The National Rifle Association and their various surrogates did themselves no favours this morning on the Sunday talk shows. So dedicated they were to the idea that the answer to the question of what to do about America's seemingly monthly plague of gun violence is to arm even more people, that even Republcian stalwarts like Lindsey Graham were doing difficult feats of linguist contortion to keep themselves separate but equal from the NRA. And frankly, any stand that has the seriously right-wing Graham taking a step back from you should automatically give you pause if you're someone like NRA President Wayne Lapierre. But then again, a ban on assault weapons should be a no-brainer after the death of 20 kids no older than 7, but here we are.
Remember way back in 1999 when the NRA had a convention in Denver mere weeks after Columbine. People protested, and I think even local Colorado politicians asked the lobby's leadership to at least postpone such a gathering in the municipality immediately adjacent to what was then the home to the worst school shooting in American history. But what came out of those protests, famously, were the words of then NRA President Charlton Heston, who held up a long gun rifle over his head and promised to the gathered supporters, "From my cold, dead hand."
Of course at the time the notion of school shootings was something of a new concept amongst the subgenres of violent crime. But even if the shooting in Newtown was the first school shooting ever in the history of the United States, the past six months have not reflected positively back on the idea that country with such a lax attitude about the possession of guns is a good idea. There was the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, CO in July that killed 12 and injured 59. In August, a man killed 7 and injured 4 in a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. In Seattle on May, 6 people were killed at a cafe. And on September, 7 were killed and 2 were injured in a workplace shooting in Minneapolis. And all that is to say nothing of the thousands of people, some 30,000 who are killed in regular, everyday (if there is such a thing) gun violence in a year, in the United States.
But one of the things that confounds me in the face of the NRA's defiance is that there's no understanding of escalation. There had already been a bloody mass high school shooting (the aforementioned Columbine), and in 2007 the Virginia Tech massacre took its place in history as the worst mass shooting in the U.S. killing 33 and injuring 23. If there's a cosmic check off list, it was just a matter of time before someone not in their right mind, and with easy access to guns, would shoot up an elementary school somewhere. It appears that December 14, 2012 was the time.
Now, most American politicians are trying to wedge some kind of gun control discussion into the national conversation, but it maybe too little, too late. There was a rather awkward moment in the second presidential debate in October when someone asked a question about gun control. Until that point, the words "gun control" had not come up in debates, stump speeches or interviews by either of the candidates, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney. Obama did his best to give a canned answer that neither supported gun control nor fawned over the second amendment, while Romney did the Republican thing and voiced his support for the loose definition of what the right to bear arms entitles the average American to. In other words, they both said nothing on the subject.
But in the case of Obama at least, the Newtown tragedy seems to have lit a fire under him. His initial political reaction has been to call for a renewal of the assault weapons ban (which expired in 2004), call for an additional ban on extended magazines, and the closing of loopholes in order to hold up gun shows and private gun sales to the same standards for background checks as the purchases in store. The NRA's counter-proposal? Armed security in schools, and everything else stays the same.
The question for the NRA is, if the shooting death of 20 children in a school isn't enough to move you slightly in the direction of greater gun restrictions, what will? The NRA once famously during the fervor following Columbine opposed any law that would limit people to buying one gun per month. Yes, the NRA was against the idea of through litigation saying that buying only one gun every month was enough. Why? Because what about Christmas!? Nothing says celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace like a gun that can kill a classroom in under 10 seconds.
For the NRA such an obstructionist approach is not going to work as well this time; the crime, both in its scope and in its chosen victims, is just too unthinkable. People are wanting action, not the same old song and dance, but that's exactly what Lapierre was offering Friday when he tried to pivot policy from gun control to goth culture, violent movies, video games, and the proper cataloguing and sequestration of the mentally ill. Now no one is going to suggest that enough is being done to help those with mental illness, but the ideology borrowed from conservative talking points memo from '99, remains as difficult to stick as ever. The rest of the industrialized world digests the exact same culture as the United States, but to say that it has a different impact on the people of the U.S. than the people of, say, Canada, Finland or Japan is a matter of opinion. And then there's the small matter of facts.
According to the Coalition for Gun Control, the death rate by firearms in the United States - a statistic that includes homicides, suicides and accidental death - adjusted for population, was 10.2 per 100,000 people in 2009. The next closest developed country was less than half that as Finland had a rate of 4.47 per 100,000 people in 2008. In Canada, the rate was 2.5 per 100,000 people in 2009. So how do account for such galling numbers in the U.S.? Well look at it this way, The U.S., with 4.5 percent of the world's population, accounts for about 40 per cent of the planet's civilian firearms
On "Meet the Press" this morning, Lapierre reiterated comments that the focus of the government should be on putting more armed guards in schools, not in attacking the rights of law-abiding, gun-loving Americans. Sadly, Lapierre wasn't alone in trying to sell this option. Former Arkansas congressman Asa Hutchinson wandered into the fray this morning with an unusual argument. "Let's compare this back to the federal air marshal program on airplanes," he said on ABC's "This Week." "There was intense debate that on airplanes, guns have no place, and yet we have a federal air marshal program that I helped to oversee, and which has provided a deterrent. It has increased the safety of the airlines, and it's not like it's an armed camp when you go on the airlines."
The difference being, as Hutchinson failed to point out, is that civilians can't walk on to an airplane with a gun. That there are levels of security meant to keep anyone armed from getting anywhere near an airplane in the first place. The security evolved, yes, because of disastrous events like 9/11 and the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, but also because of several, small hijackings throughout the 70s where no one was hurt, but millions of dollars was extorted. After that, saying maybe we should make it so that civilians can't carry guns onto airplanes, didn't seem like such a bad idea. Nor did it seem like a bad idea to suggest that the people who carry guns on planes have some kind of permit or paperwork to do so. Of course, one shouldn't take such examples literally, how things work in the big, open are world are very different from how they work in a contained area like an airport.
But we're overlooking the most obvious criticism to the NRA's plan, and I don't mean the question of how a public school system that can barely cover the cost of books and pencils can find the money to pay hundreds of thousands of new security guards. Many have responded to Lapierre's call with a scoff of "Well why don't we just put armed guards everywhere we go? Every public place where many people congregate at one time - restaurants, movie theatres, churches - protected by off-duty cops, retired veterans or anyone good with a gun." Few have said yes to the proposal. "Yes, I am willing to fund that, along with my fellow gun owners and ammo buyers," wrote John Boyle, a columnist with the Asheville Citizen-Times in North Carolina. "A tax on every gun or box of ammo is a start."
Of course there is a circumstance where armed guards positioned in public places are mandatory for "society's protection." It's called martial law, and it's usually accepted as a sign of a society's failure, when circumstances and violence are so out of control that only the overwhelming presence of armed peacekeepers have any hope of maintaining some kind of order. It's also usually a sign of a government's corruption, that the only way they can keep order is by the barrel of a gun. It's a form of tyranny. And you know what was created as a way to disuade the spread of tyranny in the United States? The second amendment. The idea being that "a well regulated militia" was "necessary to the security of a free state" in order to stop a tyrannical government from imposing its will on freedom loving citizens.
Congratulations NRA, you are now the snake eating its own tail.