Arming Up for the Culture War: Dangerous Words from the NRA

Big Gun | Image Credit:  Thomas Hawk

Big Gun | Image Credit: Thomas Hawk

A few weeks ago, the National Rifle Association (NRA) held its annual Members Meetings & Exhibits in Indianapolis, Indiana. This was a great opportunity for gun enthusiasts to get together and see whose gun was bigger. It was also a chance to unveil their new recruitment video, "Good Guys." (You should take a look if you haven't seen it yet.) I found this video fascinating for a few reasons. The first is that the only people shown handling firearms are soldiers and police officers: trained government agents. At no time was a civilian shown with a gun of any kind. The second is that the video focuses on values that don't really have anything to do with the right to bear arms: values taught in schools, bravery on the battlefield, work ethic, corruption in business and politics. Finally, they even had a black dude in the video! It's easy to identify with the messages in this video. I think most of us want a more honest, ethical, hard-working, socially responsible society. If you listen to the other messages from the NRA leadership, and the other speakers they invited to this conference, there are some distinct and disturbing differences that must be addressed.

The Exhibition boasted an impressive 638 vendors ready to sell guns, ammunition, and other related products. It's a gun show. These people are well within their right to do this. The right to bear arms (and buy and sell them) is protected by the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. How will they use those guns, though? What does the NRA have to say about that?

In his opening remarks to the Members Meetings & Exhibits--I'm going to stop for a second to make a point because it's going to be important later. On the NRA website, etc., they refer to this meeting as the Members Meetings. I refer to it as the Members Meetings & Exhibits because that is what is emblazoned on the podium beneath Wayne LaPierre while he gives this speech. This certainly implies to the audience that the Exhibits are just as important as the meetings, so I will treat them as such.

Screen Shot from  NRA.org

Screen Shot from NRA.org

In his opening remarks to the the Members Meetings & Exhibits, NRA CEO and EVP Wayne LaPierre said (emphasis mine):

We don’t trust government because government itself has proven unworthy of our trust. We trust ourselves and we trust what we know in our hearts to be right.

We trust our freedom. In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive, to protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns and handguns we want.

We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and car-jackers and knock-out gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all.

I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you?

We are on our own. That is a certainty, no less certain than the absolute truth — a fact the powerful political and media elites continue to deny, just as sure as they would deny our right to save our very lives. The life or death truth that when you’re on your own, the surest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!

Context is important. He's about to send them off to the Exhibits where they can by "all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns we want," and he's given them a lot of reasons to be afraid. Some of them aren't really reasons to own a gun, though, are they?

Before we examine his reasons, I have to point out the first contradiction between this message and the Good Guys promotional video. He says that you can't trust the government, but in the video he shows US military soldiers and police officers as part of the Good Guys and the only ones with guns. Which is it? Are they the good guys? Can we trust them or are we on our own? It sounds like he's saying trust them until you join, then don't trust them when you go to the gun show and buy your guns.

Now, let's look at his reasons for owning as many guns as you want. I can see why he chose home invadersrapers, and car-jackersTerrorists is kind of a stretch, but maybe. Depends on what kind of terrorists. I'm not sure what you and your rifle are going to do against a drug cartel. You may be able to stop a campus killer or a killer at an airport or a shopping mall, but there's also the chance that more guns means more bullets flying around and more innocent people getting hurt.

Where he goes off the rails is knock-out gamers. If you are not familiar with the Knockout Game, the goal is for the player (usually portrayed as a black teenager that is part of a group) to knock someone out (usually a white person) by sneaking up behind them and punching them in the back of the head with one punch. While it does exist, it's not a growing epidemic and you don't have to be afraid of gangs of black teenagers sneaking up behind you and punching you in the head. I not going to prove this. It's already been done more than once. Even the WorldNetDaily website (famous for conspiracy theories including "Blood Moons are a Special Message from God to America" and "Obama was born in Kenya"), which was the primary driver for this most recent attention to this urban legend stopped talking about it last November. Why, then, is Mr. LaPierre talking about it now? The handy thing about the Knockout Game is that it provides a handy image: a gang of black teenagers.

Imagine you are walking down the sidewalk, minding your own business, and you approach a group of teenagers. From here, they look either Latino or African-American. If you are racist, or nervous around groups of teenagers, you might already be scared. Now, thanks to the hype from sensationalized media reports, you might also be afraid one of them is going to punch you in the back of the head as you pass by. Mr. LaPierre suggests that a gun would help in this situation, but how? If this game is going to work, one of them will sneak up behind you. Will you keep your gun drawn and turn around in all directions to keep them from sneaking up on you? This seems kind of paranoid and dangerous just because a group of teenagers is in the vicinity. If one of them does punch you and you draw your gun, I imagine they'd start to run away. You don't have any authority to shoot someone who is running away, so I'm not sure what purpose the gun would serve other than to possibly escalate an otherwise peaceful situation.

But the image remains of the gangs of black teenagers posing a violent threat. Myths like the Knockout Game condition us to think that a carload of black teenagers blasting hip-hop beats you've never heard and rhymes you don't understand is scarier than a carload of white teenagers blasting country music that might be more familiar to you.

And, therefore, you need all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns you want.

This racist undertone (intentional or not) illuminates another disturbing difference between "what they say" and "what they do." While the Good Guys video includes a black guy as one of the Good Guys, and Mr. LaPierre referred to the convention as, "A gathering of all ages, all political parties, all races and religions," I watched the video recordings of several of the speeches and the crowd shots seemed pretty old and pale to me, despite my best efforts to locate a person of color in the audience. I would be willing to give Mr. LaPierre the benefit of the doubt that he was also misled by the sensationalized media reports if he would publicly rebuke his own comments regarding the knockout game being a reason to need a gun and acknowledge its racist roots. If he chooses to let it slide, he's choosing to let his members believe in this lie.

Mr. LaPierre also fails to mention to his audience that firearms are more dangerous than the Knockout Game. According to the National Safety Council, there were 606 deaths from accidental discharge of a firearm in 2010.

  • 25 were between the ages of one and four years old
  • 26 were between the ages of ten and fourteen
  • 145 were between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four.

That same year, there were 19,392 deaths from suicide by firearm and another 252 where they couldn't tell if it was an accident or suicide. There has never been a claim of anywhere near 600 deaths from the Knockout Game, but you need to be good and scared before you go into the Exhibits and buy all of your guns.

The same report from the National Safety Council also revealed that you are over twice as likely to die from a fall than from an assault with a firearm. Think about that for a minute. The chance that you will be a victim of a home invasion, car-jacking, mall shooting, or other firearm attack is far less than the chance that you will die from falling. By bringing a firearm into your home, you are introducing a new risk that must be considered. Is it worth the risk that someone in your family may become one of those accidental deaths in order to protect yourself from the remote chance that you will be the victim of a home invasion? It seems that the NRA would be more willing to openly discuss this risk with their members and the general public as part of their educational outreach, but I guess that's not part of their mission.

What is their mission, anyway? I tried to find out and it isn't easy. When I went to the NRA website to find their mission statement, the most I could find was a history lesson. While interesting, it didn't really tell me what the NRA's goals were or how it would go about achieving them. I find this unusual. Most organizations that I'm familiar with are proud to display a mission statement on their About Us page. I called the NRA to find out what their mission statement was. I was bounced around a bit before I ended up with a customer service rep who told me that the NRA's mission was to "protect 2nd Amendment Rights." I asked if that was documented anywhere and if there was any information on how the NRA would do that. She checked with her supervisor, then came back on the line to suggest that I look up the 2nd Amendment and that would tell me everything I needed to know. I told her that I was familiar with the 2nd Amendment, but wanted more information on the NRA. She told me that "everyone knew that the NRA was protecting the 2nd Amendment." Then she asked me if I wanted to join. I politely declined.

Sketch. No mission statement because "everybody knows" what the NRA's goals are. Except that they send mixed messages, so we don't really know.

Oh, I got all worked up about the Knockout Game and almost forgot my favorite part of Mr. LaPierre's break from reality. He wants you to get a gun to protect yourself from haters. It sounds like he wants to use his gun to threaten anyone who "hates" on him, or disagrees with him. He'll probably say that's not what he meant, but what else could it mean? His "we're the good guys" schtick doesn't click with the "don't trust the government and buy all the guns you can because be scared of the black kids and the haters," so I don't know what he's talking about but it's starting to scare the hell out of me.

I'm not against gun ownership, but the NRA is jumping on the crazy train and bringing weapons. This is the same NRA Meetings & Exhibits where Sarah Palin stepped in it by saying, "if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,” and Rick Santorum used his time to rail against Obamacare and Marriage Equality. These aren't 2nd Amendment issues, so forgive me if I'm confused about the goals of the NRA.

This dangerous, violent, extremist, racist, rhetoric is not helpful. It probably sells a lot of guns and ammunition, but it isn't solving any problems. You can defend the right to bear arms without resorting to baseless fears rooted in racism and religious extremism.

If you can't, then there's a problem with your argument. That's frustrating, I know, but don't take it out on me and keep your gun locked up until you figure it out.