Americans, as a group, have a love/hate relationship with the NRA — the National Rifle Association.
Some of us love it and see it as a champion for the right to own firearms… others hate it as an organization that condones the private ownership of death machines.
Its history is as complicated and emotional as the evolution of American democracy itself. And today, it is at the core of a highly charged debate over the glut of guns in this country.
Yes, it is a glut.
The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.
About four in 10 Americans either own a gun or live in a home with a firearm, according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center. A majority of the gun owners surveyed said they have more than one.
Number two in the Pew survey of gun ownership was Yemen, which is in the midst of a bloody war. And it lags far behind the USA.
Not only are there more guns, there are also more mass shootings here than anywhere else on Earth. With just five percent of the global population, the United States accounts for 31 percent of these massacres.
In the last few months alone, we have witnessed people gunned down at an outdoor concert, a church and a high school.
Emotions are raw. There are those who want at least military-style firearms to be banned and taken off the streets. And then there is the NRA — a powerful organization unlike any other I can think of in the civilized world.
Formally established in 1871, in the years following the American Civil War, the NRA currently has about 5 million members. Over the years, its political clout has become the stuff of legends.
The National Rifle Association was actually set up by a group of Civil War officers upset about their recruits poor shooting ability. It began its organizational life as a way to train marksmen for the military as well as for hunting and sport (think the pistol shooting competitions at the Olympics).
Until the 1960’s, the NRA focused on gun safety and the proper use of firearms. Then we had the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Violent crime began to rise and King’s death touched off riots in some cities. The national conversation about guns began to change and so did the National Rifle Association.
Hardliners opposed to any efforts at gun control began to take over leadership posts at the NRA. The organization’s rallying cry became the defense of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which they say enshrines gun ownership as a basic individual right.
Since then, the NRA has lead the opposition to every effort in this country to limit gun ownership — turning its attention from safe marksmanship to the political arena. It gives money — lots of money — to political campaigns. But perhaps even more important, it knows how to rally its supporters and turn them into a big asset for sympathetic politicians.
Which is a big reason why even after the recent massacre of 17 students and staff at a southern Florida high school, there is no quick action to tighten the nation’s gun control laws.
A 19-year-old expelled student with a military-style assault weapon mowed these latest victims down. Survivors of the shooting immediately began pressing for at least a ban on these types of fast firing weapons — not exactly the kind you would use to go deer hunting. The NRA’s response was a loud and defiant “no.”
To the NRA, if the government bans one type of firearm, the nation descends on a slippery slope and all private gun ownership is at risk.
In this case, the rhetoric has gotten exceptionally heated at breath-taking speed.
At a televised town hall meeting just one week after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, angry students, parents and teachers grilled their local congressman, the two members of the U.S. Senate from Florida, their county sheriff, and a spokeswoman for the NRA.
Students asked Republican Senator Marco Rubio if he was willing to stop taking donations from the National Rifle Association… and they pushed the NRA’s Dana Loesch on an assault weapons ban.
A few days later, NRA officials — including Loesch — spoke at a meeting of conservative activists. Their speeches were fiery — accusing liberals of exploiting the Florida massacre for political gain. Loesch even went so far as to say the news media loves mass shootings because they represent “ratings gold.”
So much for a rational debate that respects the dead.
Add in the fact that this is a Congressional election year, and you can just sense the political gamesmanship on this issue that lies ahead. The NRA won’t let it go away… neither will the teenage survivors of the Parkland massacre.
The result is likely to be a political stalemate and minimal legislation that just nibbles around the edges of the problem.
President Trump, as is his style, has thrown out a bunch of ideas including offering bonuses to teachers who will carry guns at school to protect their students. He also wants more money for mental health treatment, even though his latest federal budget proposal cuts spending.
Few, if any, of his suggestions seems to have any traction on Capitol Hill. Mike Allen – a veteran Washington reporter whose early morning column for the Axios news organization is a must-read in this town — quotes a top Republican Senate aid as saying: “I don’t really consider this a solvable problem in the current environment.”
That may be the understatement of the year.
The real reckoning may come on Election Day.