How gun politics turned America into a slaughterhouse

“These things happen,” Donald Trump replied when asked about the latest mass murder in an American school. “That’s the way the world works, and that’s the way the world always has worked.”

This isn’t a column about Donald Trump. Trump doesn’t matter. It’s a column about the lie that the daily slaughter of Americans is a time-honored inevitability. Events like the killings at Umpqua Community College are the result of a recent phenomenon: in just the last seven years, a small group of zealots have used the National Rifle Association, Congress, and the Supreme Court to make mass murder easy. We can’t bring back the victims of the NRA’s lobbyists and their reading of the Constitution, but if we can understand how this chain of events happened, we can fight back.

The National Rifle Association wasn’t always like this. When it was founded in 1871, by Union Army veterans, it was created with the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in mind: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The first generation of NRA leadership felt that Northerners had lacked the skills of Rebel soldiers, and that state militias needed citizens with training in firearms. The group provided shooting ranges and weapons training, in case state militia action became necessary again as it had during the Civil War.

The NRA, an organization founded to help the state deal with threats to civil peace, did not complain when Congress and several state legislatures passed gun control and registration legislation in response to the rise of Prohibition-era gangsterism. Indeed, as Steven Rosenfeld has written, “the NRA’s leaders helped write and lobby for the nation’s first federal gun control laws.” The NRA also assisted in the passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act, a federal response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, and the wave of riots that followed those killings. The NRA leadership lobbied, successfully, against some parts of the law and supported others.

A 2012 anti-NRA protest - photo by Edward Kimmel
A 2012 anti-NRA protest – photo by Edward Kimmel

But American politics, as James Madison knew, are characterized by faction, and our interest groups are no exception to that rule. A faction of the NRA argued that the Gun Control Act was part of a government conspiracy to strip Americans citizens of their guns (even the assassinations of King and Kennedy were seen by this group as government operations engineered to provide a pretext for disarming the public). That faction’s leader, Harlan Carter (who had previously shot and killed a Mexican-American teenager he had accused of car theft), rallied supporters via the NRA’s in-house magazine, arguing that the Second Amendment had nothing to do with state militias, and that American citizens were guaranteed unfettered access to any kind of firearm and any kind of ammunition. Carter rose to prominence through the NRA’s lobbying organization and, in 1977, engineered a takeover of the group’s executive board.

So think of 1968 as the first major sea change in the NRA’s history: the specter of gun violence in American cities convinced one part of the organization to expand on their pre-existing commitment to support firearm training and gun regulation as a state-sponsored means of protecting “the security of a free state,” while another part of the organization reacted to the same events by advocating the arming of vigilantes, individual men with the ability to stockpile any amount of firepower to use in shooting people (Mexican-American minors, in Carter’s case) whom they deemed “bad guys.”

By the early 1980s, Carter’s NRA had managed to convince some powerful policy-makers in Congress and the White House that their reading of the Second Amendment was correct, but the next major sea change happened on the Supreme Court, just seven years ago.

In 2008, in a case called District of Columbia v Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for a majority of the court that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to bear arms, and that the right was reserved for “traditionally lawful purposes” like home protection, rather than in service to a state militia. (Actually, the Heller decision only accepted this reading of the Second Amendment for “federal enclaves” like the District of Columbia, but two years later, the Court ruled that it also applied to the states.)

The ruling was a radical shift in the way the Court read the Second Amendment; as recently as 1991, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, a staunchly conservative Nixon appointee, called the “individual right” reading of the Second Amendment a “fraud” perpetrated on the American public by a “special interest group.”

Then, in 2010, the Court handed the NRA another enormous victory with the Citizens United case. The decision found a constitutionally protected right for individuals or corporate entities to spend unlimited amounts of money to elect or defeat candidates for public office (as long as their spending wasn’t coordinated with the candidates in question). () In the five years since that decision, the NRA has spent more than $46 million to do just that.

It is a cliche in the study of American politics that, despite the enormous advantages generally provided by incumbency, our elected officials “run scared,” doing or spending whatever is necessary to avoid electoral challenges. And, indeed, the Congress is supine before the post-Carter gun lobby and its argument that the American citizenry have no right to curb the killing power of armed vigilantes, “good guys” and “bad.”

Not even after the mass murder of six-year old children in 2012. Not even after the first 274 days of 2015, in which we have had 294 mass shootings.

And, in the face of that horrifying inaction, people now tell us that this is just “the way the world is,” and has always been.

That statement is a lie. The world, our world and our children’s world, used to be very different, very recently. Our political process created the slaughterhouse that we currently occupy. We did this. We can change it.

That change must start now. The NRA’s reading of the Second Amendment is fatally, dangerously wrong, and its day must end. Talk to your elected officials. Talk on the streets, and take action at the ballot box. This country, the Constitution and the government are ours. Let’s use them to save ourselves, before it’s too late.

Photo via Flickr/Teknorat

About Ron Schmidt

Avatar photoDr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.

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