Disarming the Conservative Agenda on Guns

Terrance Heath

For decades, the conservative agenda rested upon a three-legged stool of “culture war” issues: “God, guns, and gays.” I’ve covered in previous posts how the outcome of the 2012 election pretty much knocked out two legs of that ideological three legged stool. GOP messaging on  “God” and “gays” fell flat in this election. Now, as the nation reels from the slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, there are signs that the third leg of conservative ideology — “guns” — is wobblier than ever.

I walked my son to school yesterday. There was a police car parked right in front of the school. Before we left home, we received a recorded phone call from the principal, telling parents that there are “no known threats” to schools in our county, but that police officers had been assigned to every school in the county “to show support and safety” to children, parents, and staff. We were also assured that the staff and students practice shelter and “lockdown” drills — and, in fact, had one such drill the day before the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

This reality of “lockdown” drills and police officers stationed outside elementary schools is the “new normal” that the National Rifle Association and its allies in the Republican party — with an assist from ALEC — have designed for us. Fortunately, Americans are rejecting the NRA/GOP’s “new normal.”

First, let’s be clear. Twenty-seven people, twenty of them children ages six and seven, were shot and killed by Adam Lanza, when he forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary, armed with three weapons and “many high capacity clips.” One of Lanza’s guns is a Walmart best seller. Or was, before Walmart yanked the rifle from its online store.

It took minutes for on gunman to destroy 27 lives with the arsenal he brought with him. It took and entire movement, with a few major players, to make sure he could get his hands on the all that firepower, as quickly and easily as possible. Here’s a line-up of the usual suspects:

Republicans

It’s a cliche, but the the wake of the Newtown tragedy, the silence from gun advocates has been deafening. In this case, I’m talking about the Republican party. Sure, there have been a few of usual crazies popping up (and I’ll get to them later), but we’ve heard very little from high profile  conservatives and GOP leadership.

According television host David Gregory, no pro-gun rights senators would agree to appear “Meet the Press” this Sunday. None. Producer Betsy Fischer Martin confirmed that the show reached out to all 31 of pro-gun senators. Not only did all of the senators decline, but National Rifle Association representatives also took a pass.

Maybe the senators are following Mitch McConnell’s example. CNN reporter Lisa Desjardins asked the Senate minority leader about his stance on gun laws in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, and McConnell answered with 26 seconds of silence.

CNN’s Lisa Desjardins questioned the Senate minority leader on Capitol Hill about his stance on gun laws in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, and got no response after several follow-ups.

She tweeted the audio, and set the scene: “There are no visuals, but as you listen, realize it was just him and me, walking from the Senate chamber to his office. I was maybe an arm’s length away. But, in classic McConnell style, he kept staring forward, ignoring even the awkward silence. It seemed to say a lot.

Maybe McConnell and his fellow Republicans would rather stay silent than risk drawing the public attention to the GOP’s role in promoting our current state of gun madness. That record, as Robert Parry notes, goes back as far as Ronald Reagan’s 1983 speech praising of the NRA’s defeat of a California proposition to require the registration of handguns, limited the number of guns one person could register, and restricted the kind of mail-order and out-of-state purchased that helped Aurora shooter James Holmes build his arsenal; and extends all the way to 2008, when Republican appointees on the Supreme Court transformed “the right to bear arms” from a collective right to an individual right, virtually wiping state and local gun ordinances off the books.

Perhaps Republicans would rather not remind the public of the GOP’s record of opposing any safeguards after a gun massacre. After the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that left 32 dead an 27 injured, then Gov. Tim Kaine (now Virginia’s new senator-elect) issued a number of executive orders to close gaps between federal and state gun laws, and appointed a commission to recommend further safeguards. This year Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a repeal of Virginia’s one-per-month limit on handgun purchase, after meeting with families of victims and survivors of the 2007 shooting, and just one day after a deadly school shooting in Ohio.

Republicans in the 111th and 112 Congress have attempted to weaken federal gun laws in a number of ways:

  • More guns for mentally ill veterans: House Republicans passed the Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2011, which would forbid the Department of Veterans Affairs “from determining a beneficiary to be mentally incompetent for the purposes of gun control,” unless a judge of some other judicial authority made that determination first.
  • More guns for possible terrorists: Senate Republicans opposed legislation that would make being on a list of suspected terrorist a disqualified for buying guns.
  • Weakening tough state laws: Last Fall, the House passed a bill that basically bars states with tough laws on concealed weapons from enforcing those laws on people who come to them from states with more lax laws.
  • More guns in public housing: In 2009, Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee passed an amendment the Section 8 Voucher Reform Act that would prohibit federal authorities from prohibiting gun possession in public housing complexes.

Even after the 2001 Tucson shooting in which Rep. Gabby Giffords and several others  were injured, and six were killed, Republicans did everything they could to stop the government from even considering safeguards.

Now, even after the horrific events in Newtown, CT, House Republicans are throwing cold water on gun control.

Though a number of NRA-backed Democrats have said they’d be open to reviewing gun control laws, among House Republicans it’s a different story.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., was recently elected chair of the House Judiciary Committee for the next session of Congress, making him the highest ranked Republican with control over regulating firearms. Goodlatte said Tuesday that he doesn’t support implementing tougher gun laws.

“We’re going to take a look at what happened there and what can be done to help avoid it in the future, but gun control is not going to be something that I would support,” Goodlatte told Roll Call.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would not give a straight answer when asked about gun control, but his spokesman Michael Steel said: “We all join President Obama in mourning the victims of this awful tragedy and we will stand with their families and friends. If the president has specific ideas in mind, we will listen. But right now our focus should be on the victims, their families and their friends.”

Newsflash GOP: We are focused on the victims, their families, and their friends. That’s why we want action on gun control; to honor their lives and memories preventing something like this from happening again.

 ALEC

Naturally, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — the corporate wing of the Republican Party — got a piece of the action. ALEC’s role includes crafting “model legislation” and stifling any honest debate about guns.

ALEC is known, of course, for its advocacy on behalf of the so-called “stand your ground,” or “shoot first,” or “kill at will” laws that became so much of an issue in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin slaying in Florida.

But, as the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” project has revealed, the group has a long history of seeking to undermine meaningful public discourse with regard to violence. ALEC does not merely oppose gun control, it seeks to prevent communities, states and the nation from even discussing gun control.

The group has, for instance, promoted:

  • A “Resolution on Semi-Automatic Firearms” that expresses opposition to proposals by local, state and federal governments to restrict the sale of semi-automatic weapons, known as assault weapons.
  • A “Defense of Free Market and Public Safety Resolution” that discourages efforts by law enforcement agencies to use their purchasing power to buy police and policing weapons only from gun manufacturers that improve gun safety to protect children. The same resolution discourages efforts to identify and limit public contracting with gun dealers that are not notorious for selling weapons used in crimes.
  • A unanimous 2011 endorsement by ALEC’s “Public Safety and Elections Task Force” of a proposal to expressly bar cities from banning machine guns.

Again and again in recent years, ALEC has worked not just to promote the economic agenda of weapons manufacturers and weapons dealers—including major retailers that sell guns and ammunition—but to undermine political debates about that agenda.

The National Rifle Association

Apparently, a lot has changed since the Columbine shootings, when the National Rifle Association defiantly held its annual conference close to the scene of the crime, and just two weeks after the massacre. The NRA has been strangely silent since the shootings. Its Twitter feed hasn’t been updated since the shooting. The last update, touting “10 Days of NRA Giveaways,” was posted at 9:36am on Friday — not long after the shooting started at Sandy Hook Elementary. The organization also deactivated its Facebook page, as part of a post-Newtown strategy of “radio silence” on social media.

This is a far cry from the NRA of the not-so-old days, when the organization went on the offensive immediately after the latest mass shooting. Not only has the organization maintained an unexpected silence, but the NRA has not yet responded to President Obama’s call for government action on guns. This, from an organization that’s spent the last four years enriching itself and the gun industry by constantly telling its members, “Obama’s gonna take away your guns.” (Oh, and he’s gonna outlaw deer hunting too.)

So, what gives? Appearing on “Meet the Press” Sunday morning, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the NRA’s power is vastly “overrated”, following an election in which the organization failed miserably at its “number one objective” to deny Obama a second term. In fact, the NRA was one of the biggest losers in the 2012 election.

The Sunlight Foundation analyzed election spending by the National Rifle Association, and determined that the group had a less than 1 percent return on its more than $11 million investment.

The study, based on FEC reporting, found that the NRA backed 27 winning candidates, but only 0.42 percent of the $11,787,523 it spent on the election went to those candidates. Instead, 78 percent of the money went to opposing Democrats.

Update:

In the time since the post was published, the NRA has broken its silence with statement that the organization is “prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”

As the nation sent up a collective wail of grief over the 27 people slaughtered in Newtown, Connecticut, last week, the nation’s leading gun rights lobby remained silent.

Until now.

The National Rifle Association, with roughly 4.3 million members, deactivated its Facebook page, had stopped tweeting on its Twitter account and had been issuing a “no comment” to any media outlet, including CNN, seeking a response.

But late Tuesday, the group broke that silence with a statement:

“The National Rifle Association of America is made up of four million moms and dads, sons and daughters — and we were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown. Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting. The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again,” the group said. It plans to hold “a major news conference” on Friday and both their Facebook and Twitter presences are active again.

Don’t get too excited, though. If NRA Vice President Sandra S. Froman’s recommendation to arm teachers is any indication, the NRA’s contributions will be as meaningless as always.

All options should be considered to prevent rampages like the Minnesota school shooting that took 10 lives — including making guns available to teachers, a top National Rifle Association leader said Friday.

“I’m not saying that that means every teacher should have a gun or not, but what I am saying is we need to look at all the options at what will truly protect the students,” the NRA’s first vice president, Sandra S. Froman, told The Associated Press.

No Solutions

Justice Antonin Scalia is one of those Republican-appointed justices who voted with the majority to open the floodgates in 2008. He’s also an example of why silence is probably the best choice for Republicans right about now.

Scalia led the expansion of the second amendment in 2008, when the Court did away with DC’s ban on handguns. Scalia so fun diagramming the one-sentence second amendment, that the majority of the court joined him in asserting that prefatory clause “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state,” does not limit (or expand) the operative clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms…”

But the linguistic cleverness Scalia employed in 2008 may not play as well in 2012; a year in which Americans barely had time to absorb one horrific mass shooting before receiving news of yet another one. For example, in a post-Aurora interview this summer, Scalia suggested that the Court might be able to limit “head axes,” but that the “right to bear arms could extend to hand-held rocket launchers and just about any modern technology the founders didn’t specifically prohibit (because they couldn’t even imagine it).

Scalia is only one example of conservatives farcical responses to mass shootings. Conservative responses to Newtown include all the blaming we’ve come to expect after such events: blame video game violence, blame evolution, blame the victims for not being armed, blame gun control advocates for “disarming” the victims, blame gay people. In the solutions category, Megan McArdle’s suggestion takes the cake: teach kids to run at the guy with the gun.

But McCardle’s novel idea is wrapped in a column in which she takes the only other road for conservatives: throwing up their hands and declaring there’s nothing we can do. McCardle’s response is at least more straightforward than NY Times columnist Ross Douthat, who offered a meandering response worthy of Peggy Noonan herself; a meditation on everything from Mayberry to Dostoyevsky that reader John Isom handily shredded.

This is really an artful piece of writing in many ways – but one: you talk about WHY, yet without really asking it.

That is, you didn’t address the (GOP) elephant in the room that you are trying to show compassion for: the consequence of guns, and how America’s gun-rights ideology gets a free pass on being tempered by any legal checks and balances.

Please write about how near-limitless access to guns – of all stripes, flavors, efficiencies and conveniences – abetted this tragedy. Please write, using empirical evidence about the number of deaths, the number of mass killings, the process of buying a gun (have you ever tried?), and the contrast between acquiring a driver’s license and acquiring a gun: between conventional checks and balances to assure public safety, and an ideological blind spot that guns are all about unbridled freedom to do whatever, whenever, wherever.

To my original point: I really do mean it that this is a beautiful piece of writing. At the same time, you need to engage your party’s convictions, here in the 21 century, before you can wax poetic (and, compassionately) about a 19th century Russian novelist as a way to channel your grief.

Republicans can’t talk about WHY with talking about their role in the current state of affairs. They can’t talk about HOW to fix it, because they’d have to admit that (a) there’s something to fix and (b) government have the tools necessary to fix it.

That’s unfortunate for the GOP, because in the wake of Newtown, that’s not what Americans want to hear. Even before the election, the Brady reported that 87 percent of Americans want stronger policies to restrict gun violence. Polling immediately following the shootings shows an increase in support for tighter restrictions. Plans for a Million Child March for stronger gun control laws are already underway.

We don’t accept that nothing can be done to keep our children safe, even in the hallways and classrooms of their schools.

It looks like Republicans are on their last ideological leg, and when their three-legged stool of conservative ideology collapses, it will take any advantage on “culture war” issues with it.

That spells even more trouble for Republicans because, as Joan Walsh writes, the white working class voters the GOP once courted with “God, guns, and gays,” will look to Republicans for economic solutions the party just doesn’t have.

Without “God, guns, and gays,” the GOP may not have a leg left to stand on.

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