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Friday, April 19, 2013

Love, Fear, and the NRA

Seven days ago there wasn't as much to talk about. Who knew then that the coming days would bring bombings, explosions, and high stake man hunts? Who knew then that the news week would be so action packed that a Ricin-laced letter from an Elvis impersonator, to the president, would barely make the front page? It was last Friday evening, and we were at a mixer for the political science department. The days to come would be both tragic and compelling, but we didn't know that yet. For now, students and faculty socialized while drinking wine and eating cheese on crackers. Most of the conversations were naturally about politics, and most of the people there were more or less of the same mind. But not all.

I wanted to punch him. I know that’s ironic given my stance on gun control. But here he was, a member of the NRA, defending the organization that has singlehandedly prevented the U.S from passing reasonable gun control legislation for decades.

Brad, my graduate student, took a civilized sip of wine. We had been talking for several minutes, and he wasn’t responding to any of my most salient points. He spoke in a soft, reasonable tone that contrasted with the nonsense he was speaking. “This bill isn’t a good idea, and it won’t be until lawmakers understand the mentality of the gun owner. If you talk down to them, treat them like children, or tell them which guns they’re not allowed to own, then the gun owners will get pissed off.”

“But what about everyone else? Recent polls show that around 90% of Americans support background checks for buying guns, and around 60% want to ban assault rifles and magazines. The senators aren’t representing the people, they’re representing the NRA.”

Brad shook his bald head at me. “The NRA is the people. Look, someone who is determined to kill isn’t going to be detoured by having to jump through legal hoops to buy a gun. These proposed laws are punishing the wrong guys. The NRA understands what the government doesn’t.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. The NRA doesn’t even understand itself. They’ve become more about the argument than the cause, and their biggest “success” has been scaring a bunch of senators into voting against gun control legislation that most Americans support.

It hasn’t always been this way. In the 1920s and 30s the NRA wasn’t against gun control. They supported permits for carrying and concealing, a national registry for all handgun owners, and a required two day waiting period to buy any sort of gun. Today the NRA is strongly against all this. But that was before gun control was ever truly an issue.

Ironically, the first people in favor of gun control were conservative Republicans. Their main incentive was to keep guns out of the hands of black people.

 Reagan was governor of California at the time. He led the conservative Republicans in their support against increased gun control. Then the assassinations of MLK and RFK led to the gun control act ’68. This made it more difficult to buy a gun, particularly the specific handgun favored by inner city residents, and it also stated who shouldn’t be allowed to buy one – namely felons or ex-felons, the mentally ill, illegal drug users, and minors.

And the NRA was okay with all of this. In fact, in the 1970s they planned to move their main office from D.C. to Colorado Springs so they could focus less on lobbying and more on sportsmanship. But then there was a coup by a fringe group of the NRA, and they took over and switched their focus to a more forceful interpretation of 2nd amendment rights.

In 2008, a landmark ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that the government can never disarm its citizens altogether. But in the opinion section, Scalia essentially stated that doesn’t include gun possession by felons or the mentally ill, and that guns should never be in schools or government buildings, and laws can impose conditions (like background checks) on the sale of guns.

Yet the NRA continues to contradict all of this as they grow more and more extreme. They also grow more and more powerful, because as gun ownership in this country decreases, the passions of the minority rises and the NRA is determined to motivate its shrinking base. Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, is known to be a lover of strategy more than guns, and into lobbying more than he is into sportsmanship. And even he supported background checks in the late 1990s.

My neck was tightening into little knots. “You know, Canada and Australia started implementing common sense measures on gun control, and they both saw a decrease in gun violence. Sure, it won’t stop it altogether, but it’s a start. If we could do something, cut gun violence in half, that would save 15,000 lives a year.”

Brad stuffed his free hand in his jacket packet. Were his fingers forming a fist? Perhaps this conversation was making him tense too.“Ideally, sure. But the guns are out there already. We need to focus on armed guards and mental health, not on gun control.”

“No.” I tried not to let the hand holding my wine shake with tension. “Other countries have crazy people. Other countries have armed guards. But the U.S. has 13 times as many children murdered by guns in a year than in other industrialized countries. And that’s not including recent figures from Sandy Hook.”

Suddenly there was a warm hand on the back of my neck, right where I had grown the most tense. I turned around and smiled. “Hey, you made it!”

Monty leaned in and kissed my forehead. “What have I missed?”

“Not much, really. Brad and I have been talking gun control.” I gestured to Brad, who was still standing there. “Monty, this is Brad, my graduate student. Brad, this is my husband, Monty.”

Monty smiled and extended his hand. “Nice to meet you! I heard about how you helped Lucy out with Noah when they were both throwing up. That was really nice of you.”

Brad shrugged and smiled in self-deprecation. “It was no big deal. I remember what it’s like to have a boy that young. It was the least I could do.”

Monty raised his eyebrows. “How old is your son now?”

“Twelve. He’s the product of a college romance. His mom and I aren’t together anymore, but Toby is definitely the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Monty continued to ask Brad questions as his inner-talk show host is liable to come out at functions like this. I exhaled, relaxed a little, and looked around the room. Through the corner of my eye, I saw Sally, my colleague and Brad’s original advisor, watching us.
Later, at home, I confessed my suspicions to Monty.

“I wonder if they had a thing.”

He scrunched up his face. “Happily married Sally and Brad? Why?” He was brushing his teeth and I was leaning against the sink as he did, and I watched him spit out his toothpaste. I spoke to his reflection in the mirror rather than to him.
“Because she wouldn’t tell me why she quit being his advisor. And she was desperate; she didn’t even warn me about him.”

He spoke with his toothbrush in his mouth, so his words were slurred. “What is there to warn you about?”

I counted off the reasons on my fingers. “He’s in the NRA. He’s a Libertarian. He likes Rand Paul! And I’m helping him start his career. I’m getting him ready for insertion into the public arena!”
Monty started laughing.

“Don’t laugh. I’m serious.”

He spit out the last of the toothpaste and rinsed out his brush. “Honey, you’re the one who believes in open discourse. You can’t pick and choose who gets an education just because you don’t agree with them.”
Logically, I knew he was right. But these are emotional times we’re living in. “The world’s gone crazy. There’s no such thing as safety anymore, and Brad is fine with that, as long as his civil liberties aren’t infringed upon. I hate that line of thinking.”

“He seems like a nice guy.”
“He is. I’m sure Rand Paul and Wayne LaPierre are also nice. But I don’t want them running the country any more than I want Brad.”

Monty continued to laugh at me.
“It’s not funny!”

“It sort of is.”

I reached my cupped hand under the running water and splashed him. So he splashed me back.

“Hey!” I yelled.
“What!? I’m not allowed to defend myself? Don’t take away my civil liberties, Lucy!”

I was laughing now. "Please. You used to work for ACLU. I couldn't take away your civil liberties if I tried."

"But you love me anyway."Then he grasped both of my arms and pulled me in for a kiss. So I managed to forget about my righteous indignation for a while. And it's not something I hold onto most of the time, because like everyone, I have my day to get through.

 But now I know that I haven't been angry enough.  Tonight, when I looked in on my children, asleep and innocent in their beds, I realized this. Obama's strong words in the Rose Garden, the tears of the Sandy Hook Parents as they heard the Senate vote, the cry of "Shame" from a hero who is far more courageous than any Senator was that day - it all replayed inside my mind.

 I know I would trade a million tiny freedoms for the ability to keep my children safe from harm. I bet most parents would. Yet every day, for more and more parents, it’s too late to make that wish.