I admit it: I’ve lately been getting pretty down about the state of the world, mostly on account of the messy situation south of the border with the continuing tragedy of gun violence, and the descent of a once-great democracy into something dark, divided, and decidedly undemocratic.
And it just keeps getting worse, or so it seemed, even in the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old former student at the school, allegedly killed 17 students and wounded 14 others with an AR-15 assault rifle he had purchased a year ago. The usual prayers, platitudes and condolences were offered, but no sign lawmakers were likely to take any common-sense, gun-control action. Too many have been bought off with hefty campaign donations from the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA).
But then something extraordinary started to happen: young people, led by student survivors of the Parkland high school shooting, began to raise their voices in protest, demanding action on gun laws. They first went to the Florida State Legislature with their demand, but were shocked when state legislators refused to even discuss a ban on the sale of assault rifles. They went to a controversial town hall meeting organized by CNN. But the image of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio humming and hawing and otherwise being evasive after he was asked directly by a student-survivor if he would stop accepting money from the NRA went viral. The student protest continued, going next to the gates of the White House where they held a lay-in demonstration.
But then the gun lobby began hitting back with an orchestrated social media campaign disparaging the students, and accusing them of being hired “crisis actors.”
The NRA in particular, was just getting started: worse was yet to come, when Wayne LaPierre, the long-time vice-president and CEO of the NRA addressed the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) eight days after the Parkland shooting.
His essential message was anybody who advocates gun control is part of a “European-style socialist” conspiracy aimed at taking away not just the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms (2nd Amendment), but all “our most basic freedoms in this country.”
News outlets based in Israel or catering to Jewish people in the U.S. were understandably quick to see that the expression “European-style socialist” was a dog-whistle, or code, for Jews.
An article in Haaretz, based in Israel, included the following paragraph: “Again and again in his speech (to the CPAC) LaPierre identified the enemies of the NRA, and of America, as Jews – from Karl Marx to Bernie Sanders, from Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor George Soros to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. LaPierre singled out Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York as one of the Democrats who are “‘liars to the core.’”
Haaretz quoted LaPierre’s speech extensively, including his extremist critique of the Democrats as a “‘party now infested with saboteurs, who don’t believe in capitalism, don’t believe in the Constitution, don’t believe in our freedom, and don’t believe in America as we know it.’”
Haaretz noted LaPierre’s speech was interrupted by enthusiastic applause at nearly every sentence.
But an on-line article written by Jennifer Brett for a news outlet in Tennessee suggested there’s a big difference between how members of the NRA behave as a crowd in response to such extremist rhetoric, and how they behave, and what they say about gun control, one-on-one.
Brett recalled initially being apprehensive covering the 2017 annual NRA convention last April in Atlanta because of the “fake news media narrative some have embraced. But instead, “I interviewed some of the nicest people I’d ever met,” she wrote.
It wasn’t hard for her to find people who expressed concerns about the need for better gun control. They included, for example, a coast guard member from Florida who told her, “let’s have an educated conversation about it, not a violent one.”
But, “the family reunion vibe changed on Day 3 when NRA leaders and President Donald Trump arrived,” Brett wrote.
She recalled LaPierre “declared ‘academic and media elites’ to be the biggest threats to the country. The crowd cheered.
It cheered again when LaPierre urged the crowd to “‘give the media the big, fat black eye it deserves.’”
During his recent CPAC speech LaPierre argued the constitutional right to bear arms “is not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.”
As if we’re invited to imagine God come down from heaven wrapped in the Stars and Stripes and armed to the teeth with assault rifles; or Moses descending from the mountain, not with the 10 Commandments, but a brace of lethal firearms; or Jesus not preaching “turn the other cheek,” but the exact opposite, in the gun-toting, modern extreme.
Some commentators wondered in the immediate aftermath of LaPierre’s speech if the NRA leadership had finally gone too far with its hateful, extremist language.
The answer to that question now is clearly a big, fat yes. Many companies in the U.S. have cut their special, preferential ties with the powerful lobby group. This past week several large gun retailers decided to immediately stop selling guns to anyone under 21, among other continuing gun-control practices, including no sales of assault weapons, euphemistically called “modern sporting rifles.”
It was a small, but significant step in the right direction in the absence of government action, and in the face of an all-powerful gun lobby leadership that has become dangerously self-righteous and dictatorial. They are not the “great people and great patriots,” Donald Trump has said they are.
The power of a new generation, embodied in the heart-felt leadership of the survivors of the Parkland massacre, has shown the way. They are the real great people and great patriots. And as First Lady Melania Trump said, to her great credit, “they deserve to have their voices heard.”
It’s a hopeful development at this critical moment in the history of American democracy.
A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in March, 2018