.83 percent return on investment in its election spending. Of the $10,942,533 the NRA spent in the 2012 election, less than 1 percent of the races ended in the NRA's desired result. So, for example, only 6 candidates it opposed actually lost. (The NRA disputes this analysis, arguing that money spent backing a sure winner should not be considered a smarter investment than money spent on a close race. It's still powerful on the local level — Bloomberg explains it helped defeat Tennessee Republican state House caucus leader Debra Maggart, who opposed a guns-in-the-parking-lot law.)
And here's more proof the NRA has won culturally: any time someone writes that maybe we shouldn't let normal people buy war machines, there is an obligatory disclaimer by the writer either noting a lifelong love of guns or admitting to be a yankee liberal sissy. Mother Jones's Adam Weinstein on Friday: "As a 3rd-gen. gun collector, I say you can have 'em. Now. And go after every tinfoil hat Bircher NRA peckerwood w/a long-gun, too. Now." Slate's Bazelon in October: "Call me a wimp who’s afraid of guns..." Here's mine: The most rabidly pro-gun control people I've ever met were infantrymen who served in Iraq.
The gun people know they are winning. Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, wrote in the South Carolina newspaper The Times and Democrat this week:
Despite the fact that anti-gunners may want to play down the significance of these rulings, the fact is we end 2012 with firearms civil rights in the strongest position they have enjoyed in generations. We intend to improve on that in the year ahead.
I hope he fails miserably. But it's not looking good for the not-even-that-silent rational majority.
Correction: We have clarified the type of weapons that was reportedly used in the Newtown shooting. CNN reports they include a .223 Bushmaster assault rifle. CBS reports two other weapons were a Glock 9mm pistol and a Sig-Sauer pistol. Fox reports there was a fourth weapon.