After Aurora, Michael Tomasky on the Country the NRA Wants to See

Every time there’s a senseless shooting, politicians piously declare we should ensure it never happens again. But don’t bet on it. This is the shoot-‘em-up America we live in now.

If there’s one thing I hate hearing at times like this, it’s that violin-music language about how we must work to ensure that something like the Aurora shooting “never happens again.” I can understand why it makes people feel better in some way to say it. But really. Nonsense. We have no collective will in this country to make sure such a day never happens again. In fact, if anything, we are headed for a day when 20 percent of the people in a movie theater are armed themselves, and we have a good old shoot ’em up that would’ve made John Ford’s head spin but will make the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre’s heart soar like an eagle.

I’m not the stereotypical anti-gun liberal you probably think I am. Has something to do, I suppose, with growing up in West Virginia. I never hunted, but many of my friends did, and they weren’t nuts. They were . . . my friends. Further, I accept that guns have been a part of American life since the beginning—the first individual mandate after all, as liberals didn’t mind saying when seeking to defend the health-care law. I can understand (barely, but I can) how a person can love guns as I love guitars, which, if I had the money, I’d collect avidly.

But please. The idea that honest efforts to keep guns out of the hands of potential killers and mentally unstable people poses any rational threat to my friends or America’s hunters and collectors is completely preposterous. This is such a con. Rock-ribbed conservatives usually don’t show a great deal of sympathy for our country’s mentally ill, when the question involves social spending on their behalf; but by God try to deny them to right to bear arms, and watch how quickly and feverishly the right wing rallies to their side, linking arms as if the famous “slippery slope” would lead inevitably from the mentally ill to law-abiding citizens. (Technically, the mentally disturbed can’t buy guns, but as a practical matter, existing proscriptions are easily circumvented, as we learned with Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona).

It is of course LaPierre’s National Rifle Association that has hyped this slippery slope and made it so omnipresent in the minds of its members. Give him credit: Twenty or so years ago, the NRA was losing ground. At the time, when some nut shot up a post office or a McDonald’s, we actually had the conversations about gun laws we no longer bother with, and laws were passed like the 1994 assault weapons ban. Then the NRA got to work on three fronts. First, no accommodation or compromise. Second, it built an enviable track record of defeating incumbents who opposed it. And third, it developed an expert vocabulary for stoking gun-owners’ anxieties about liberals’ desire to take their guns, as we’ve seen recently in the Fast and Furious “controversy,” which gained traction on the right pretty much entirely because the NRA persuaded its partisans that the whole program was a stalking horse for a dark conspiracy to rid America of firearms.

The NRA victory was complete long before that, though. Democrats went gun-shy in the 2000s. By 2008, Barack Obama had little to say about gun control, even trying to disavow his signature on a 1996 document signed by some Illinois legislators backing a ban on all handguns. In 2009, there were 65 pro-gun Democrats on Capitol Hill. The lobby owns the GOP, well, lock, stock, and barrel.

The net effect is that we have laws no one wants—not cops, not the military, not even most gun owners themselves—except the NRA. Earlier this year, the Indiana state house passed—with NRA backing—a bill spelling out when citizens could kill police officers. Some prominent military leaders wanted military personnel to be able to discuss gun safety with troops as a way of trying to stem military suicides, many of which are committed with personally owned guns. The NRA was having none of it. Finally, as to gun owners, I will never forget the late 2009 poll—conducted by Frank Luntz, no less—that found that 69 percent of NRA members back closing the gun show loophole. That poll produced a series of fascinating findings that showed NRA members to be pretty reasonable people in private on the telephone. But alas, in the political arena, in Wayne they trust, I guess.

And so it’s no surprise that Mitt Romney (who once supported waiting periods and the assault weapons ban) and even Barack Obama produced mealy mouthed statements on Friday that didn’t even include the word “gun”. Many Democrats from urban districts will continue to oppose the NRA. But the party will continue to quake, shooting after shooting after shooting, bodies upon bodies upon bodies.

So this will happen again. And again, and again. In fact, as I said above, we are likely headed for a day in this country like the following. At a movie theater, in a mall, at a commuter rail platform, in a restaurant—some glory-seeker opens fire. Most people duck and scatter, but a decent percentage of them produce their pieces. The gunman goes down like Warren Beatty in Bonne and Clyde, but, since “most people” aren’t marksmen, maybe a few other people do too, and maybe, oh, a three year old. But hey. There’s always a spoilage factor. Rights are sacred. From their cold, dead hands. . . .