Over the weekend, the National Rifle Association held its annual convention, this time in Atlanta. On Friday President Donald Trump spoke to the convention delegates, the first time a sitting president has done so since Ronald Reagan was in the office. On Saturday civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, who represents much of Atlanta in Congress, attended a protest demanding stricter, not looser, gun safety regulations.
The contrast is a stark one. Inside the convention was a man who won by running the most overtly racist presidential campaign since 1968, when George Wallace's blunt racism failed to beat Richard Nixon's more coded form of bigotry. Outside, a civil rights icon rallied the progressive resistance. While race was rarely mentioned explicitly, the entire spectacle helped expose how much racism and white identity politics are fueling both the Trump presidency and the fetishization of gun violence that the NRA represents.
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Atlanta is a city, after all, that Trump has previously characterized with race-baiting language. In January Trump accused Atlanta of "falling apart" and being "crime infested," characterizations that stem more from the racist fantasies of the 70-year-old Fox News aficionado than from any objective measure of reality.
That Trump would give the NRA such a bear hug is no surprise, and not just because the group spent a whopping $30 million on the Trump campaign alone in 2016. The race-baiting rhetoric that propelled Trump to electoral victory owes a lot to the same coded terminology that the NRA has used for years in order to sell guns to paranoid white people.
In 2013 Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA, published a hysterical column in the Daily Caller warning readers of "looters" who "ran wild in south Brooklyn" after Hurricane Sandy and alleging that "Latin American drug gangs" were turning the states along the Mexican border into wastelands destroyed by "cartel violence." It was nonsense, of course, especially considering that cities like El Paso, Texas; Phoenix and San Diego are among the safest in the country and that New York police reported that crime was down 25 percent in the week after the hurricane.
LaPierre has also promoted the racist myth of the "knockout game," an urban legend about young black men punching random people for no good reason. At the NRA's 2015 meeting, LaPierre openly called for a return to a white male president, declaring that "eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough."
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Trump's NRA speech was perfectly crafted to the audience of racist paranoids before him. He decried the "eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms" under President Barack Obama. He highlighted, to big cheers, his appointment to attorney general of Jeff Sessions — a man deemed too racist to be a federal judge in the 1980s. He painted the same bleak picture that the NRA pushes of a country supposedly under attack by "criminal gangs and cartels" and promised to build his border wall, "no matter how low or high the number gets." Trump also described gun safety advocates as people who want to "ban" guns, apparently for no other purpose than to leave white conservatives helpless before the imaginary hordes of black and brown people who are out to get them.
“We’re not against the Second Amendment," said Lucy McBath, the faith and outreach leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, part of Everytown for Gun Safety, which sponsored Saturday's rally. "We’re not against people being able to have a gun and to use them properly, but we do have an element of individuals in the country that we have to address: domestic abusers, the severely mentally ill and violent criminals. We want to make sure we’re keeping guns out of those individuals’ hands.”
McBath knows firsthand the damage wrought by racially loaded rhetoric that encourages anxious white people to fear black people — and assuage those fears by arming themselves. In 2013 her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was shot to death by a 45-year-old white man Michael Dunn, who disapproved of Davis and his teenage friends playing rap music loudly in their car. In taped jail conversations between Dunn and his then-fiancee Rhonda Rouer — which were released in the documentary "3-1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets"— Dunn can be heard ranting about "gangster culture." His letters sent to family members and his girlfriend from jail reiterated his racist views about the "ghetto talking thug ‘culture’" and said the "more time I am exposed to these people, the more prejudiced against them I become."
"Bottom line, this is about making sure our children and our communities are safe frrom the extremist agenda of the NRA gun lobby," McBath said during our phone conversation. “More and more people continue to die, like my child, under watered-down laws such as ‘stand your ground.’”
Despite the very real human cost of the racist fearmongering the NRA engages in, the group shows no signs of toning down its rhetoric. On the contrary, it is doubling down — and not just by hosting the most overtly bigoted president in recent memory.
As Media Matters reported on Thursday, the NRA just hired right-wing pundit Bill Whittle as a commentator for its NRATV network. Whittle is a huge proponent of the discredited theory, made famous by Charles Murray's book "The Bell Curve," that links IQ to race and suggests that higher poverty rates among black people result from their supposed genetic inferiority.
On his show, Whittle said, "In terms of like really rigid poverty, it's not that we have a money problem; we have a cognitive problem." He went on to explain that, in his opinion, Australian aboriginal people do not have the cognitive capacity to host a radio show program as white men can do — an assertion that a quick Google search will show is untrue.
This embrace of racism could be genuine or it could be a cynical cash grab, but either way, it's profitable for the gun industry. In November, researchers Alexandra Filindra and Noah J. Kaplan published a paper in the journal Political Behavior demonstrating that white resentment decreases support for gun control.
Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post interviewed Filindra in April, and her comments were illuminating:
In the mind of this type of gun owner, "I am showing my white nationalist pride in a sort of generic way through gun ownership," Filindra posits. "This is my way of expressing my 'more-equal-than-others' status in a society where egalitarianism is the norm. I can’t say that some people are better and some are worse in terms of racial groups. But I can show it symbolically. I can show I'm a better citizen."
The NRA figured out a long time ago that frightened white people buy more guns. The group's messaging and cozy relationship to Trump makes that clear. But it's being met with resistance from protesters who are calling for smarter gun laws and for the NRA to stop peddling its radical agenda.
“For us, it’s just about making sure everyone can live in this country freely, without the fear of being hurt, gunned down or maimed," McBath said.