On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on gun violence featuring testimony from the NRA's Wayne LaPierre, as well as Mark Kelly, the husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat of Arizona, who was shot in the head while holding a public meeting in her district two years ago.
Members of the Judiciary Committee should take the opportunity to press LaPierre on whether his organization truly represents the views of most American gun owners--and on what, specifically those views are.
While the NRA boasts a 4 million strong membership, it has a secretive and tightly controlled process for choosing its board of directors.
That's why journalists did not find out that one of the NRA’s most trusted, top officials lives just a few miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Patricia A. Clark, a longtime Newtown resident, is chairman of the NRA’s shadowy, but powerful nominating committee.
She is also an instructor in the Eddie Eagle GunSafe program--heralded right after the Newtown tragedy on NBC’s “Meet the Press” by Wayne LaPierre--but she has been on the NRA’s governing board of directors since 1999, entrusted with ensuring that the NRA board’s own ruling clique remains in power.
I have spoken with numerous NRA members who complain about the obscure, Politburo-like governance of the NRA, which keeps ordinary members in the dark about how the organization is run and by whom.
One of the figures whom the NRA board quietly appointed to the 2012 Nominating Committee is George Kollitides II, the chief executive of one of America’s largest consortiums of gun manufacturers. Kollitides last year also became head of the consortium Freedom Group, which includes the company that made the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle used not just at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, but also at last year’s movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and, a decade before, by the DC sniper in and around Washington.
The NRA’s executive vice president and chief executive officer, Wayne LaPierre, has artfully managed the gun lobby’s message for more than 20 years. His skills include knowing what not to say and when.
A little more than one week after the Newtown shooting on “Meet the Press” with David Gregory, LaPierre made a wholly pragmatic (and not necessarily convincing) argument. When asked whether he would support any gun control measures including restrictions on high-capacity magazines, LaPierre replied, “We don’t think it works, and we’re not going to support it.”
Instead he said the NRA will “support what works,” making the case to put armed guards or police in every school. LaPierre’s TV comments then and in a “no-questions” press conference right after Sandy Hook seemed to resonate, as, for weeks, news outlets explored how and whether armed guards in schools might work.
But the main argument driving the modern NRA is not a pragmatic, but an ideological one.
“American gun owners will never surrender our Second Amendment freedom. Period,” LaPierre said in July, expressing the NRA’s opposition to a proposed U.N. Arms Trade Treaty. “Our Second Amendment is freedom’s most valuable, most cherished, most irreplaceable idea. History proves it. When you ignore the right of good people to own firearms to protect their freedom, you become the enablers of future tyrants whose regimes will destroy millions and millions of defenseless lives.”
That statement suggests the NRA sees the Second Amendment as being more important that all nine other articles of the Bill of Rights, or any other principle or article of government including perhaps the original U.S. Constitution that became law by itself several years before.
LaPierre made no reference to the Second Amendment at all last month in his overly hyped press conference at NRA headquarters one week after the Newtown shooting. On “Meet the Press,” he only referred to it negatively, saying he and the NRA will not back any effort “to destroy” or “lose the Second Amendment.”
But what exactly does than mean after Newtown? NBC’s David Gregory was credited with challenging LaPierre on his vague, unsubstantiated claims that gun control measures won’t work. But he missed an opportunity to probe the longtime NRA chief on whether his interpretation of the Second Amendments means he would never support gun control measures, even if they could be proven to work.
LaPierre, who earned close to $1 million in salary and other compensation from the NRA and related organizations in 2010, has been at the NRA's helm for the last 22 years.
Few people remember that, before LaPierre, the NRA was not always so extreme. Back in 1968, the NRA’s then-executive vice president, retired general Franklin Orth, supported what still stands as America’s most important gun control law. The Gun Control Act regulated the interstate sale of firearms and effectively rewrote a prior, post-Prohibition-era law banning machine guns or fully automatic weapons. The act passed in 1968 just months after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, and five years after Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F. Kennedy with a single, bolt-action rifle he bought through an ad in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine.
But a group of hardline gun rights advocates resented what they saw as a sell-out of Americans’ Second Amendment rights. LaPierre began working as a paid lobbyist for the NRA in the late 1970s, just as the hardline advocates were consolidating control of the NRA board. For the next two decades, the NRA’s internal debate boiled down to one question: whether to try and repeal the ban on fully automatic weapons, or let it stand while allowing no other gun control regulations. (A chronology of U.S. laws concerning “Fully-Automatic Firearms” compiled in 1999 and still posted on the website of the NRA’s lobbying wing is sympathetic to a Georgia man who unsuccessfully tried to register a fully-automatic weapon in 1986.)
LaPierre became the NRA’s operations chief in 1991, right before a series of raids by U.S. agencies lead to many violent deaths over illegal guns. In 1992 federal charges related to the sale of two illegal, sawed-off shotguns eventually led to a federal raid in Ruby Ridge, Idaho resulting in the wounding of two men including the suspect, Randy Weaver, who was a white supremacist, and the killing of his wife, and their 14-year-old son along with an agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or ATF.
But it was another federal siege, this one over illegal, fully-automatic firearms, less than a year later that became nothing less than a call to arms for gun rights hardliners. In February 1993, federal ATF agents attempted to serve a search warrant to look for the illegal, fully automatic firearms at the compound of a small religious sect known as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. After a 50-day standoff, ATF agents launched an assault, and the ensuing firefight along with a fire of still unclear origins resulted in the deaths of at least 74 people including 25 children.
LaPierre soon wrote unambiguously in his first book published the following year: “The people have a right to take whatever measures necessary, including force, to abolish oppressive government.”
The government crossed another line for even more gun rights advocates when Congress passed and President Clinton signed the assault weapons ban, prohibiting a number of high-capacity, semi-automatic weapons. Seven months later, on April 13, 1995, LaPierre signed a fund-raising letter to NRA members: “The semiauto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”
But his timing was unfortunate for his cause. Six days later, on exactly the second anniversary of the Waco siege, Timothy McVeigh, an NRA member, and an accomplice used a fertilizer bomb hidden in a truck to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people including 19 children under the age of six. Not unlike LaPierre in his letter, McVeigh in his terrorism was reminding people of the Waco tragedy, which for them both along with other hardline gun rights advocates still holds significance as a deplorable federal raid over fully automatic guns.
LaPierre was forced to apologize for his “jack-booted thugs" remark, after former President George H.W. Bush, a decades-long member of the NRA, resigned from the organization over his letter. But few NRA members followed suit. Instead the NRA has increased from over three million then to over four million members today.
Extremist groups including white supremacists have long operated in the NRA’s shadow. The National Alliance is a neo-Nazi party whose members have quietly handled out literature to try and attract recruits on the floor of NRA conventions. (I was handed one at the annual NRA convention in Phoenix in 1995 –two months after the Oklahoma City bombing-- after I showed a man my New Jersey Firearms Purchaser Identification Card to demonstrate that I was a gun owner.) The late head of the National Alliance also wrote a novel, The Turner Diaries, about a coming race war and insurrection against a Jewish-dominated government; McVeigh used scenes in the novel as an explicit blueprint to make the bomb and choose his target in Oklahoma City.
LaPierre has become expert at handling the press. But there is little question that he holds an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment. “[T]here is no such thing as a free nation where police and military are allowed the force of arms but individual citizens are not,” he wrote in a 2003 book.
WOULD U.S. courts agree? In 2008 the Supreme Court made its first ruling on the Second Amendment in 69 years, affirming the right in the District of Columbia v. Heller of an individual to keep a handgun in his home for self-defense within the district, and then in 2010 affirming the same right throughout the United States.
Yet Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, still allowed for some limits on the right to bear arms including “laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” Scalia went on to say he could also find “support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”
Exactly what kinds of weapons might meet that criteria, however, remain unclear. Justice Scalia in an interview in July on Fox News –after the Aurora movie theater shooting-- made seemingly more ambivalent comments. Scalia said the Second Amendment only applies to arms that can be borne or carried, but added that whether it would allow for arms like “hand-held rocket launchers that can bring down airplanes” will have be decided in future court decisions.
Could government airplanes be legitimate targets?
Fear and hatred of government agencies, especially the ATF, helps explain why many gun rights advocates were so supportive of House oversight Chairman Darrell Issa’s investigation last year into Operation Fast and Furious, which involved ATF agents planting up to 2,000 guns into the Mexican black market in an effort to trace them to drug cartels.
Besides absolutist ideology, gun manufacturers play an important role in the NRA's uncompromising stance.
NRA revenues from fundraising –including donations from gun manufacturers—have grown twice as fast as income from members’ dues, according to Forbes. Over 50 firearms-related companies have given the NRA almost $15 million since 2005 –the same year that NRA lobbyists helped get a federal law passed that limits liability claims against gun makers. Two gun-making firms' chief executive officers, Ronnie Barrett and Pete Brownell, sit on the NRA board.
Yet nearly half of the NRA’s total annual revenues still come from its (rarely-voting) dues-paying members.
Members of the Judiciary Committee should ask LaPierre whether NRA opposition to gun control is rooted in the view that the Second Amendment allows citizens to have the same “force of arms,” to borrow LaPierre’s phrase, as police and military forces.
And they should pin him down on automatic weapons: NRA leaders and other their supporters often try to change the conversation when questions like whether they believe fully automatic weapons should be legal.
Providing unfettered access to enough firepower, as LaPierre’s own writings suggest, to “take whatever measures necessary, including force, to abolish oppressive government,” to quote him again, is simply incompatible with any integrated effort to curb today’s gun violence.
For LaPierre and most NRA directors including, apparently, Newtown’s Chairman Clark, the slaying of 27 people including 20 children in Newtown is an acceptable price to pay for upholding what they maintain is “freedom’s most valuable, most cherished, most irreplaceable idea” embodied in the Second Amendment.
Today’s NRA leaders are not just “gun nuts.” They are ideologues wielding extraordinary power, and secrecy is part of their success. After all, who knew their board’s nominating chairwoman lives just a few miles from the now shuttered Sandy Hook school? Or that the executive of the firm that made the gun that killed the kids there had been appointed to the same shadowy committee?
Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has been covering the NRA and related groups since the early 1990s, writing for publications including The Village Voice, The Washington Post, The Texas Observer and Mother Jones.