Sunday, December 23, 2012

Wayne’s world: The NRA doubles down

WHEN THE National Rifle Association resurfaced from its absence from the national conversation after the Newtown murders, about five days after the event, the pro-gun lobbying organization released a statement that suggested that, just maybe, the NRA would break from its position as an advocate of all guns being available to just about everyone.

"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 organization announced a news conference for Friday, with the promise of a more definitive explanation of the NRA’s plans to be offered by Wayne LaPierre, the group’s reliably combative director.

What took place on Friday was both a disaster of public relations and an unintended revelation — clear evidence that, to go by a somewhat unhinged LaPierre, the NRA is feeling the heat of a nation's painfully evolving feelings on gun access. Its years as a shadow dominator of American politics and the national gun debate are more clearly numbered now than ever before.

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On Friday, LaPierre took the podium at the Willard Hotel in Washington on Friday, one week after 27 people died in a spasm of gun violence in Newtown, and doubled down on the 4.3-million-member organization’s longstanding position. More guns in schools is the answer, he said, not fewer of them.

“I call on Congress today to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation, and to do it now to make sure that blanket safety is in place when our kids return to school in January.” LaPierre said.

“The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection,” LaPierre said. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

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THIS B.S. QED was implicit in other parts of LaPierre’s address, which contained a certain fiendish strategic logic built on the use of firearms to protect other precincts of American life. “How have our nation’s priorities gotten so far out of order? Think about it. We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards. American airports, office buildings, power plants, court houses, even sports stadiums are all protected by armed security.

“We care about our president, so we protect him with armed Secret Service agents. Members of Congress work in offices surrounded by Capitol Police officers. Yet, when it comes to our most beloved, innocent, and vulnerable members of the American family, our children, we as a society leave them every day utterly defenseless, and the monsters and the predators of the world know it, and exploit it. ...”

“So, why is the idea of a gun good when it’s used to protect the president of our country or our police, but bad when it’s used to protect our children in our schools? They’re our kids. They’re our responsibility. And it’s not just our duty to protect them, it’s our right to protect them.”

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The blowback to LaPierre’s proposed expansion of firearm availability, at odds with the national mood, was literally immediate. Protesters attending LaPierre’s presser made their feelings known:

Others reacted to LaPierre’s appearance at the press conference, the NRA executive director all but snarling at times. The New York Times called LaPierre out for a “mendacious, delusional, almost deranged rant” in a Friday editorial. “Mr. LaPierre looked wild-eyed at times …”

All in all, it was a poor rhetorical performance, tone-deaf to the mood and gravity of a nation, and a community that was, as of Friday, still burying the young victims of the Connecticut killings.

“It was worse than if the NRA had not spoken at all,” said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based image management concern that’s worked with gunmakers before. "The same message about the culture in another time and place might have made sense, but in context of tragedy, it seemed mean-spirited, cold and misguided," Grabowski told The Huffington Post.

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FOR ALL his fulminations on Friday, LaPierre managed to evade the issue that’s rightly commanded the national attention, and he’s adopted an over-the-top position to do it. Bad as it was, the Newtown incident was only a symbol of a wider American problem.

The issue isn’t strictly about protecting children in schools; it’s about what can be done to set rational limits on the firepower of ordinary citizens — the better to prevent access to the kind of high-volume weaponry that made Newtown possible in the first place. A conservative judge in San Diego made the argument perfectly clear in an L.A. Times op-ed last week.

LaPierre sidestepped the issue of a need for gun registration, or the call for background checks — something that everyday members of the NRA support. A poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 74 percent of NRA members and 87 percent of non-NRA gun owners back mandatory criminal background checks for anybody buying a gun; 74 percent of NRA members think permits should only be granted to applicants who have completed a course in gun-safety training.

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Commenting at New York Magazine’s web site, Nibblybit makes uncommon good sense: “[I]f you want to decrease the number of guns out there, instead of having the government outlaw them ("take guns away") make circumstances so that owners give them up voluntarily. Make ownership onerous, through taxes, registration, licensing, and especially liability, so that someone will want to own only one, two or a few, not an arsenal. It would be too expensive to properly store or keep too many.

Instead of the attitude of ‘you can't have any because we know better,’ go with ‘ownership comes with responsibilities and if you fail them, we as a society will harshly hold you responsible.’ ...

“[I]f the government can require safety and other requirements on carmakers -- airbags, gas standards, frame requirements, etc — not to mention seat belt, cell phone and DWI restrictions on drivers, the government can require gun manufacturers to put more safety features on guns. Trigger locks, RFI or other permanent id on every gun so that each can be traced, a national registry, etc. that again promote responsible ownership and liability, instead of a ban.”

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COUNT ON IT, La Pierre will be on the hot seat for most if not all of these issues when he goes up against David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press” later this morning. The staunch defender of the Second Amendment can expect to respond to The New York Post, whose Dec. 18 editorial calls a question LaPierre would otherwise ignore: “Has technology rendered the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution obsolete?

“That is, has the application of modern military design to civilian firearms produced a class of weapons too dangerous to be in general circulation?

“We say: Yes.”

“Weapons designed expressly to kill human beings, and then modified (wink wink) to meet the federal machine-gun ban, have no legitimate place in American society.

“Time to get rid of them.”

Image credits: LaPierre: Press conference feed, via CNN. NRA logo: © 2012 National Rifle Association. AR-15 drum magazine: GunWebsites via YouTube. Dec. 21 New York Post  front page: © 2012 New York Post/News Corporation.  

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