Looking for ways to explain America’s epidemic of mass shootings -- including Friday’s murder of 27 people, including 20 children, at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school – many pundits are blaming the country’s “culture of violence” and its preference for “protecting guns over children.” But the majority of Americans favor strict gun control laws. No, let's not burden Americans with collective guilt. The problem is more narrow -- and more fixable -- than that.
The U.S. leads the world in gun-related deaths primarily because of the political influence of the National Rifle Association and, in particular, Wayne LaPierre, who for the past 21 years has been the NRA's CEO and chief political strategist, orchestrating its opposition to any kind of gun control.
The blood of the victims of the Connecticut shooting is on LaPierre's hands. Of course, LaPierre didn't pull the trigger, but he's the NRA's hit man when it comes to intimidating elected officials.
Although LaPierre likes to portray the NRA as representing grassroots gun owners, the bulk of its money comes from gun manufacturers. LaPierre is a corporate lobbyist. He doesn’t speak for most gun owners, a majority of whom favor stricter gun laws, according to surveys.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011 there were 15,953 murders in the United States and 11,101 (30 a day) were caused by firearms. Suicides and unintentional shootings account for another 20,000 deaths by guns each year. Of course, many more people are injured—some seriously and permanently—by gun violence.
Most gun-related deaths are committed by people who purchase their weapons legally. Others purchase or steal them illegally, but their ability to get access to guns is due to our lax laws on gun ownership. LaPierre's job is to make it easier for people to buy and use guns. And so far he's been very successful. Since the 1994 assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn't enacted any major gun regulations.
LaPierre likes to fulminate about gun owners' rights. But so far he's has been silent about the nation's most recent gun massacre. LaPierre and the NRA are bullies and, like most bullies, they will cower if confronted. It is now time for an outraged and mobilized public to put pressure Congress and President Obama to put strong limits on guns and beat the NRA.
Adam Lanza—the 20-year old man who walked into the Connecticut school with two firearms (a Glock and a Sig Saurer) and had another gun (a 223 Bushmaster) in his car—is no doubt deranged. He's not alone. There are lots of crazy people around. But if we make it easy for them to obtain guns, they are more likely to translate their psychological problems into dangerous and deadly anti-social behavior.
The shooting in the Connecticut school was not an isolated incident. We've almost become used to a regular diet of gun-toting rampages. The most visible of them—like Columbine, the Virginia Tech killings, the murders in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater, and the Arizona shooting that nearly claimed the life of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and left six others dead—stick in our minds, but there are many others. It was only a matter of good luck that Buford Furrow – the mentally ill white supremicist who entered the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills in August 1999 and opened fire with a semiautomatic weapon, wounding five people – didn’t kill anyone.
The NRA has two knee-jerk responses to these and other gun massacres. The first is that the Second Amendment gives all Americans the right to possess guns of all kinds—not just hunting rifles but machine guns and semi-automatics. Efforts to restrict gun sales and ownership is, according to the NRA, an assault on our constitutional freedoms.
The second is the cliché that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." To the NRA, gun laws have nothing to do with the epidemic of gun-related killings.
Both of these arguments are bogus, but the NRA has the money and membership (4 million) to translate these idiot ideas into political clout to thwart even reasonable gun-control laws. The NRA not only lobbies on behalf of "stand your ground" laws, but also offers insurance to members to pay for the legal costs of shooting people in "self-defense." The NRA also defends the right of Americans to carry concealed weapons, including handguns.
It is no accident that the United States ranks first in the world—by a wide margin—in gun-related civilian deaths and injuries. Compared with every other democracy, we have the most guns per capita and the weakest gun laws. But the danger isn't simply the number of guns; it is the type of guns we allow people to legally purchase. Other countries permit hunting rifles. But many Americans believe it is their right to own an assault weapon.
Even in countries with strong gun-control laws, some people will get their hands on a weapon and destroy others' lives. The tragic killing in Norway last year is testament to this reality. (Although let's recall that Anders Breivik bought $550 worth of 30-round ammunition clips from an American gun supplier for the rifle he used to kill 69 Norwegian kids at a summer camp. Thanks to American laws, it was a legal online purchase.) But the shooting in Norway was an infrequent occurrence; it is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world. In contrast, the U.S. is off the charts in terms of murder rates. America's murder rate is more than eight times greater than Norway's.
The news media will spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to figure out what was in Adam Lanza's head before he put on his protective gear, carried two guns into the Connecticut school, and began his shooting rampage. Although the psychology and motives of the murderer may be fascinating, it should not be the major focus. There are plenty of deranged people in the world, but in most well-off countries they can't easily get their hands on a firearm.
Here's where the NRA comes in. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, the gun rights lobby, led by the NRA, has contributed $29.2 million to candidates for Congress and the White House, 87% of it to Republicans. In the most recent election cycle, gun rights groups donated $3.1 million to political candidates and spent another $5.5 million in lobbying.
In contrast, since 1990 gun control groups have donated only $1.9 million to politicians, 94% to Democrats. In the most recent election cycle, these groups contributed only $4,000 to candidates and spent only $420,00 on lobbying.
Of course, Democrats are not immune from the NRA's influence. This summer, 17 House Democrats recently voted in favor of criminal contempt for Attorney General Eric Holder for his oversight of 'Operation Fast and Furious'. Not surprisingly, each of them received campaign contributions from the NRA in the previous two election cycles.
At the top of the gun rights food-chain is the NRA's Wayne LaPierre. It is hard to know if he's mentally unstable but he's certainly crazy like a fox (and Fox News). Under LaPierre’s leadership, the NRA has aligned itself with the most reactionary forces in American politics. For example, LaPierre gave a speech earlier this year to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in which he said that President Obama was part of a "conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep."
LaPierre added: "All that first term, lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term." He also warned that everything that "gun owners across America have fought to achieve over the past three decades could be lost" if Obama won a second term.
Well, Obama did win a second term. In a statement soon after the Connecticut massacre, Obama called for "meaningful action" to curb gun violence. "Meaningful action" does not mean educating young people about bullying and violence. It does not mean instructing gun owners to be more responsible. It does not mean, as Mike Huckabee suggested on Friday, restoring God in our schools. It means pushing for strong gun control laws.
If Obama does take this kind of leadership, he will have the backing of an overwhelming proportion of Americans who support stricter guns laws. For example, 82% of Americans support limiting the sales of military-style assault weapons. Also, 87% of Americans support background checks on private sales of guns, including sales at gun shows. And 79% support requiring a police permit before the purchase of a gun. A majority of Americans oppose the NRA's top federal legislative priority—national reciprocity for concealed carry permits—which would allow people to enter any state with a concealed, loaded gun even if they fail to meet local permitting requirements. Not surprising, almost all (94%) police chiefs favor requiring criminal background checks for all handgun sales.
Every American grieves for the families and friends of the people killed and injured in the Connecticut shooting. But until we tame the power of the NRA, we can expect more killings like this, as well as the deadly daily diet of murders throughout America committed by angry and in some cases crazy gun-toting people whose "freedom" to own weapons of mass destruction that LaPierre and the NRA defends.
Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (2012, Nation Books).