by Kristin A. Goss
(CNN) — With Friday’s defiant statement, the National Rifle Association massed its troops along familiar fronts in the culture war — and even opened some new battle lines. But it also squandered an opportunity to participate in reasonable dialogue with an America that has begun losing its appetite for political extremism.
Longtime NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, eager to keep the rank-and-file “mothers and fathers” among his membership from going soft, sounded themes critical to maintaining gun owners’ collective identity and solidarity. These themes included:
The NRA is reasonable and a good citizen. Consistent with past practice, LaPierre recounted the NRA’s horror at the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and stated its silence came out of respect for the victims. Others exploit such tragedies, LaPierre said, but the NRA and its members are better than that.
More guns, less crime. That is the title of the NRA’s bible, a 1998 book by Yale professor John Lott (whose core findings have been refuted by other scholars), and it is the logic behind the NRA’s proposal to put an armed officer in all 140,000 American schools. The proposal is founded on the NRA’s position that guns are merely tools that can be used by “monsters” or by “good guys.” The NRA and its allies are good guys.
Gun owners are the victims. To the NRA, gun ownership is fundamental to virtuous citizenship. Go to any NRA convention, or look around the group’s website, and you will learn that gun owners are the true American patriots, the only force standing between democracy and a tyrannical state delivered by emotional elites with naive but dangerous ideas. When LaPierre said he was there to deliver “the truth,” he was referring to elites’ “false” belief that even modest gun regulations might work. When he talked about “political prejudice” or “personal prejudice,” he was referring to the indignities that beleaguered gun owners suffer in a society that has failed to appreciate their civic contributions. This is the NRA’s perspective on the culture war.
While these themes are familiar, LaPierre broke with precedent in key ways, most significantly with his explosive broadside against journalists, movie studios, video game producers, record labels and elected officials who have failed to embrace the NRA’s policy goals. If you want to blame someone besides the shooter for Sandy Hook, then blame the “enablers” and NRA haters and purveyors of “dishonest thinking.”
LaPierre’s attempt to shift the focus to anything but guns was predictable, but the particular message may have some resonance. A Pew Research Center poll found that 47% of Americans — including 54% of women — thought the Sandy Hook massacre reflected broader social problems, such as parental failures, moral and religious decline, a general devaluation of life, violent depictions in the media and problems with mental health and its treatment. Although 18% cited easy access to guns — the most popular single answer — the poll showed that Americans are far more likely to see gun massacres in a broader context.
A similar pattern emerged after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 when Americans were much more likely to place the blame on family and cultural factors than on failures of gun policy.
Of course, as with airplane crashes and other disasters, gun massacres are the product of many interacting forces, as is the “everyday” gun violence that occurs outside the media spotlight. Most Americans understand the causes are complex and are sensible enough to see that a multipronged approach involving personal, social and public policy action will be needed.
LaPierre’s apocalyptic vision of the “unknown number of genuine monsters” who at this very moment may be plotting the next attack on our schoolchildren — and the organization’s single-minded and unrealistic call to put an armed guard immediately in all our schools — felt weirdly out of step with the equally urgent yet more thoughtful conversations occurring at dinner tables around the nation. It was a missed opportunity.
(Editor’s note: Kristin A. Goss, associate professor of public policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, is the author of “Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America.”)