With astonishing statements last week, the National Rifle Association and its supporters have shed the cloak of respectability that has enshrouded their real motives, and revealed the world view that underlies their cause. They have finally illuminated the real implications of our country's debate over gun laws as much more significant, and more ominous, than most Americans have understood. We can now see that we have not been arguing merely over which people should have access to which guns, and under what circumstances. We have been fighting for the very soul of America.
When fully on message, the gun lobby's rhetoric casts its positions as promoting fundamental and unassailable values of freedom, safety, and individual autonomy, the realization of which, they claim, would be impossible without unfettered access to firearms. Every proposal to restrict or regulate access to guns, no matter how benign in motive or universal in acceptance, triggers a fervent defense of the Second Amendment and spawns vigorous, and often effective, opposition to what the gun lobby sees as the unpatriotic threat of the moment.
A starkly different message emerged last Friday. Responding to the Newtown massacre with its proposal to arm our schools, the NRA revealed its vision of our society. Rather than join widespread calls from across the political spectrum for tightly regulating access to military-style assault weapons, the NRA called for the further mobilization of arms. NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre charged that if we do not arm the schools, we will be leaving "the most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family -- our children... utterly defenseless" and at the mercy of "the monsters and predators of this world." The solution, LaPierre asserted, is not to "engage in any lengthy debate over legislation, regulation, or anything else" but instead to "erect a cordon of protection around our kids right now."
We can see clearly where this new rhetoric leads. If we must arm the schools to keep our kids safe, how can we extend the "cordon" to protect them when they go to the movies, unless we post armed guards in every theater? How will we keep the "monsters and predators" from the neighborhood playground, without an armed guard atop every slide? Once we've secured the theaters and parks, can we leave our children unprotected as they walk, innocently exposed to lurking evil, from one newly-protected haven to another? If we want to keep our children safe, and the only way to do that is by saturating their environments with firearms, how can we leave any place without the benefit of such protection? The armed schools proposal provides a terrifying glimpse into the NRA's vision for America.
Since Friday, we have seen more. The gun lobby's reverence for the Second Amendment has constricted its commitment to other constitutional principles. LaPierre lamented, without elaboration, "our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill," prompting cries of foul from dedicated mental health advocates concerned with both the constitutional and the rhetorical implications of such a position. Gun lobby supporters launched an online petition calling for the deportation of British CNN commentator Piers Morgan, on the ironic ground that his commentary constitutes an "effort to undermine Bill of Rights." In the last week, the gun lobby has revealed spectacular intolerance of the freedom of expression protected by the First Amendment, when guns are at issue.
These developments have shown that in the gun lobby's America armed guards monitor our movements, the government maintains a database of perceived undesirables, and voices of dissent are eliminated. The gun lobby's vision for the future has emerged from the shadows and declared itself the new home of American fascism.
The timing of this shift in the gun lobby's strategy is no accident. Widespread public outrage over the recent spate of mass shootings committed with assault weapons, culminating after Newtown in a clarion call for a proper ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, must have been alarming to gun lobby leaders used to more apathetic responses to the massacre of innocents. They must have recognized, as polls consistently demonstrate, that they are seriously outnumbered on the question. They surely know, from election results that were from their perspective disastrous, that their formerly firm grip on the national political machinery has steadily loosened. Rather than risk losing what may be its most important political struggle, the gun lobby has tried to change the subject.
And so the lines have been drawn. The renewed debate over assault weapons is not just another argument about how to tinker at the margins of a responsible gun policy. It is not just another go at a common-sense policy that so far has eluded our collective accomplishment. The national response to Newtown and its many tragic and preventable predecessors will reflect and implement our shared vision of a peaceful society.
If we allow the gun lobby to hijack this moment and draw us into a debate over arming the schools, rather than remaining steadfast in our resolve to adopt an effective ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, we will grant undeserved legitimacy to their abhorrent world view, as if it were worthy of serious consideration.
The NRA and its supporters should remain free to express their views. But they should no longer wield the excessive influence that we have tolerated for too long. Let them continue to speak out, openly, for the repressive, militarized society they desire, but let their calls fall on deaf ears. We no longer have the time, and ought not have the inclination, to give those views our attention.
Eric Gorovitz spent 12 years advocating for responsible gun laws at the local, state, and national levels. He is now an attorney in San Francisco.