Twelve years ago, the Oscar-winning actor Charlton Heston lumbered onto a stage in Charlotte, North Carolina and delivered one of the most memorable lines of his acting career. Only a week before, hundreds of thousands of mothers had gathered in the nation’s capitol, protesting for increased gun control, and Heston, as President of the National Rifle Association, realized that his organization needed to respond. At the time, we were in the thick of a Presidential election, and Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, was an outspoken advocate for sensible gun control laws.
The NRA, already reeling from the 1994 assault weapons ban and the public backlash in the aftermath of a series of deadly school shootings, was in full damage control mode; the possibility of Al Gore becoming the next President sent them into a full-scale panic. At best, the NRA’s outrage was contrived, and at worst, it was nothing short of total hysteria. They launched a media campaign that heralded the Second Amendment as the country’s “most important amendment.” They gleefully endorsed and embraced a whole roster of paranoid conspiracies, including, most destructively, the notion that the Second Amendment was actually intended to provide citizens with unfettered access to weapons that could be used for an armed rebellion against the government. It’s an incomprehensibly stupid position that requires us to believe that our Founding Fathers thought that our democracy could be legally overthrown by any random, ragtag group calling themselves a “well-regulated militia.” Even Antonin Scalia knows better.
With all due respect to the late, great Charlton Heston, he didn’t become the President of the National Rifle Association because he was a great policy mind with an extensive background in Constitutional law. He was a gimmick, an aging American icon who could put a familiar and beloved face on an imperiled organization, and even though he may have not been able to debate the nuances, he could always pretend.
And that day in Charlotte, Heston stood in front of 2,000 faithful NRA members and, after denouncing Al Gore’s candidacy, hoisted up a replica of an antebellum-era rifle and said, famously, “I’ll give up my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands.” It wasn’t an original line; it was an old slogan the NRA had used decades before. Heston, after all, was an actor playing a role and reading from a script.
And before the age of viral videos or hashtags, Heston’s performance became instantly memorable. Ironically, although Heston’s speech was delivered in front of an audience of only 2,000 people, it somehow became much more iconic and culturally significant than the Million Mom March, the pro-gun control demonstration that had been held only a week before and had attracted upwards of 750,000 people in Washington, D.C. and nearly 200,000 more in coordinated events across the country.
There’s another irony here: The gun that Charlton Heston hoisted up was a replica of a Sharps rifle, a 150-year-old weapon that no one has ever tried to “take away” from anyone here in America. Heston’s gun fires, at most, ten bullets a minute.
This speaks to the greatest lie promoted by the National Rifle Association: That gun control advocates want to take away your guns, even your antique rifles. Nearly a million people show up to personally demonstrate against assault weapons and the availability of illegal guns in our inner-cities, and a week later, an aging actor reading from a script can lift a replica of an antique rifle over his head and recast the entire debate.
To be sure, there are people who aspire to eliminate all guns, but for anyone who seriously recognizes the issues and understands the fundamental protections provided by the Constitution and over two hundred years of case law, these folks, however well-intentioned, are just as credible as a beauty pageant contestent who declares that, if crowned, she would help usher in an era of world peace. It’s silly and naive, but if you believe the NRA, then you may have the impression that “gun control” is just coded language for a wholesale repeal of the Second Amendment. It’s a toxic lie, and for decades now, this lie has prevented us from having an honest conversation about what we should do, as a country, to stop gun massacres, gang violence, and the proliferation of illegal weapon sales.
Like the overwhelming and vast majority of people who believe in sensible gun control, I also respect and believe that the Second Amendment provides responsible, law-abiding citizens with the right to own and possess “arms.” I grew up in an area of the country where almost every family owned at least one gun, most typically a hunting rifle. I learned how to shoot a gun before I learned how to drive a car. And no, shooting has never something I particularly enjoyed or was even remotely interested in pursuing as a hobby, but I get it. It can be a sport, and for many, it’s exhilarating.
As I said in a previous post, all rights come with responsibilities, and if you’re law-abiding and well-intentioned, then those responsibilities impose no additional burdens. In fact, you never even encounter them.
We are wise, as a country, to seriously discuss the epidemic of gun massacres, and just as importantly, we must also, once and for all, decide what the Second Amendment really means. A week after a mentally-disturbed 20-year-old man used the weapons his mother had been stockpiling in their home, first murdering her in cold blood and then slaughtering twenty small children and six adults, the National Rifle Association decided to finally state its position: It could have all been prevented if there’d only been more guns. Never mind that there were two armed police officers stationed at Columbine who actually returned fire when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, armed to the teeth, massacred 12 students and a teacher and wounded 24 others. Never mind that Virginia Tech had its own SWAT Team in place when Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 of his peers and wounded another 17.
Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association promised to provide “meaningful contributions” to help curb the insanity of gun massacres in America. Instead, Mr. LaPierre proved himself to be dangerously out-of-touch, a man who presents his sickening and perverted love for guns as a type of patriotism, a man who would rather the government compile a list of Americans diagnosed with psychological disorders than have them enforce background checks for the 40% of guns and ammunition purchased in gun shows or online.
Wayne LaPierre blames movies and video games for promoting a culture of violence, and then, in the same breath, declares that the solution is to further militarize our civic institutions. The dystopian vision of America presented by Mr. LaPierre is far more terrifying, more stifling, and more oppressive than anything ever previously imagined. Even Charlton Heston’s rigor mortis would relax.
Put simply, the people who believe that we should all enjoy unfettered access to semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines are, by definition, unqualified to lecture the rest of us about mental health, American culture, or the best ways to eliminate gun massacres. This has nothing to do with putting more armed guards in more schools; it’s a red herring. Nearly a third of American schools already have armed security. Remember, these gun massacres aren’t just occurring in our schools; they’re taking place in our shopping malls and movie theaters and office parks and public streets.
Newtown refocused the country’s discussion on these issues, as well it should have, but we would be foolish to let someone let Wayne LaPierre narrowly define the epidemic of gun massacres as something confined to our public schools. It is a shameless and naked exploitation, a willful distortion of the true scope and scale of the paralyzing terror brought onto this country by civilians who, more often than not, legally possess weapons designed to murder as many human beings as possible as quickly as possible.
In America, we’ve always aspired to be “a more perfect union,” a country kept in tact by a government that selflessly serves and protects the common good.
This isn’t about your handgun or your hunting rifle. Let’s get real.
Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association should be called out for what they actually are: Negligent enablers and lobbyists who are paid by gun manufacturers to distort the facts, terrorize our public discourse with hackneyed pro-gun propaganda, and promote a future that cares absolutely nothing about decreasing violence and everything about selling more guns to more people in more places.
I earnestly hope that, in light of the unhinged commentary promoted by the NRA, responsible American gun owners will follow the lead of Republican President George H.W. Bush and countless others and tear up their membership cards; we, as a country, deserve better than Wayne LaPierre’s extremism, negligence, and hypocrisy.