Although 26-year-old Christopher Harper-Mercer pulled the trigger on the gun that killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon on Thursday, Wayne LaPierre, the fanatic executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, also has blood on his hands.
LaPierre, who has worked for the NRA since 1978 and served as its top official since 1991, is the organization's hit man when it comes to intimidating elected officials to oppose any kind of sensible gun control laws, including a federal law requiring background checks on would-be gun buyers and a national registry of guns. LaPierre likes to fulminate about gun owners' rights. But he's been silent on the Oregon killings, just as he's been silent after the murders of other innocent victims of America's epidemic of gun violence.
For decades, the NRA has fought every effort to get Congress and states to adopt reasonable laws that would make it much less likely for people like Harper-Mercer to obtain a gun. The NRA even defends the right of Americans to carry concealed weapons in bars, churches, schools, universities and elsewhere. This poses a huge threat to police and civilians alike.
Authorities told reporters that Harper-Mercer had amassed 13 weapons, all purchased legally by either him or a family member. He brought six of those guns, along with a flak jacket and spare ammunition magazines, to the college to carry out the massacre.
Harper-Mercer was obviously an emotionally troubled man. As they always do whenever there's a mass shooting, the news media will spend an inordinate amount of effort investigating Harper-Mercer's psychological and social background in order to figure out what was in his head before he walked into the UCC classroom and killed nine victims. Although the murderer's psychology and motives may be fascinating, it should not be the major focus. There are plenty of deranged people in the world, but in most well-off countries they can't easily get their hands on a firearm.
Our nation's weak gun laws allow felons, domestic abusers and the mentally ill to arm themselves.
In 2013, there were 33,636 deaths from firearm violence in the United States, including 11,208 homicides (31 a day) and 21,175 suicides. Firearms were used in 69.6 percent of all homicides that year. Of course, many more people are injured -- some seriously and permanently -- by gun violence.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the medical cost of treating non-fatal gun injuries totaled $3.7 billion in 2005. The direct medical costs of treating fatal gun injuries combined with the economic damages of lost lives totaled $37 billion. The CDC hasn't updated these figures in a decade because the NRA successfully lobbied Congress to ban the CDC and other federal scientific agencies from funding research on gun-related injuries and deaths. If they were able to collect more recent data, they would certainly find that the financial price tag of gun violence has increased. The bill to pay for the cost of those preventable deaths and injuries should be sent directly to Wayne LaPierre.
The Umpqua Community College incident was the 264th mass shooting in the country this year, according to the Washington Post, which defines a mass shooting as involving at least four people shot. In those incidents, 380 people were killed. Mass shootings -- like last week's incident in Oregon, the murders of nine people at a Charleston, South Carolina, church last June, the shooting of 11 moviegoers (two of whom died) inside a Lafayette, Louisiana, movie theater in July, the massacre of 12 people in another movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 and the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut later that year, the shooting deaths of six people (and the near-fatal injury of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords) in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, the deadly rampages at Virginia Tech (32 dead) in 2007 and Columbine High School (13 killed) in 1999, and many others -- get the lion's share of media attention. But these massacres account for a small fraction of gun deaths each year. Most gun deaths occur between people who know each other -- family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
The NRA has two knee-jerk responses to the epidemic of gun violence. The first is that the Second Amendment gives all Americans the right to possess guns of all kinds -- not just hunting rifles but machine guns and semi-automatics. Efforts to restrict gun sales and ownership are, according to the NRA, an assault on our constitutional freedoms.
The second is the cliché that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." To the NRA, gun laws have nothing to do with the epidemic of gun-related killings. This contradicts research documenting that states with stronger gun laws have fewer gun-related deaths.
Although both of these arguments are bogus, the NRA has the money and membership to translate these idiot ideas into political clout to thwart even reasonable gun-control laws.
Most gun-related deaths are committed by people who purchase their weapons legally. Others purchase or steal them illegally, but their ability to get access to guns is due to our lax laws on gun ownership. The NRA's job is to make it easier for people to buy and use guns. And so far it has been very successful. Since the 1994 assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn't enacted any major gun regulations.
After 20 children and six adults were murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 by a single killer, gun control advocates thought that they could persuade Congress to pass a new assault weapons ban or at least expanded background checks. But the NRA led a campaign to thwart them and both proposals went down to defeat. Americans were equally outraged last June after nine people were killed by a racist gunman during a prayer service at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, but no major political leader even bothered to file strong gun control legislation, recognizing that the NRA would thwart any bill designed to restrict sales of guns and ammunition. The only positive thing that came out of the Charlestown murders was that South Carolina politicians voted to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol building.
In fact, since the Newtown massacre, most new state laws have loosened, rather than tightened, gun restrictions, according to the Pew Research Center.
One of the NRA's biggest victories occurred in 2003, when passed a law sponsored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a former Republican congressman from Kansas that makes it more difficult for public safety officials to shut down the illegal market in gun sales. A handful of gun dealers are responsible for most of the guns used in crimes and seized by law enforcement officials. The Tiahrt amendments restricts the ability of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (now called the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives) to share information on firearms used in crimes with local and state law enforcement agencies and with the public. The amendment requires that the records about gun buyers obtained in state- and local background checks be destroyed within 24 hours of approval. This makes it more difficult to identify gun dealers that falsify records or buyers who make "straw" purchases on behalf of others, many of whom cannot legally purchase guns.
Thanks to the NRA, it is no accident that the United States ranks first in the world -- by a wide margin -- in gun-related civilian deaths and injuries. Compared with every other democracy, we have the most guns per capita and the weakest gun laws. Although the United States accounts for only about 4.5% of the world's population, Americans own about 45 percent of all civilian-owned firearms in the world. Americans own about 300 million firearms.
But the danger isn't simply the number of guns; it is the type of guns we allow people to legally purchase. Other countries permit hunting rifles. But the NRA believes that Americans have a right to own assault weapons.
Of course, even in countries with strong gun-control laws, some people will get their hands on a weapon and destroy others' lives. In 2011, for example, Anders Breivik killed 69 children at a summer camp in Norway, which has strict gun laws. (But let's recall that Breivik bought $550 worth of 30-round ammunition clips from an American gun supplier for the rifle he used in that massacre. Thanks to American laws, it was a legal online purchase.)
The shooting in Norway was unusual. In fact, the U.S. is off the charts in terms of murder rates. The homicide rate in the U.S. in 2012 was 4.67 per 100,000 population compared with 0.35 in Japan, 0.81 in Germany, 0.86 in Sweden, 1.18 in France, 1.60 in Canada, and 2.25 in Norway.
Here's where the NRA comes in. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, the gun lobby, led by the NRA, has contributed over $35.7 million to candidates for Congress and the White House, 87% of it to Republicans. It has also invested, since 1998, more than $108 million in lobbying federal government officials.
In 2013, the NRA's revenue totaled $347 million, according to its 990 report to the Internal Revenue Service. Although the NRA likes to portray itself as representing grassroots gun owners, much of its money comes from gun manufacturers. LaPierre, who makes $974,867 a year, is essentially a corporate lobbyist.
Gun companies like Beretta, Smith & Wesson, and Sturm, Ruger & Company are big contributors to the NRA and its affiliates. The NRA's board members include Ronnie Barrett (CEO of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing), Pete Brownell (president Brownells, an internet arms superstore), and Stephen Hornady (whose company, Hornady Manufacturing, sells armor-piercing bullets under the slogan "Accurate. Deadly. Dependable").
Under LaPierre's leadership, the NRA has not only dramatically expanded its ties to the gun manufacturers, but has also linked the NRA to the far right, including the Tea Party. LaPierre is a regular presence at gatherings of extreme right-wing groups, whose paranoid warnings about the threat of tyranny and Obama's secret plan to confiscate all guns are meant to scare Americans into buying more guns and joining the NRA. For example, in a speech at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, LaPierre said that President Barack Obama was part of a "conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep." Obama's plan, he said, was to "erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution."
"We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It's black and white, all or nothing," LaPierre said at an NRA meeting. "You're with us or against us."
Only a tiny proportion of the nation's gun owners are NRA members. About 90 million Americans own guns. The NRA claims to have about four million members. That is less than five percent of all gun owners. The NRA's positions are at odds with those of most Americans, most gun owners, and even many NRA members.
A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that 85 percent of Americans support background checks for private gun sales, 80 percent support preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns, 67 percent support the creation of a federal database to track gun sales, 58% percent supported a ban on semi-automatic weapons, and 54 percent support a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons. Pew also found that 74 percent of households with NRA members support background checks for private gun sales.
Gun ownership is highly concentrated. Twenty percent of gun owners possess about 65% of the nation's guns. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that gun ownership is concentrated among older adults, rural residents, and whites, especially white Southerners. The NRA is able to mobilize a small but very rabid and vocal group of gun owners -- as well as owners of gun shops -- to attend rallies, write letters to newspapers and comments on blog sites, and contact elected officials.
Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the nonprofit Violence Policy Center who has written extensively about the NRA, says that the organization's most vocal members are a small proportion of its members for whom "guns are their life." They represent perhaps a few hundred thousand members. Yes, they can make lots of noise but they don't represent the general public or even most NRA members who don't fall for LaPierre's extremism.
Every American grieves for the families and friends of the people killed in Oregon last week. But until we tame the power of the NRA, we can expect more killings like this, a part of the deadly daily diet of murders throughout America committed by angry gun-toting people whose "freedom" to own weapons of mass destruction that Wayne LaPierre defends.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books). This article was originally published in Salon.