NRA: A lobby for criminals

The NRA is a twisted, paranoid organization whose main achievement is to have made law enforcement harder

Published July 23, 2012 2:52PM (EDT)

          (<a href=''>robcocquyt</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(robcocquyt via Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

This is Part 1 in a three-part series on the NRA's influence in the United States. Parts 2 and 3 can be found here and here.

We've read the sickening script before. Following virtually every mass shooting in the United States, the news media focuses briefly on the question of whether anything can be done to prevent such incidents in the future. Soon, a softly spoken "no" infiltrates the coverage, either out of sheer hopelessness or the certain knowledge that our elected officials are so firmly in the thrall of the gun lobby that they quiver in fear at the mere thought of contemplating even tepid measures advanced by gun control advocates in the wake of the latest atrocity. If the aftermath of Aurora (12 dead, 58 wounded) plays out as others of recent or fading memory --  Tuscaloosa, two weeks ago (18 wounded), Tucson in 2011 (six dead, 14 wounded), Binghamton in 2009 (13 dead, four wounded), Ft. Hood also in 2009 (13 dead, 29 wounded), Virginia Tech in 2007 (32 dead, 17 wounded), Northern Illinois University in 2008 (five dead, 21 wounded), Columbine in 1999 (12 dead, 21 wounded),  etc. -- the role of the National Rifle Association will be lightly brushed over, then dismissed.

It shouldn't be. Here's why.

In a nation armed with more than a quarter of a billion privately owned firearms, the NRA is correct to assert that determined outlaws will often find a way to get their hands on guns. The problem is that the NRA is the foremost enabler of many of those outlaws.

We can't link the NRA directly to the hideous acts of alleged Aurora gunman James Holmes, 24, or to any one of the nation's 9,000 to 10,000 annual gun murders and 338,000 rapes, robberies and other non-fatal assaults, or to the actions of the "deranged madmen" whom the NRA loves to demonize.  What we can say with absolute certainty is that where there are loopholes in gun laws, laws that make it more difficult to get thugs off the streets and laws that endanger the lives of police and ordinary citizens alike, you will invariably find the fingerprints of the NRA. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's CEO and public face, may call his group "one of the largest law enforcement organizations in the country,"  but under his leadership the NRA  -- with a 2010 budget of more than $240 million -- has become the nation's de facto lobby for street criminals, criminal gun dealers and an industry that reaps a sizable percentage of its income from criminal gun use.  The NRA, says Pittsburgh police detective Joseph Bielevicz, “takes every chance it gets to stymie even reasonable efforts to combat gun violence.”

No one honestly doubts that the NRA is the reason there is no serious debate about guns in Congress. So today we live under a series of  laws written or advanced by the NRA. Today a state can impose a death sentence or life in prison on someone who commits murder with a firearm. But the "What, me worry?" gun dealer, who supplies multiple murderers with guns he claims were "stolen" from his inventory, guns he never recorded on his books, or guns he sold to straw buyers with a wink and a nod, can operate with virtual impunity, thanks to laws written by the NRA.

One of these, passed in 1986, drastically reduced penalties for dealers who violate record-keeping laws, making violations misdemeanors rather than felonies. Another established an absurdly high standard of proof to convict dealers who sell to criminals. In 2003, Congress, at the NRA's urging, barred the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the much-maligned agency responsible for enforcing federal gun laws, from forcing dealers to conduct inventory inspections that would detect lost and stolen guns. Car dealers like to know when inventory goes missing. Gun dealers? Not so curious.

Most astonishingly, the same NRA-inspired law forces the FBI to destroy Brady background checks for gun purchases within 24 hours, which makes it harder for law enforcement to identify dealers who falsify their records and makes it impossible to cross-check purchases made by gun traffickers from multiple dealers. Although federal law requires a dealer who sells more than one handgun to a single individual in a five-day period to file a special report with the BATF, the agency is unable to cross-check purchases from multiple dealers, so gun traffickers can simply hop from one gun store to the next, buying a single handgun at each until they accumulate the arsenals they want. Put another way, the NRA and its backers in Congress created a law that forces the FBI to destroy evidence of crimes, evidence of illegal multiple gun purchases.

The FBI warned Congress that passage of this 24-hour law would allow 97 percent of criminal buyers to escape apprehension, and the Justice Department's inspector general said the law's principal beneficiaries would be criminal gun dealers. But this doesn't bother the NRA. It even opposes common-sense local ordinances requiring that gun dealers and private citizens report lost or stolen firearms within 24 to 48 hours. Police support these laws because they want to move quickly when a gun is lost or stolen (a half-million are stolen each year), before someone gets shot.  They're also supported by 78 percent of NRA members, who apparently recognize their value for public safety. They're just not supported by the NRA leadership, which says they don't work.

And why can't the BATF cross-check purchases by gun traffickers? Because in 1979 -- and every year since -- the NRA, which is obsessed with federal record-keeping, has gotten the Congress to prohibit creation of a centralized database of gun purchases. Among the NRA's leading evangelists, whose faith in the durability of American democracy hovers perennially just above zero, it is an incontrovertible article of faith that such a database would allow a totalitarian government, such as the one LaPierre predicts if Barack Obama is reelected, to identify gun owners and seize their guns.

At this point, it might be useful to pause and take a deep breath. We can probably all agree that confiscating 300 million guns held by fully a third of U.S. households would be one formidable and messy undertaking. Let's ignore the fact that this would be illegal and unconstitutional, and that the vast majority of Americans would find this eventuality unlikely . Let's also ignore the question of who, exactly, would do this. Marines? Police? The National Guard? Does anyone living in the 21st century really believe that a dictatorial government would need a centralized database if it wanted to snatch our guns?

In a world where U.S. intelligence agencies can pinpoint a person's exact location using a cellphone's GPS, where tens of thousands of video cameras are running 24/7 in public and private spaces, where a vast smorgasbord of computers contains the most intimate details of our lives, from the movies we watch to the brand of toilet paper we prefer, even LaPierre must realize that it is patently absurd to claim that figuring out who has a gun requires a national registry. Identifying the most strident gun-rights true believers would be easiest of all, since they're constantly advertising themselves. Credit card records of gun purchases, lists of subscribers to gun aficionado and paramilitary magazines, not to mention Field and Stream, chat rooms, Facebook, websites, tweets and blogs -- the LL Bean mailing list! -- contain the names of tens of millions of hunters, sportsmen, grandmothers and other gun owners. will suggest additional book titles I might enjoy after I buy LaPierre's "Guns, Freedom and Terrorism," "Guns, Crime and Freedom," or "The Global War on Your Guns: Inside the U.N. Plan to Destroy the Bill of Rights." Will records of LaPierre's Internet book sales be used to "target" gun owners? The NRA helps fund its lobbying efforts by offering members a "platinum" NRA VISA card. Will cardholders be at risk of being rounded up should Obama win reelection? Is it time to take that "NRA Life Member" license plate off the SUV? Might a tyrannical regime hack into the NRA's computers, or send someone in a taxi to NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Va., and seize the lobby's membership list? If the "freedom haters," as LaPierre likes to call them, are half as smart and well-organized as he would have us believe, they should have no trouble tracking down even the most hardened armed survivalists flown to remote corners of the fatherland in off-road vehicles stocked with high-powered weapons, crates of ammunition, dehydrated food and dog-eared copies of “The Turner Diaries.”

Of course, federal and state government agencies aren't really interested in identifying every gun owner. In the real world, they're only interested in figuring out who has used a gun illegally. And it is those people the NRA ultimately protects.

So, thanks to the NRA, there is no centralized database. Instead, gun sale records are "archived" by the nation's 60,000 federally licensed firearms dealers at their places of business. Oh, and the BATF has estimated that 1 percent of those dealers are corrupt, which means there are about 600 dealers regularly funneling guns to criminals. But that 1 percent figure may be way off the mark.  When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent undercover agents to gun stores making it clear to salespeople that they were illegal straw purchasers, 25 percent of dealers broke the law and sold them guns anyway. At gun shows -- which sell about 30 percent of the guns identified in criminal trafficking cases -- a staggering 94 percent of licensed dealers were willing to make such illegal sales. Meanwhile, the radical leadership of the NRA remains the leading impediment to closing the notorious gun show loophole -- despite the fact that 69 percent of the NRA's membership and 85 percent of the general public support background checks for gun show sales, according to a 2009 survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz.

In "Wayne's World," the alternate universe tirelessly promoted by the NRA CEO, "gun shows are not a source of crime guns," and the exhaustively documented gun show loophole is "a myth.” Of course, in Wayne's World, even the existing Brady background checks for gun purchases are a total waste of time, because criminals are too smart to buy from licensed dealers and to fill out Brady forms. In the real world, where criminals are not as smart as LaPierre would have us believe, more than 2 million felons, domestic abusers and fugitives from justice have been turned away by gun dealers when they flunked Brady background checks since the law took effect in 1994.

In Wayne's World, the solution to Aurora, Tucson and Columbine is more guns. In April 2011, LaPierre told the NRA's national convention that "Every American wife and mother and daughter, every law-abiding adult woman should be trained, armed and encouraged to carry a firearm for personal protection." In LaPierre's American utopia, every citizen would be armed for self-defense and ready to play cop on the beat at a moment's notice because, "The presence of a firearm makes us all safer.  It's just that simple."

Not surprisingly, he offers the same "simple" solution for Mexicans attempting to deal with their deadly drug cartels. The Mexican government, LaPierre says, "ought to give their own people a Second Amendment right to defend themselves, instead of coming here and trying to take away yours!" Here, one is led to believe that the only illegal guns that have ended up in the hands of the cartels were sent by agents of the BATF -- with the full cooperation of the White House and Justice Department -- as part of its ill-fated Operation Fast and Furious. In fact, as many as 2,000 guns may have ended up in Mexico as part of this gun-tracing effort, which has been the subject of multiple investigations.  However, in April the BATF reported that of 100,000 guns collected by the Mexican government, 68 percent could be traced to U.S. dealers. But never mind. LaPierre insists, the "great overwhelming bulk" of guns used by the Mexican cartels "come from non-American dealers." He dismisses suggestions that U.S. dealers are a primary source of guns to Mexico as "absurd" and "a damned lie."

Operation Fast and Furious may yet prove to be the scandal LaPierre clearly hopes it is. But NRA members might be interested in knowing that since 2006, the BATF has intercepted more than 10,000 guns and nearly a million rounds of ammunition destined for Mexico, and it has arrested 800 trafficking suspects. Between 2003 and 2010 the BATF was responsible for sending more than 66,000 violent criminals to prison for an average of 14 years each. In the same period, it recommended prosecution of  more than 26,000 defendants for firearms trafficking-related offenses involving an estimated 441,000 weapons.  If, as LaPierre claims, "government has failed in enforcing ... our laws against violent criminals with guns," he might tell his members which of those 66,000 criminals he'd rather the ATF hadn't put away. And he might explain why the NRA opposes making gun-trafficking and straw purchases a crime.

If you visit Wayne's World infrequently, it can be a bizarre and dazzling entertainment. Only there would the takeaway from the Tucson massacre be the head-wrenching claim that "government policies are getting us killed and imprisoning us in a society of terrifying violence." Or would the lesson of 9/11 be that "guns can stop terrorists," and that if terrorists succeed in detonating a nuclear device, "armed citizens would be critical in stabilizing a wounded society." And only there would hardworking, modestly paid TSA employees who screen for bombs at airports be blamed for the "wand rape" of female fliers. "You see red-faced, teary-eyed, 15-year-old girls enduring security wands orbiting their breasts while electronic squeals detect the metal in their underwire bras," LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Committee. "You see women cringe as security men let their wands linger between their legs."

Or at least that's how LaPierre's fevered mind sees it. And he’s the one calling the shots.

By Alan Berlow

Alan Berlow is the author of "Dead Season: A Story of Murder and Revenge." His writing has appeared in the The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly and Harper's.

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