In a surprise holiday gift to advocates of gun control, National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards in the nation’s schools. It was a bizarre speech (read it here) and an odd departure from the NRA’s usual policy of hunkering down in silence after a tragic shooting, ostensibly out of respect to the victims. Practically, when your ideas are unlikely to be well-received, it makes sense to wait for the moment to pass. LaPierre ignored the pointed interruptions from Code Pink activists, and from the press as well. This time, he just talked.
Gun control advocates have been putting pressure on the NRA and calls for government action were intensifying. Meanwhile, notable NRA members, including Senators Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Mark Warner (Virginia) called for the NRA to be part of discussions to forge a solution, signalling a willingness to make concessions on the size of ammunition magazines or background checks.
LaPierre would have no part of such negotiations, intensifying his group’s unabashed commitment to defending Americans’ ready access to guns. The speech was defensive, criticizing the media and politicians for blaming guns, and the culture, for promoting violence in movies and video games. He then called for government to spend whatever it takes to protect students as it does the president.
Although there may be some discussion on the utility and feasibility of the more guards proposal–perhaps even a recognition of the irony of calling for an increase in the presence of armed government employees (those NRA advocates say private weapons are supposed to protect against)–this proposal is bound to be a non-starter. More than anything, it reflects the distance of the NRA from both the mainstream political debate and even the hunters and target shooters in its base. Quite clearly, LaPierre is not talking with people who disagree with him–or at least not listening.
Early responses were, predictably, negative. Politico quotes Michael Steele, former Republican Party chair, “I don’t even know where to begin. As a supporter of the Second Amendment…I just found it very haunting and very disturbing that our country now is talking about arming our teachers and our principals in classrooms.”
Like many others, Steele can imagine a set of regulations that would continue to allow ready access for most people to most weapons, and imagine the support of gun owners who don’t see the need for large magazines or semi-automatic weapons.
But LaPierre has drawn a line in the sand for NRA members, including elected officials, and it’s hard to imagine that all of them are going to continue to allow the organization to set the terms of the debate. I suspect that the first calls out of the offices of Senators Manchin and Warner were to NRA insiders, asking for a little more cover. Surely, some will refuse to cross the line and stand with LaPierre and the organization.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that meaningful gun control will be easy to get through this Congress, or that most of the gun rights stalwarts in office will change their minds. It does mean that the mainstream of the debate will not include the largest and most powerful gun rights organization.
The sharp story here is that LaPierre has refused to bend on what he sees as his group’s core mission; this makes sense only if you believe that your core audience already agrees with you, if purity trumps pragmatism and influence.
As if to demonstrate the tendency of stalwarts to worry only about their core supporters is the attack by PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk on the morality of the NRA for supporting hunting! (Again, this isn’t what most Americans want to hear about, nor is it likely to be a significant issue in the mainstream debate.)