Kids vs. guns: NRA is coming for the Parkland students, and America faces a choice

Parkland survivors and their allies have the gun lobby on the defensive — but the backlash will be severe

By Paul Rosenberg
Published February 25, 2018 12:00PM (EST)
 (Getty/Don Juan Moore)
(Getty/Don Juan Moore)

All these people should be at home grieving, but instead we are here, standing together, because if all our government and president can do is send "thoughts and prayers," then it's time for victims to be the change that we need to see.
— Emma Gonzalez

In her viral “We call BS” speech, Stoneman Douglas High shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez torched so many NRA straw men, it was inevitable they’d come gunning for her — and then try to steal her tagline, too. After all, the apologists for the gun lobby are thugs, pure and simple. But they’ve never had to deal with the likes of Gonzalez or her fellow Parkland students.

“The students at this school have been having debates on guns for what feels like our entire lives,” she said. “AP Gov had about three debates this year. Some discussions on the subject even occurred during the shooting while students were hiding in the closets.” They weren’t born ready for this fight — a fight for their very lives. But they are ready now — much more so than the lazy, dishonest, ill-informed politicians they’re up against.

“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS.” You get the feeling Gonzalez could have gone on all day. There’s certainly more than enough BS for her to keep calling out.

After the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012, the NRA went silent for a week. Its spokespeople stayed low-profile in the immediate wake of the Parkland massacre too. But Gonzalez and her fellow students could not simply be ignored or waited out. They were far too angry, articulate and savvy for that. So, the broader right-wing conspiracy-industrial complex stepped in, and more than compensated for the NRA’s initial silence. The next surprising thing that happened was how easily the Parkland students swept aside the first barrage of slanderous false claims launched against them.

Mocking the “crisis actor” conspiracy theory and all the supporting “evidence” for it, Gonzalez said, “I’m thankful that there are people out there finding my doppelgängers for me. I’ve always wanted to have a party with a room full of people who look like me.” Shades of "Orphan Black"!

Student journalist David Hogg, who was the prime target of those attacks, struck a more serious note on MSNBC’s "Andrea Mitchell Reports." “The only time you're ever [doing] anything that actually matters is when people try stopping you. And that's what's going on here,” Hogg said. “These people trying to stop us are actually helping us out at lot, because my Twitter following has tripled over the past, like, day, essentially, and I think that's in part because of these trolls. So for that I'm honestly kind of thankful.”

The resistance Parkland students and their allies have gotten so far is nothing compared to what’s to come, given who they’re up against. But the NRA has never faced anyone quite like them before, and it’s already starting to lose where it ultimately counts most — not in the bought-and-paid-for halls of Congress and state legislatures, but in the wider culture at large, where the Parkland students have started to awaken us from a decades-long nightmare. Citing "customer feedback," the First National Bank of Omaha announced it was cutting ties with the NRA, and wouldn't renew its NRA-branded Visa credit card line after the current contract expires. Three car-rental companies have followed suit. That's just the tip of the iceberg of the growing #BoycottNRA movement.

“They won't be able to ignore us when they don't get re-elected,” Hogg said, and there are growing signs he might be right — such as the sympathy walkouts spreading nationwide — as well as existing signs that have too long been ignored.

The Overlooked Mainstream: Overlooked No More

For example, during CNN’s Town Hall, Aaron Rupar‏, reporting for Think Progress, tweeted“Rubio scores an own goal when he says the assault weapons ban ‘would literally ban every semi-automatic rifle that's sold in America’ and the crowd erupts in cheers.” Rubio himself later tweeted, “Banning all semi-auto weapons may have been popular with the audience at #CNNTownHall, but it is a position well outside the mainstream.”

Rubio couldn’t have been more mistaken, no matter how many pundits might agree. While some recent polls show support and opposition for such a ban fairly evenly balanced, others show solid majority support. None show it outside the mainstream. A Quinnipiac University poll, released the day before the Town Hall, found 67 percent support for an assault weapons ban, with 29 percent opposed, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll (taken Feb. 15-18) found a ban favored by 50 to 46 percent.

In the last large batch of polls on the question — from mid-June through early-July 2016, the results of eight polls showed an average in favor 53.9-30.1, a solid 13+ point margin. If anyone’s edging out of the mainstream, it’s opponents of an assault weapons ban, including the politicians like Rubio who are tied to the purse strings. Parkland students are giving voice to a silent majority that is silent no more.

Sandwiched between Rupar’s reporting and Rubio’s retort was an intermediate tweet in which the National Review’s David French retweeted Rupar, adding, “That’s not an own goal, it’s an image that millions upon millions of law-abiding gun-owners will see and rightly react against. Those are cheers for the revocation of a civil liberty that’s essential to our constitutional republic.”

Perhaps French and the NRA desperately want or need Americans to equate reasonable gun ownership with the unregulated right to own unlimited amounts of assault weapons. But the courts don't agree, even in light of the 2008 Heller decision, the first and only Supreme Court decision in more than 200 years to find an individual right to gun ownership in the Constitution. Almost exactly a year ago, in Kolbe v. Hogan, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that assault weapons aren’t protected by the Second Amendment, drawing directly on Heller’s language.

The banned assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are among those arms that are "like" "M-16 rifles" — "weapons that are most useful in military service" — which the Heller Court singled out as being beyond the Second Amendment’s reach. See 554 U.S. at 627 (rejecting the notion that the Second Amendment safeguards "M-16 rifles and the like"). Put simply, we have no power to extend Second Amendment protection to the weapons of war that the Heller decision explicitly excluded from such coverage.

Equally striking was an impassioned concurrence by Judge Harvey Wilkinson that anticipated precisely what we’re witnessing today, thanks the Parkland students — empowering voters to make decisions on appropriate gun regulations. “To say in the wake of so many mass shootings in so many localities across this country that the people themselves are now to be rendered newly powerless, that all they can do is stand by and watch as federal courts design their destiny -- this would deliver a body blow to democracy as we have known it since the very founding of this nation,” he wrote.

Asymmetric Politics: Gun Owners for Gun Control

As I’ve discussed many times, American politics is profoundly asymmetrical, and the politics of guns is no exception. Ask broad philosophical questions — gun control vs. gun rights — and the NRA sounds mainstream. But dig down into specific policy ideas, and it’s suddenly on the extreme fringe, badly out of step even with its own membership.

Parkland’s #NeverAgain activists know it. “To those following our message, please remember the difference between the NRA as an organization and the members of the NRA,” Cameron Kasky tweeted. “The vast majority of NRA members are decent people. Patriots. Our issue is not with them individually.”

But it helps to explore this disconnect, not just recognize it. As I wrote after Sandy Hook, the NRA was once interested in protecting gun rights in the same way that the AAA was interested in protecting rights to travel: It supported safety measures and sensible public policy based on actual pragmatic experience. This changed in 1977, with an ideological leadership coup, but as I noted, “the NRA's membership remains supportive of a wide range of sensible, AAA-style measures for gun safety which the NRA violently opposes. This was clearly demonstrated in a 2009 poll, sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and conducted by conservative pollster and message-meister Frank Luntz.”

In a follow-up, I even proposed “The gun-owners' Gun Safety Act of 2013.” With Barack Obama facing a hostile GOP Congress, I suggested he should “limit his proposed set of actions to those supported by a majority of gun-owners themselves. This would position him to be as open to responsible conservative thinking as he always wants to be, while cutting out both the congressional Republican leadership and the NRA, which are only interested in making trouble for him.”

Of course that suggestion was ignored. But the measures are all out there. I identified three categories to include. Here I will just focus on the cream of the crop: measures that have supermajority support among gun owners. 

  1. Requiring gun owners to alert police if their guns are lost or stolen (94 percent support among all adults and gun-owners).
  2. Fixing the gaps in government databases that are meant to prevent the mentally ill, drug abusers and others from buying guns (90 percent among all adults and gun-owners).
  3. Requiring federal agencies to share information about suspected dangerous persons or terrorists, in order to prevent them from buying guns (91 percent among all adults and 93 percent among gun-owners). 
  4. Fully funding the enforcement of the law Congress passed after the Virginia Tech massacre to prevent people with a history of mental illness from buying guns (89 percent among all adults and gun-owners).
  5. Require all gun-buyers at gun shows to pass a criminal background check (89 percent among all adults and 85 percent among gun-owners).
  6. Prohibiting people on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns (88 percent among all adults and gun-owners).
  7. Fully enforce gun laws currently on the books (83 percent among all adults and gun-owners).
  8. Tracking bulk purchases of assault rifles, which have become the weapon of choice of Mexican drug cartels (81 percent among all adults and 80 percent among gun-owners). 

Focusing on issues like these, it’s clearly possible to create a broad consensus on gun policy, and by implementing them and tracking the results, to lay the groundwork for building a stronger foundation over time. This is what a bottom-up, fact-based approach to gun policy might look like.

The NRA Fantasy: Mass Murder Weapons as Positive Good

But that’s the last thing the NRA or the gun lobby wants. They are interested only in waging a culture war, framing issues in sweeping, polarized ideological terms that make finding common ground extremely difficult, particularly since they claim that any measure, however sensible it might seem, is really intended to just be the first step to total gun confiscation and then tyranny.

The gun lobby also tries claim that it alone cares about gun victims. "The elites don't care, not one whit, about America's school system and schoolchildren," NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, a multi-millionaire, told the CPAC crowd last Thursday. "They want to sweep right under the carpet the failure of school security, the failure of family, the failure of America's mental health system, and even the unbelievable failure of the FBI.”

There is an underlying logic here, as Josh Marshall explained brilliantly in an article titled “Gun Rights, ‘Positive Good’ and the Evolution of Mutually Assured Massacre.” As Marshall — who has a Ph.D. in history — explained, the idea of arming teachers as a “solution” to school massacres “has become a commonplace response from ‘gun rights’ advocates,” despite the absence of any evidence or expert support for it. “They have a whole storyline about how making schools ‘gun free zones’ encourages school massacres,” which derives from some shoddy pseudo-science produced by John Lott in the 1990s, purporting to prove that more guns produced less violence. So guns are a “positive good,” which don’t have to be apologized for in any way, even when they result in mass murder. The resulting logic is that any problem involving guns has a simple solution: more guns!

As Marshall suggests, the best way to understand this is the parallel with pre-Civil War arguments for slavery. “In the first decades of American history, there were many slaves and many slaveholders. But there were very few defenders of slavery per se. Virtually all respectable Southerners understood slavery as an evil,” which was rationalized one way or another until the threat of abolition started to become real in the 1830s and '40s. “This spurred a basic rethinking of the matter for a simple reason based on human nature: no one wants to go into a critical argument with the basic assumption that you’re actually wrong. This was the spur for the so-called ‘positive good’ theory of pro-slavery politics,” the idea that “slavery was not only a good thing but the only foundation of a just society.”

If that sounds similar to the idea that the Second Amendment is the foundation of all freedom, congratulations! You win a free course at Trump University! In fact, as I wrote in another post-Sandy Hook piece — “Locke and unload: Why the NRA doesn't understand rights” — John Locke’s argument, in his "Second Treatise on Government," directly contradicts the NRA’s logic. It’s the very inability of guns (or any other individual means) to secure our freedom that establishes the foundation for our civil government: “Guns are but a means to the end of security (setting aside their non-controversial use in hunting), and a clearly deficient one at that, which is why Locke argues that we have governments.”

The development of this "positive good" ideology was inevitable, Marshall says. “People can’t go to literal or figurative war with an ambivalent commitment," he writes. "The need for a positive defense of slavery was critical,” and the same need led to Lott’s work in the post-Columbine era. The more extreme and horrific gun violence became, the more necessary it was to have a belief system where guns are seen as beneficial, no matter what. After all, Marshall notes:

[A]s long as you recognize the basic reality that guns are dangerous, fighting even the most minimal kinds of restrictions is inherently difficult. You need to change the game. You need a theory that is coherent and in line with your goal. Lott’s theory created a logic for that. The problem with massacres isn’t too many guns. It’s too few guns. Guns aren’t the problem. They’re the answer. It was the NRA’s ‘positive good’ argument, comparable to the one pro-slavery intellectuals devised in the 1850s. It’s the origin of virtually every argument the NRA makes today, from arming teachers to the "good guy with a gun" to the need for permissive concealed carry nationwide.

One indication of how central this logic is can be seen in a debunking of 10 pro-gun myths published by Mother Jones in January 2013, shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre. The debunkings are bullet point-style, linked to a wide range of supporting empirical evidence. Not a lot of storytelling, just the cold hard facts. Of the 10 myths, half were clear examples of the underlying premise that guns represent a positive good — that carrying a gun or having one in your home makes you safer (it doesn’t), that guns make women safer (they don’t), that a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun (it’s never happened in a mass shooting), and that “an armed society is a polite society" (to the contrary, gun-toters tend to be more aggressive and get into more fights). Another myth sought to deny the harmfulness of guns by blaming video games for gun violence (the case of Japan alone refutes this claim).

No doubt a more thorough investigation could go further to prove Marshall’s point. Or you can just turn on Fox News and watch the supporting evidence roll in, in real time.  

This is the ultimate problem the Parkland students and their allies have to face, and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The need for a “positive good” theory can produce an endless stream of possible theories, extensions and elaborations, as well as an almost endless enemies list, taking note of anyone who gets in the way. The Parkland students have already gotten their first taste of that, and they’re bound to have much more in the days ahead. Their best strategy will simply be to outflank it, which is what they’ve done masterfully so far. What I mean by that is that you define the battlefield, and don't let your adversaries do so. You may never convince a hard core of true believers, but you simply don’t have to.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel hit the nail on the head toward the very end of the CNN Town Hall, when he said, "There's only one way to make America safe. What you're going to have to do — as I said [to] this young generation, we didn't get it done, but you will get it done: Vote in people who feel the same way you do."

In the end, it really is just that simple.

Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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