NRA's phony gun control

Yes, the gun group has backed limited gun control in some states, even as it denounces similar measures nationwide

Published July 25, 2012 11:45AM (EDT)

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

If National Rifle Association executives, directors and lobbyists actually believed their own propaganda about the danger of Barack Obama being reelected, one would think that they'd be taking out second mortgages on their homes to underwrite efforts to defeat him. The fact that not a single one of them has donated to the NRA's political action committee -- the Political Victory Fund -- in this election does not, in itself, prove that they don't believe NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre's assertion that Obama's reelection will mean the end of the Second Amendment. But when LaPierre tells NRA members that "this election will decide whether Americans remain free" and that, "If you don't do your part, our sacred Second Amendment will fall apart," while he and the other NRA big shots contribute nothing, it should make one wonder.

It is, of course, possible that LaPierre, along with other top NRA executives (who are paid anywhere from $250,000 to more than $1 million a year), and the organization's 76 directors and 29 lobbyists believe that they contribute enough just working to convince the rest of their 4 million members to donate to the NRA. But the facts suggest rather that NRA officials are fully aware not only that what they're saying about Obama and the 2012 election is absurd but that much of what they're telling their members on a day-to-day basis is unadulterated nonsense.

Let's start with the massacre in Aurora, Colo. If  history is a reliable predictor, the NRA will have little or nothing to say about this atrocity in the near future other than to offer its prayers, but will eventually accuse gun control advocates of exploiting the tragedy to take away basic freedoms. That's what they did following the January 2011 Tucson massacre, which left six dead and 14 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. For their part, gun control advocates are already seeking new limits on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, which allow the rapid release of a series of bullets. These proposals will likely go nowhere, with the NRA insisting that any limit on gun rights will lead to licensing, registration and tyranny.

Of course, LaPierre knows that's not true. The courts have made it abundantly clear that the Second Amendment is not an absolute right, upholding a multitude of laws that limit the kinds of weapons Americans can own, and when, where and how they may use them. Fully a fourth of the U.S. population resides in states that require registration of handguns, yet democracy has somehow survived. California requires licensing and registration of handguns, and a 10-day waiting or cooling off period so police can conduct background checks, and its 40 million citizens are still able to hunt and shoot and buy as many firearms as they want.

But the best evidence that LaPierre knows the "slippery slope," the NRA's central canonical fable, has no foundation in the real world is the NRA’s own support for gun control, including gun licensing and gun registration laws that, ironically, disproportionately affect many of the NRA's most ardent supporters. That's right, the NRA has supported gun control. Not surprisingly, they don't like to admit it. And their reasons for backing it are anything but altruistic. But they've supported it nonetheless, and their support not only undermines their central argument against gun control but provides a good starting place to win some broader agreement on serious gun laws that could make a real difference.

Take a look, for example, at the statutes regulating concealed firearms in Texas and Florida, both of which were endorsed by the NRA. Nearly a million Floridians (one in 15 adult residents) have permits to carry concealed weapons. In Texas more than 460,000 citizens have concealed carry permits. In both states all of those citizens were fingerprinted and photographed. In Texas, each had an FBI and state background check, and took a 10-hour firearms proficiency and safety course. In Florida, applicants were subjected to both criminal and mental health background checks.

One can debate the risks and benefits of concealed carry laws, which are now on the books in every state with the exception of Illinois and the District of Columbia. The downside is pretty clear. Thanks to intensive NRA lobbying, fully 36 states have what are known as "shall issue" laws, which make it difficult for local police to deny concealed carry permits to people they know are dangerous and shouldn't be allowed within 10 miles of a gun. In Florida, "shall issue" allowed George Zimmerman, who had a history of alleged violence and an arrest record, to carry a concealed weapon the night he shot teenager Trayvon Martin. A Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation identified 1,400 people who were given concealed weapon licenses by the state even though they pleaded guilty or no contest to felonies.

That said, the concealed carry permitting processes in Florida and Texas are still far more intrusive and retain far more personal data than any number of gun control measures the NRA has crucified as threats to the very survival of the Republic, laws such as the loophole-riddled "Brady Act," which requires an instant FBI background check for gun purchases, but no photograph, fingerprinting or long-term retention of records. Compared to some of the NRA-backed concealed carry laws, post-Tucson proposals such as one to place limits on the bullet capacity of a gun's magazine seem almost innocuous.

The NRA canon may dictate that licensing is an abomination, and NRA leaders like LaPierre will repeat that mantra in aeternum. But they know that licensing, serious background checks, fingerprinting and record-keeping pose no threat to the Second Amendment.

Marion Hammer, who is paid $190,000 a year to lobby for the NRA's gun agenda in Florida, can claim credit for some of the worst gun laws now on the books, among them her  state's notorious 2005 "stand your ground" law, which is center stage in the George Zimmerman trial. Critics say the law is an invitation to kill, in effect telling would-be murderers, "Go ahead and shoot anyone, any time for any reason so long as there are no witnesses to contradict your claim of self-defense." Justifiable homicide verdicts have tripled in Florida since the law was passed.

But it was Hammer's effort to get the Florida Legislature to enact a law that would have made it a felony -- carrying a five-year prison term and a $5 million fine -- for a pediatrician to ask an expecting mother if she owned a firearm or ammunition, or to include information about gun ownership in a child's medical record, that helps crystallize the NRA's total lack of coherence on the issue of government record-keeping. Hammer said this blunderbuss to the First Amendment -- a statute the NRA is now pressing in at least two other states --  was needed because doctors with an anti-gun "political agenda" had "invaded medical examination rooms." And, she told me, "A lot of people fear that once information about gun ownership gets into medical records, then it can be accessed by the government." Nevertheless, Hammer, who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon in Florida, says she has never heard a single objection to the state’s licensing law for concealed weapons and has no concern about the privacy of those government records. Why? Because, she says, "they're protected" and can only be disclosed with the license holder's permission or "in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation." (A law passed, but without criminal penalties to doctors; it's interpreted largely as a way of intimidating doctors.)

So, just to be clear, the scribblings of Florida's pediatricians pose a grave threat to gun owners and the Second Amendment, but detailed government files on gun owners carrying concealed weapons are no problem. That's the NRA's position.

Like Hammer, promoters of the Texas concealed carry law say they too have no problem with government record-keeping. Larry Arnold, who heads his state's Concealed Carry Association, told me he hasn't heard a single objection to the concealed carry licensing requirements from his members. Jerry Patterson, a former Texas state senator who wrote the state's concealed carry law, told me the NRA supported the proposal "all the way through" the Legislature and never objected to any of the licensing or record-keeping provisions.

So, why does the NRA allow its members to be subjected to fingerprinting and mug shots as if they were common criminals? Will concealed carry license holders be the first to have their guns confiscated when Obama comes for their guns, as LaPierre insists will happen if he wins a second term? Why should law-abiding citizens have to sit in stuffy classrooms and learn about gun safety when they don't need to know how to spell "cat" to keep a loaded gun on the nightstand? The NRA canon dictates that licensing laws won't work because criminals won't bother to apply for them. So why does it support licenses for concealed carry if they'll only hit law-abiding citizens?

Or, to turn all of this around, why not apply the concealed carry licensing requirements to all gun sales? If the NRA is willing to concede that states have the right to collect large amounts of personal data about gun owners to ensure that concealed weapon permits are not issued to felons, mental defectives, wife abusers and others the police determine should not be armed, why not apply that standard to all gun owners?  Concealed carry licensees, a small fraction of all gun owners, are treated differently only because they are given the right to take their guns outside their homes into public places. But even LaPierre would have to concede that plenty of people who own guns and don't have carry permits also take them out of their houses. Those people are called criminals. Why is the NRA so intent on granting them special privileges when they're the ones killing innocent people?

In 2008, LaPierre proclaimed: "There is no element in the poisonous alchemy of the globalist gun ban crowd more dangerous to American freedom than the twin evils of gun-owner licensing and firearm registration. Never forget that they exist only as precursors to gun confiscation." Nevertheless, as of 2011 Americans had registered 457,000 machine guns and 2.3 million other dangerous weapons and destructive devices -- including mines, bombs, missiles and grenades -- with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), the agency charged with enforcing federal gun laws, which also happens to be the NRA's No. 1 government boogeyman. Each owner of a machine gun or other dangerous device was subjected to an FBI background check, and each had to provide the BATF with the gun's serial number along with a mug shot and fingerprints. The NRA has supported registration of  machine guns by the federal government since 1934. It just doesn't advertise the fact.

Jeff Folloder, executive director of the National Firearms Act Trade and Collectors Association, says he has never heard a single complaint about these registration requirements or concern about government confiscation because machine-gun ownership records are "treated almost with reverence by the ATF," and with the same discretion as IRS tax records, making them nearly impossible to access, except for legitimate law enforcement investigations. Folloder says members of his group "tend to be the most law-abiding people" he's met.  "If these are the rules, those are the rules that will be followed."

So, if the federal government can be trusted to guard the privacy of hundreds of thousands of Americans who own these dangerous weapons, why is it a threat to owners of supposedly more benign weapons such as semi-automatic, military-style "assault" rifles -- like the one allegedly used by James Holmes in Aurora -- and .50 caliber rifles, which are capable of shooting down an airplane?

And if licensing is the existential threat LaPierre says it is, why did 15 million people purchase U.S. hunting licenses in 2009 alone, without an audible peep about Second Amendment rights or gun confiscation? Hunting license applicants must typically provide a Social Security number, home address and information about their race, weight, eye and hair color -- precisely the kind of identifying information a rogue government could use to track them down. Forty-nine states now require some sort of firearm safety instruction to obtain a hunting license. Nevertheless, Bill Brassard, director of communications for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers and the hunting industry, said he has never heard anyone raise a Second Amendment objection in connection with hunting licenses, because hunters understand that license fees finance wildlife conservation and help preserve a traditional form of recreation that millions of Americans care about passionately.  "For hunters, this has to be one of the least painful taxes they pay," Brassard said with a laugh.

Finally, there are more than 60,000 federally licensed firearms dealers in this country. All of them have their mug shots and fingerprints on file with ATF. They are the Greek chorus for the NRA's long-running gun confiscation drama and its anti-registration agenda. Yet they sheepishly renew their licenses every three years, plopping down a $90 tax. If these guys aren't worried about America becoming a police state, why should anyone else be?

In the end, despite their fear-mongering and bluster, even the fundamentalist guardians of the canon have come to (quietly) accept some licensing and registration, as do the overwhelming majority of Americans who don’t want to live in a country where there are no limits on when and where people can carry guns. True, the NRA's support is purely opportunistic. It couldn't get some of these concealed carry laws through state legislatures without the licensing requirements. But the general public is far more prescient. Americans support concealed carry licensing and machine-gun registration and hunting licenses because they understand that these laws are a matter of public safety. The only people threatened by these licensing and registration laws are criminals. And paranoids. But they would feel threatened anyway.

With its support for licensing and registration laws, the NRA has acknowledged that the emperor is naked, and that what it claims are the greatest threats to Second Amendment freedoms are really no threat at all. It's now time for the public to demand that their lawmakers repudiate the NRA when it tries to argue to the contrary, and that these lawmakers close the loopholes in existing licensing and registration laws, and get serious about laws that can more effectively deny guns to people who shouldn't have them. That may not stop the next Aurora, but it will save a lot of other lives.

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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Aurora Shooting Dark Knight Shooting Gun Control James Holmes Nra Wayne Lapierre