NRA's silence on police violence is deafening — its members’ attacks on Black victims are worse

The NRA claims it's the oldest "civil rights organization" in the U.S. But it doesn't want to defend Black lives

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published July 9, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Wayne LaPierre (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump and Wayne LaPierre (Getty Images/Salon)

The National Rifle Association has been conspicuously silent on police violence amid weeks of nationwide demonstrations, despite calling itself the "America's longest-standing civil rights organization."

The NRA's leaders and social media accounts have made no mention of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, the protests, or the police violence against peaceful protesters.

"The NRA loves to talk about liberty, self-defense, and resisting 'tyranny,' but their actions suggest that they believe these concerns apply only to white people," Kelly Sampson, the constitutional litigation and racial justice counsel at Brady: United Against Gun Violence, said in a statement to Salon. "When armed vigilantes and law enforcement infringe on Black and brown Americans' civil rights — the NRA is silent."

This is nothing new. Despite NRA chief Wayne LaPierre's famous warning of "jack-booted government thugs" who want to "take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us," the group said nothing when Louisville police broke into Breonna Taylor's apartment and fatally shot her in bed after her boyfriend, a legal gun owner, fired a warning shot to prevent what he thought was a home invasion. It similarly stayed silent on the killing of Botham Jean, who was killed when an off-duty police officer mistook his apartment for her own, other than to suggest he might still be alive if he had been armed himself.

Despite LaPierre's warning that "if you have a badge, you have the government's go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens," the group has stayed silent as federal, state and local authorities led an unprecedented and violent crackdown against peaceful protests against police brutality.

Despite the group's claim to defend legal gun owners, the NRA stayed silent when Philando Castile, a legal gun owner, was shot to death by police in Minnesota, before using his death to sell its ill-fated Carry Guard "murder insurance."

"Wayne LaPierre and his acolytes long ago embraced an alt-right version of America where more guns is the answer to every societal challenge, unless of course it is Black Americans with the guns," said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords, the anti-gun-violence group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz.

The NRA's silence dates back years. The group said nothing when John Crawford was shot by police in Ohio while holding a pellet gun, nor when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police in Cleveland while holding a BB gun. It stayed silent when Jason Washington, a Navy veteran, was killed after he tried to pick up a licensed handgun that he had dropped on the ground.

The NRA made no mention of Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr., a Black man shot three times in the back by police while carrying a legally-owned gun. The NRA was likewise silent on the police killing of Atatiana Jefferson, a Black woman shot inside her home through a window while holding a legally-owned gun. The group said nothing of the police killing of Harith Augustus, who was killed by Chicago police while legally carrying a concealed gun.

Though the NRA defended George Zimmerman's right to stand his ground after the killing of Trayvon Martin, the group had nothing to say after Siwatu-Salama Ra, a pregnant Black gun owner, was sentenced to two years in prison for defending her mother and two-year-old daughter from a woman who tried to ram them with her car.

Not only has the country's self-proclaimed oldest "civil rights organization" remained on the sidelines amid a mass outcry over police abuses, but many of its prominent officials, board members, spokespeople and members have also attacked Black victims of police violence and protesters calling for reform.

"The NRA uses rhetoric steeped in racism. You only have to look at their Twitter feed to see this," Sampson told Salon. "On June 2, the NRA tweeted about apparent looting in Minneapolis and about reports that Black residents were purchasing firearms, calling the Second Amendment a 'great equalizer.' But the feed made no mention of the violence perpetrated against protesters or against Black Americans across the country. The NRA has used this tactic for decades and has created a culture of fear and paranoia that not only ignores the suffering of people of color but also actively threatens them. We see this in the NRA's unremitting defense of Stand Your Ground laws, which are proven to be more likely to be used to justify the murder of a Black man by a white man."

NRA board member Dean Cain, the actor who played Superman in the TV series "Lois & Clark," shared a video on Twitter that called protesters "rioting thugs."

"You do not have a right to be offended by stereotypes that say Black people are inherently violent, when that is exactly the way you act when given the first opportunity," Cain's video informed viewers. "Your conduct is trash ... I have a right to call you out for the warped, hateful, animalistic, shameful, thuggish, self-serving, rabid, counterproductive hypocrites that you are."

Cain also argued that the officers involved in Rayshard Brooks' killing in Atlanta were "unlawfully charged" and shared a tweet complaining that the treatment of Minneapolis police after Floyd's murder was "shameful" and "unfair."

Guy Phillips, an NRA member and a city councilman in Scottsdale, Arizona, mockingly said "I can't breathe," the words spoke by Floyd before he died weeks earlier, to refer to his opposition to face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic.

NRA board member and former Georgia Republican congressman Bob Barr argued that the "riots" had "nothing to do with the death of George Floyd," insisting that if they did, protesters "would have backed down as soon as the indictment of former police officer Derek Chauvin was announced."

Barr said he didn't sympathize with protesters because they were not themselves "victims of individual or group injustice of the sort that befell Floyd" and argued that antifa activists had "hijacked the George Floyd murder … for purposes having nothing whatsoever to do with seeking justice for his death."

President Trump and other conservatives have pushed the discredited claim that antifa was responsible for violence around the protests, but federal and local charges show no signs of any antifa involvement.

Barr penned another op-ed suggesting that Black Lives Matter was a front group for Marxism that has "little, if anything, to do with racial justice."

The protests, he argued on Twitter, are "nothing more than finding an excuse for stealing and vandalism."

NRA board member Allen West, a former Florida congressman, responded to questions about how to prevent killings like Floyd's from happening by suggesting that the military should be sent in to suppress Black Lives Matter protesters and antifa, labeling them "enemies" of America.

West argued that Black Lives Matter was "no different" from the Nazi "Brown Shirts that used to roam the streets."

"I'm tired of this Black Lives Matter organization. They don't care about Black lives," West claimed.

NRA board member Mark Geist called Black Lives Matter a "rancid evil trying to take over our country."

NRA board member Ted Nugent has long been one of the most avowed opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement, comparing it to ISIS and comparing Minneapolis to the war zone in Iraq.

Nugent's social media posts have complained that Black Americans have never said "thank you" to white people for, as he put it, freeing them from slavery. He has falsely disputed that Black people are disproportionately shot by police and has defended Confederate monuments.

"The NRA claims to be a 'civil rights' organization, but their officials have spent the last month defending Confederate monuments while comparing the Black Lives Matter movement to the Nazi Party and ISIS," John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement to Salon. "That tells you everything you need to know about whose 'civil rights' the NRA really cares about."

"The National Rifle Association of today is a hollowed-out, paranoid and extremist version of the organization that once wielded so much power in Washington. Racism is business as usual for NRA leaders, who no longer speak for the majority of responsible gun owners," added Ambler. "Their extreme agenda is out of step with the mainstream and is fueling their descent into irrelevance."  

The NRA did not respond to questions from Salon. The organization's recent comments show that the NRA has largely stuck with the same talking points it had after past police shootings, even as public opinion has dramatically shifted. A New York Times analysis found that Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement by a 28-point margin. A Pew poll found that the majority of every racial and ethnic group supports the Black Lives Matter movement.

But the NRA has continued to recycle years-old talking points.

Nugent said last year that Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teenager gunned down by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in 2014, was no better than "mass shooters and criminal thugs." Former NRATV host and spokeswoman Dana Loesch suggested that Castile was not, in fact, a legal gun owner because he was carrying marijuana "simultaneously," while fellow host Grant Stinchfield suggested that Castile was a "gun-toting thug."

Colion Noir, another former NRATV host, wrote an op-ed last year downplaying the role race plays in police shootings.

"I know that's not a popular thing to say as a black man in today's political climate, but that's why these cases are such a big deal when they do occur. And even then, the motivations behind the shootings are never clear-cut — at least not clear-cut enough to say that a cop shot a black guy with a gun just because he was a black guy with a gun, and not for some other reason, justified or not," he wrote. "However, I know one thing is for sure: It has never been safer to be black and armed in this country than it is right now."

Loesch has similarly argued that "there is absolutely no statistics, no evidence at all that support the premise that there is this open warfare by cops on black Americans. There's nothing to support this."

There is in fact ample evidence to support this.

Going back even further in history, the NRA actively supported gun control measures — when they were intended to disarm Black people.

The group supported the 1967 Mulford Act in California, a law aimed at disarming Black Americans amid the rise of the Black Panther Party. The group also supported the repeal of California's open carry law after Black Panthers members b began carrying rifles in public, disconcerting then-governor Ronald Reagan.

"The police kiIIings of legally armed Black citizens, and the refusal of leading gun-rights proponents to sincerely defend the victims, raises the same troubling question that both Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panther Party also confronted when they tried to exercise their rights to bear arms: In practice, do Second Amendment rights protect only white gun owners?" the Milwaukee Independent asked in 2018.

The NAACP called out the NRA over its silence after the killings of legal Black gun owners after Bradford's death.

"The silence from the NRA has confirmed that the 2nd amendment does not apply to legally licensed Black gun owners," the organization said in a statement. "Instead of standing by their principles, the NRA continues to demonize and alienate people of color who are gunned down and blamed for exercising their right to own and brandish firearms. This narrative is just as old and tired as this organization and it's time for them to stop this hypocrisy and finally come to terms with this racist rhetoric. The target on the backs of Black and brown lives is getting larger and unlike the NRA, we will do all we can to stop this."

Sampson argued that the NRA stays silent on racist violence because "advocating for Black Americans' safety does not sell guns."

"The truth is that the NRA peddles paranoia to fuel gun sales: the notion is, its members are constantly under threat from a dangerous world of 'others' and from politicians, then prescribes guns as the only solution," she said. "Aside from occasionally tokenizing Black people who espouse the NRA's dangerous, false, dog-whistle talking points, the NRA doesn't bother."

If the NRA truly stood up for constitutional rights for Black people, it would not have stayed on the sidelines after Castile was gunned down, Sampson said.

"While the NRA continues to tout guns as effective self-defense, we marked the fourth anniversary of Philando Castile's murder on July 6. Castile, murdered in his car by police, was the sort of lawfully armed citizen the NRA would ordinarily praise, but he was also Black,"  she said. "So rather than focusing on how the police infringed on his life and liberty, the NRA instead emphasized that one of the officers smelled marijuana. To be clear, drug use does not excuse murder. The NRA has likewise been silent on the murders of Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, both killed by police this year. The NRA claims that it supports 'life and liberty,' but clearly only for some."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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