Tag Archives: NRA

Walking Backwards on a Slippery Slope

Last Friday, at the close of a month full of gun-related news, including a mass shooting in California and a series of high-profile Open Carry protests in the Southwest, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action issued a truly remarkable statement. Entitled “Good Citizens and Good Neighbors: The Gun Owners’ Role,” this press release struck a rare note not only by addressing gun owners directly, as opposed to legislators or the media, but also by reprimanding some of them:

“As gun owners, whether or not our decisions are dictated by the law, we are still accountable for them. And we owe it to each other to act as checks on bad behavior before the legal system steps in and does it for us.  If we exercise poor judgment, our decisions will have consequences… Let’s take just a couple of examples.  In each case, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.  In each case, gun owners would do well to consider the effect their behavior has on others, whether fellow gun owners or not. “

This document was remarkable not only in its own right, but because of its aftermath, which is breaking news. But before I get to that, it’s worth looking very closely at what the NRA originally had to say. The first example the NRA chose was the escalating brouhaha over the availability of so-called “Smart Guns.” The issue of Smart Guns is extremely complicated, both in terms of the technological specifics and the relevant legislative landscape, and it’s something I will write about in more detail another day. Suffice it to say for the moment that the advent of guns with increased safety features, like the Armatix iP1, which only fires when held by a user who is wearing an RFID-enabled wristwatch, has provoked a backlash among certain gun enthusiasts – to the point that the weapon’s designer has received death threats and retailers were driven to withdraw it from their shelves. The reason for this backlash is that certain gun enthusiasts worry that once smart guns become available, all non-smart guns will be outlawed. It’s a fear that has intensified in no small part due to poorly conceived legislation in New Jersey, passed in 2002, that would mandate all firearms merchants to carry only smart guns once they became generally available. Although the legislator who sponsored that particular bill has indicated that she is willing to repeal it, the NRA has nonetheless steadfastly opposed the sale of any such smart guns, citing its concerns with laws like New Jersey’s. Last week’s press release doubled down on that opposition: “The lesson with ‘smart’ guns is that you can’t always evaluate the long-term consequences of a new ‘innovation’ in firearm technology or regulation at a glance… Before you embrace whatever schemes are being pushed by the self-described ‘gun safety advocates’ who’ve never met a ban or restriction on guns or ammunition they didn’t like, acquaint yourself with the facts.”

The NRA press release then turned to its second example of how “just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be”: the Open Carry of long guns in public spaces, which has entered the public eye in the wake of a series of high-profile Open Carry protests in Texas. With a caveat of praise for the “robust gun culture” of the Lone Star State, the NRA’s presser observed that a “small number [of Texans] have recently crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness.”

“Now we love AR-15s and AKs as much as anybody, and we know that these sorts of semiautomatic carbines are among the most popular, fastest selling firearms in America today.  Texas, independent-minded and liberty-loving place that it is, doesn’t ban the carrying of loaded long guns in public, nor does it require a permit for this activity.  Yet some so-called firearm advocates seem determined to change this…While unlicensed open carry of long guns is also typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms. “

Why are these “firearm advocates” – like those “self-described ‘gun safety’ advocates’ – only “so-called”? It’s because, as the NRA sees it, their guntrolling “hijinx” threaten to ultimately work against gun rights – a suspicion that’s clearly justified given that several businesses have moved to ban Open Carry on their premises. With uncharacteristic candor, the NRA press release explicitly condemned this behavior:

 “Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates…Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.”

Here’s why all this is particularly interesting. As an essentially conservative organization, at least in its current incarnation, the NRA can’t call for an outright ban on anything or demand restriction on its member’s behaviors; it can only enjoin “responsibility” and “neighborliness.” In this sense, the NRA’s statement parlayed the values associated with classic American conservativism at its best: self-restraint and persuasion instead of compulsion, community consciousness and responsibility instead of regulation.

But in another sense, that press release leveraged a more contemporary feature of American conservativism – a sense that citizens’ rights are embattled, teetering on a slippery slope towards destruction. In both cases – with Smart Guns and Open Carry – the NRA statement appealed to a consequentialist logic: doing X might likely lead, someday, somehow, to Y. Allowing for the sale of Smart Guns might lead, down the line, to the outlawing of all other guns. Brazen Open Carry of long guns in fast food restaurants might lead, down the line, to pro-gun control backlash among otherwise undecided voters. However realistic each specific scenario might be, the same slippery-slope logic underwrites both.

But the problem is that the NRA doesn’t have a monopoly on that kind of logic. Open Carry advocates themselves argue that not bearing their weapons encourages an “anti-gun” atmosphere that would inevitably result in yet further limitation of their rights. As Open Carry.Org puts it: “A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost.” Just because you can do this doesn’t mean you should, said the NRA to the Open Carry movement. Because we can, we have to, was the response.

The tragic irony here, of course, is that the NRA has been relying on slippery-slope logic for decades, not least by constantly hyping fears of a (highly unlikely) renewed Assault Weapons Ban to sell guns and by invoking the specter of a (pretty much impossible) government confiscation of all guns to drive up membership. The NRA has been pushing the slippery slope angle for years, cultivating extremist gun owners for the worst case scenario. But now suddenly the NRA finds itself beholden to those extremists, and the target of their paranoid fears. Because when some Open Carry activists cut up their NRA membership cards and accused the NRA of “losing its relevance” and siding “with the gun control extremists and their lapdog media,” it was only a matter of time before Chris Cox, Executive Director at the Institute for Legislative Action, was obliged to perform a backtracking mea culpa: “Now, the truth is, an alert went out that referred to this type of behavior as weird, or somehow not normal. And that was a mistake. It shouldn’t have happened. I’ve had a discussion with the staffer who wrote that piece, and expressed his personal opinion. Our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners.”

Listening to Cox flail uncomfortably and pin blame on some unfortunate staffer, it was hard not to recall the opening words of Friday’s press release, about people taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions, good and bad. “In ways small and large,” that release ran, “We are all in this together, and we all have a role to play in preserving our cherished freedoms for ourselves and future generations.” What does that future hold if preserving those freedoms now no longer carries even the minimum obligation to enjoin responsibility and restraint in exercising them?





Not Just For My Son

Earlier this week, I attended a Town Hall event in East Atlanta organized by State Senator Vincent Fort and a suite of community groups. The event focused on repealing Georgia’s Stand Your Ground legislation (SYG; GC 16-3-21) and was a deeply powerful experience.

Lucia McBath

Lucia McBath

Of the many phenomenal speakers that night, one in particular downright tore the roof off with her heartbreaking story and raw power: Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, a 17 year-old boy who was shot to death while sitting in a car with some friends in a gas station parking lot in Florida. Davis’ killer, Michael Dunn, a 46-year-old white man, apparently felt that the boys’ “thug music” was threatening, and when the boys refused to turn it down, he emptied the clip of his handgun into the vehicle. Dunn, who had allegedly been drinking heavily at the time, is pursuing a modified SYG defense because he claims he believed he saw one of the boys inside the car reach for a shotgun. Dunn immediately fled the scene; no such weapon was ever found.

McBath, whose father was for two decades the President of the Illinois NAACP, spoke movingly about how she had raised her son. “My son was taught and trained to stand up for himself, and he told Dunn they weren’t bothering anyone and that if he had a problem he could just roll his windows up… And Dunn, because they didn’t do what he told them, empowered by his gun, he fired ten rounds into the car and three of those bullets instantly killed my son.” McBath – whose bravery is humbling and inspiring and profound – ended her speech with a plangent appeal for recognition, for action: “I feel in my heart at times that I am a lonely warrior. That no one hears me. I am begging you to hear me. Not just for my son, but for Trayvon, for Sandy Hook, for so many…This has to end.”

As McBath spoke, people yelled back – “We hear you! We hear you!” – and when the speaker asked for folks to pledge to sign petitions and march and call the Governor the audience response was tremendous. We held hands and prayed and sang and I for one walked out with faith in the capacity of righteous people in numbers to do good, to effect change. And I think these people will.

But then I got home and read an article in Mother Jones and it made me ill. It’s by a reporter named Josh Harkinson, and you should read it – it’s not long. In quick summary: Bushmaster Firearms International, the company which makes the XM-15, the AR-style assault rifle Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre last year, is a subsidiary of a company called the Freedom Group (AKA Remington Outdoor Company Inc.), which is in turn a property of Cerberus Capital Management, LP, a private equity firm that possesses nearly $20 billion in assets. Immediately after the shootings in Newtown, and in the face of public outcry, Cerberus pledged to liquidate its holdings in Freedom Group. A year later, it still hasn’t. Why not? Well, in large part, it’s because Freedom Group and Bushmaster are making more money than ever before. As Harkinson explains: “Between January and the end of September, the company raked in $94 million in profits on more than $1 billion in gun and ammo sales, compared with just $500,000 in net profits during the same period in 2012… According to the Freedom Group’s third quarter report, this year’s earnings spike came primarily from a $42 million bump in sales of “centerfire rifles,” a category which includes the XM-15.”

There is so much wrong here. Setting aside some of the more obscene ironies that Harkinson’s on-point reportage highlights (for example, the fact that the California State Teachers Retirement System continues to hold a $750 million dollar stake in Cerberus) the picture that emerges is of deep structures of power and embedded interests that stretch across multiple institutions, private, public, non-profit, and more – with the NRA serving, as it so often does, as the nexus at the heart of things. Because, of course, the folks who call the shots – so to speak – at Freedom Group are heavily represented on the NRA’s Nominating Committee, arguably the most important decision-making body in that institution, and as individuals are major donors to the NRA (in fact, they’re in the “Golded Ring of Freedom” club of million-dollar-plus contributors). And it’s not a far step from that, either, to note the confluences of interest and lobbying activities that link the NRA and the right-wing, corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – whose activities in promulgating SYG laws in conjunction with the NRA are a matter of public record.

My goal here isn’t to sketch out an org chart, nor to sniff out (not-so) secret pathways of converging interests, nor to finger individuals for blame – although there are plenty of folks in this story who deserve public shame (not that they give a damn about it). Instead, I want to make an observation, at once structural and personal, about our contemporary moment.

The continued, outrageous profits raked in by Bushmaster and the insulation of Cerberus in its hypocritical efforts to placate public scorn, combined with the successful legislative advocacy of industry-sponsored groups like ALEC – including but not limited to SYG – represent a twisted state of affairs that is at once classic American capitalism at its worst but also something  uniquely of our 21st Century moment. Industries manufacturing products that hurt people, making money hand over fist in the process, and then successfully protecting their interests through shaping legislation are as old as this country itself, as is the pervasive enmeshment of all our financial activities, however ostensibly benign they may seem, in such activities. But the degree of legislative power today’s firearms industry wields – power, I think, rivalling that of players in the financial sector – has no parallel with any other group thanks to the added element of its frankly ludicrous claim to uniquely patriotic standing and a misbegotten Constitutional warrant that has been twisted and deformed beyond all recognition by those with a financially motivated interest to do so.

But of course that’s not all of it. It’s not just about lobbyists and lawyers and businesspeople gaming the legislative system, shamelessly declaring their best intentions, and piously gesturing at doing the right thing even as they continue to enrich themselves. It’s about selling people fear, about cultivating their fears to stoke marketplace demand, and about enabling their clientele to act those fears out in the most violent ways imaginable.

Let’s get real: there are gun manufacturers and retailers who don’t mind mobilizing insurrectionist fantasies and white supremacist irredentism to move their product. That’s part of their business model. And not just that: they’ve acted, successfully, to change our legislative landscape so that when their clients act on those fears and kill others – children, even – both the killers and their enablers face no blowback whatsoever. Instead, they profit.

And let’s get even realer: if our society – with all its hideous double standards – does nothing – nothing, nothing, nothing – when twenty toddlers, nearly all of them white, and in a wealthy community in the Northeast to boot, are slaughtered, mercilessly – what in the name of God  would ever drive us to action?

“I am begging you to hear me. Not just for my son, but for Trayvon, for Sandy Hook, for so many…This has to end.”

COPYRIGHT JASON FRANCISCOMy friend and frequent collaborator Jason Francisco does work photographing graffiti memorials to murder victims in the most blighted parts of North Philly – walking so-called “murder corridors” with his Leica. New memorials go up every week, sometimes, every day. So many. So many kids. Last year, he took a picture of a massive one, on the Corner of 5th and Cecil B. Moore. The mural stretches up and down, easily six feet tall, sprayed lovingly on a cinderblock wall mounted with barbed wire.  A childlike angel, faceless, its hands clasped in prayer, floats next to the epitaph: “Dedicated to Sandy Hook Elementary School.” Sending the photo to me, Jason remarked: “I hope there is an equally enlightened graffiti writer in Newtown, CT who remembers the victims of gun violence in Philadelphia.”

I’m not a gambling man, but I’m willing to make my bets on that one.

That Town Hall event earlier this week was powerful. It left me feeling hope and conviction. I still feel those things, and believe that SYG can be repealed, and my heart and solidarity is with those who fight towards that end. But against forces so powerful, against exploitation and oppression so thorough and vile and total – beyond simply repealing laws but to changing attitudes, to changing our culture, to changing our way of life – what is to be done? I wish I knew. But I do know that we have to try.


Note: I didn’t bring an audio recorder with me to the SYG event, and am working from my handwritten notes. If I’ve gotten any of the quotes – or any other details wrong – please let me know, and I will amend this accordingly. As always, the same goes for the rest of the content in this piece.

If you want read more about the NRA Board, you can do so here. If you want to learn more about the geographic breakdown of gun violence in America’s inner cities, I recommend this article.

Jason Francisco’s photoseries on Philadelphia’s Murder Corridors, “These Are the Names” is available here. It’s really worth checking out.

On Shellie Zimmerman, the Guns of Patriarchy, and American Double Standards

Via the redoubtable Tressie McMillan Cottom, I came across this phenomenal piece by Robert Reece at Still Furious and Brave. It’s called Shared Victimhood and Redemption Through Racism and is about the similarities between Shellie Zimmerman, the soon-to-be ex-wife of the killer of Trayvon Martin, and Carolyn Bryant, the wife of one of the murderers of Emmett Till.

Like Bryant, who stood by her husband during his trial, Shellie Zimmerman aided her husband in his — to the point of committing perjury. Also like Bryant, who went on to divorce her husband, Shellie Zimmerman is now seeking separation from hers. And in her bid to divorce him – and presumably also to gain some media exposure – Shellie Zimmerman is invoking his killing of Martin much in the same way as Carolyn Bryant did her husband’s killing of Till: as evidence of her abusive partner’s capacity for violence.

In other words, both represent cases of (white) women leveraging their husband’s killing of  black children — outrages that went shamefully unredressed by the criminal justice system — in bids to claim victim status and exert their own right to vindication and compensation in a court of law. As Reece devastatingly puts it: “Zimmerman and Bryant opportunistically use the boys’ murders as proof of their husbands’ capacity for abuse when they benefit from shared victimhood, but they uphold their husbands in court through their testimony when they seek to defend white supremacy.”

Reece’s piece is absolutely on-point and raises a ton of deeply complicated, nuanced questions. Without gainsaying the legitimacy of Bryant and Zimmerman’s status as victims of domestic violence, Reece forces us to confront not just the irreducibility of different experiences of suffering modes of white patriarchal oppression — violence against women versus violence against non-whites and blacks in particular — but also the ways in which the former exists in relation to the latter. What are we to make of a situation wherein white women — who are undeniably victims of violence and oppression themselves — can capitalize on the undeniable, unavenged victimization (murder!) of black children as a means of liberating themselves from the immediate violence of white patriarchy in their households — while simultaneously doubling-down on and reinforcing its injustice?

The women themselves seem quite aware that this situation is a delicate one. Their tarrying with white patriarchal violence requires what Reece calls a “colorblind abuse picture” – both Zimmerman and Bryant “openly wonder about the details of each event, but they stop short of saying that the murders were racially motivated or that their husbands should have gone to prison.” They must do this not just because the analogies between themselves and the boys their husband killed is deeply faulty — they are alive and advocating for themselves in the court of law, not dead and failed by the justice system — but also because, on a much deeper level, the narrative of the potential victimization of white women is constantly marshaled as a pretext for violence against black males. As Reece puts it, “If they [Zimmerman and Bryant] chose to acknowledge the racialized elements of their husbands’ actions they would be forced to come to terms with the fact that they are responsible as white men’s violent outbursts against people of color are often patriarchal attempts to protect white women.”

I think this is totally right. The narrative of white women qua potential victims of black male violence — a fantasized, imaginary, paranoid fear that says more about the white men who cultivate and are dominated by it than it does about actual day-to-day reality — is indeed deeply ingrained in American history (as Reece himself has chronicled). Moreover, and here’s where my own research interests come into play – this narrative is also, I think, pervasive in much of contemporary American gun culture.*

It is a manifest but frequently under-appreciated fact that the dominant contemporary “Second Amendment advocacy” / firearms industry lobbying group – the National Rifle Association – owes its current, aggressively far-right incarnation to an organizational transformation in the late 1970s that was driven in large part by a rise in crime rates and white fear of nonwhites and of  urban blacks in particular. Moreover, the man who more or less singlehandedly engineered that transformation – Former NRA President Harlon Carter – was himself responsible for shooting and killing a 15-year old Latino boy.

By the same token, much of contemporary gun advertising trades heavily in themes of patriarchal masculinity. Gun ownership is a sign of virility, a way to “Get Your Man Card Back.” The paradigmatic exercise of this virility is for a man to protect “his” womenfolk – wives, girlfriends, daughters – and this represents a constant trope in the burgeoning internet boards devoted to “Defensive Gun Use” stories. Guns are pitched to men as devices for protecting women — from whatever or whomever it is those men fear, rationally or otherwise.

If, in the general American imagination, one of the primary things guns are for is for men to protect women, then it also entirely makes sense that nowadays women can and are encouraged to use them to protect themselves. Guns are ever more frequently marketed to women directly, fashion accessorized and all. And when it came to the (successful) pushback against a possible renewed Assault Weapons Ban only a month after Sandy Hook, it was a female lawyer and activist, Gayle Trotter, who took to the Senate floor to conjure an entirely fabricated scenario wherein a totally hypothetical woman would need a tricked-out,  “scary looking” combat rifle to fend off no less than five “hardened criminal” attackers all at once.

In light of this, I have a question or two. First, some caveats. I am in no way challenging a woman’s right to carry a weapon to protect herself or others. Nor am I denying the existence of entirely reasonable, totally understandable circumstances and experiences that could lead her to make that choice – and righteously so.** Nor still am I challenging the right of anyone – men included – to choose to own a gun to protect themselves or those who need protection. That right is and remains law ratified by the Supreme Court.

But I must ask: When white American men (and, increasingly women) buy guns to protect themselves, what color is the attacker that they fear? What faces do they give the imaginary home invaders when they hear the white Gayle Trotter’s ludicrous story – are they the ruddy Cornish farmhands from Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or are they are something several shades darker?

I fear that we already know what far too many of the answers would be. For my part, much of the hate-mail I’ve received from my writing about my personal experiences with firearms – testosterone-fueled, vitriolic tirades that are not just sexist and homophobic but also thoroughly racist – has left me with little illusion on that score.

And I’ll ask something else, even though I’m eager to be proven wrong: Why aren’t there any glossy ads for handguns featuring a black woman – even her hand? And I fear we know the answer to this too: because when a black woman even threatens to exercise the right we so ghoulishly bestow on George Zimmerman, she doesn’t even get the chance of becoming Shellie Zimmerman. She becomes Marissa Alexander.

Here’s the upshot, what I’m driving at, and what I’ve been thinking about since reading Robert Reece’s provocative and brilliant piece. We live in a country where both the claim to victim status and the right to legally threaten and exercise violence are all too often the prerogatives of white supremacy, and are appropriated from inflicted and upon black folks. Denying or ignoring this state of affairs only reaffirms it – and capitalizing on it, as I think Shellie Zimmerman is doing, and also as, in their way, the NRA and many gun manufacturers do – only makes the suffering, and, yes, the violence, worse.


*I realize that this term is somewhat of a generalization and that “gun cultures” might be more apt. If there’s interest, I can elaborate on this later on.

**I do, though, feel obligated to reference the complex and troubling data on the relationship between the presence of guns in homes where domestic violence has occurred and the likelihood that women will be killed by their partners. See here and here for some information on that subject.