Stephen Gottlieb: Guns And Vegas

Oct 10, 2017

Why, after Vegas, Sandy Hook and other mass killings of decent men, women and children, is it so hard to get real gun control?

The NRA was  an association of hunters and sportsman, reasonable and trustworthy neighbors. Now the NRA, its leaders and vocal supporters argue Americans should have the right to buy any kind of firearm from tanks and machine guns to silencers. Where did that come from?

A good bet might be manufacturers. Despite the praise Republicans like to lavish on the free market, too many businesses look at profits before safety, honor or humanity. That can make life miserable without regulation.

But part of their audience is quite radical, some of which goes back to the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson sent General Carl Schurz to report on conditions in the South following the War. Schurz reported that southern slave-owners continued riding patrol to force the former slaves back to their plantations. Those informal groups gradually coalesced into organizations that fought, killed and intimidated African-Americans and their white supporters in order to regain white control of the former Confederate States. In such notorious events as the Colfax Massacre, many were killed in order to return Colfax County to white slaveowner control. Those groups eventually became the KKK and similar organizations which terrorized African-Americans in the former Confederacy and border states for a century. The Klan never really disappeared despite passage of the Civil Rights Laws. The connection between the battle to keep the South white, the flag of the Confederacy and the sight of guns is no accident. Trump’s campaign and victory re-invigorated these white supremacists, and the Alt-Wrong.

They want tanks, machine guns and other massively destructive weapons to prevent tyranny, by which they mean federal tyranny, so they need the capacity to fight the federal government.[1] One problem of course is that’s another civil war. Another is that their definition of tyranny isn’t one most of us would accept. Many believe that tyranny is here.

That radical segment of gun-owners are not patriots. They are not supporters of government of, by and for the people that we created in 1787 and improved by Amendment after the Civil War. Their ideal is government by white supremacists to the exclusion of everyone else. And that’s aimed at most of us – those of us whose views are more welcoming, and those who don’t satisfy the supremacists’ view of Christianity. They’re also aimed at resolving political disputes by taking the law into their own hands.[2] Politically, if we don’t protect each other, who will protect those of us who remain? This political and cultural crisis is existential. The America most of us admire and care about is an America they despise and want to conquer. That’s what tanks and machine guns are for.

The radicals’ resistance to sharing America with the rest of us leads to armed rebellions, like those of Cliven Bundy and his supporters, or self-styled “sovereign citizens” who routinely refuse to respect the law. There is nothing peace-loving or law-abiding about the radicals.

The mood of the country has been changing, witness the removal of many Confederate flags and monuments. But that stimulates the haters. They’re losing control and they hate that, and us. Reasonable and trustworthy gun owners would do better to distance themselves from the radicals who have taken a prominent and threatening role in the debate over weapons.

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[1] One NRA member from Texas told an NPR reporter, "As far as I'm concerned, if you can afford to buy a tank, you should be able to buy a tank." He explained: "the Second Amendment was put in not to hunt, not to go plink at cans, not to shoot at targets. If and when tyranny tries to take over our country, we can fight it." A recent NRA President, Jim Porter wanted people to be “ready to fight tyranny.” When he was NRA vice-president, Porter told an audience that “We got the pads put on, we got our helmets strapped on, we’re cinched up, we’re ready to fight, we’re out there fighting every day.”

[2] NPR’s Wade Goodwyn reported that speakers at a recent NRA convention “emphasized their belief that there are two Americas: the righteousness of the right and the decadence of the left.” In other words, one of the strands of fanaticism behind the NRA is political – not just that gun rights are political, but that the purpose of having gun rights is political, to change the society from one they dislike to one they like. 

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School. A widely recognized constitutional scholar, he has served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and was a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics

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