Banter With the Beast
Interview With NRA President David Keene
The head of the gun-rights organization defends assault weapons and says people shouldn’t overreact after Newtown.
Reviews of the National Rifle Association’s post–Sandy Hook press conference are still rolling in, but much of the initial reaction has amounted to the sort of brutal pan that would have closed a Broadway show on opening night.
“Insane paranoia” was how Gawker summed up NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre’s Friday morning performance at Washington’s Willard Hotel. The New York Daily News editorialized that LaPierre “will forever now be known as America’s maddest gunman.” USA Today, quoting residents of Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were massacred by a deranged young man wielding a semiautomatic Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, headlined its story: “Completely off the mark.” Even conservative pundit Erick Erickson, of the influential RedState blog, tweeted: “I’m not sure this presser was good in style a week after Newtown.”
An unmitigated PR disaster, right?
“I think it went pretty well,” NRA President David Keene told me.
It was nine hours after his fellow gun lobbyist variously blamed the carnage on Hollywood, the news media, pop music, “gun-free school zones,” and a generalized culture of violence—but not guns—while advocating armed security guards at every school in the nation.
“Certainly from our perspective, we had thousands of supportive calls at the office this afternoon,” Keene went on. “We’ve got thousands of retired police officers, veterans, and the like who were saying, ‘We’ll volunteer and do whatever we have to do” to make the NRA’s dream a reality.
“Coincidentally, I was in Israel [when Sandy Hook occurred on Dec. 14] where they’ve had a training program for school security guards for years,” Keene said. “Particularly in the 1970s, they had a whole spate of school mass shootings. Of course, their shooters were crazy in a different way than our people are—because they were Muslim terrorists. The Israelis decided that the only way to solve it was to put armed security guards in the schools, and they trained them privately in much the same way that the NRA trains people. And it ended the problem.”
Keene said the NRA would provide security training as a public service in the short term and leave it up to individual school districts on how, or even whether, to implement the program, which would be paid for out of state and federal funds. State and local control is preferable to federal administration “because like most federal programs, that would be too costly and wouldn’t work,” Keene said. “Each school district or each school administration or the parents or the teachers should say what we need to do to protect our kids. Some places, like in Texas, where they’ve got armed teachers—that’s their business. We’re not advocating that, but if you’re in a town where basically everybody is a gun person and trained, that’s fine.”
Keene pointed out that armed protection already exists in many of the nation’s nearly 100,000 public schools, in such places as Chicago and Fairfax County, Va. “It’s not like we have to invent the wheel all over again.”
But Keene was dismissive of California Sen. Barbara Boxer’s recent proposal to deploy the National Guard.
“That’s a little heavy-handed,” he said. “How do you handle schools so you don’t scare the crap out of the kids?…That will be really nice for kindergartners, having guys with machine guns wandering around the halls in camouflage.”
It’s a chilling prospect, to be sure. But Keene, who grew up in small-town Wisconsin, recalled the halcyon days “when we often brought our shotguns to school and went hunting afterwards. You got to take your gun on the plane and throw it in the overhead.”
Yet in recent years, for reasons Keene can’t fathom, there has been a proliferation of “lunatics” looking for a “moment of fame.” Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, and now Newtown make for a terrible history of violence.
“A lot of it is copycat stuff,” Keene said. “What’s happened over the last few years is these kinds of people target vulnerable audiences … The one thing that scientists say about these lunatics is that they plan these things. They sit and scheme.”
Unlike LaPierre—who has been largely inaccessible to a journalistic establishment he seems to view as The Enemy—the 67-year-old Keene has long been a genial fixture of the Washington media-political complex. A veteran of the Nixon White House (where he was an aide to Vice President Spiro Agnew) and countless Republican presidential campaigns, he was chairman of the American Conservative Union before his election, in February 2011, to the presidency of the NRA, an unpaid but high-profile position previously held by Charlton Heston.
Thus, the press-obliging Keene is the NRA’s good cop. He was notably apologetic Friday as he announced that LaPierre, the bad cop, wouldn’t be subjecting himself to reportorial grilling—sort of a shoot-first, take-questions-later approach. “Notice who had to go out there and say, ‘No questions.’ That would be me,” Keene told me with a sheepish laugh.
Yet Keene’s user-friendliness is not to be confused with squishy-softness. He promised that the NRA, which boasts more than 4 million members, will spare no effort to defeat President Obama’s push to reinstate the Federal Assault Weapons Ban—which was enacted under President Clinton in 1994 but allowed to expire 10 years later—or, for that matter, any attempt to legislate tightened background checks for gun-show shoppers or a ban on high-capacity magazines of the sort that Adam Lanza reportedly used at Sandy Hook. And while LaPierre advocated a national registry of the “mentally ill,” the NRA remains unalterably opposed to establishing a similar database of gun owners.
“Absolutely. We’ve always been opposed to that,” Keene said, but he noted that the NRA has supported the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System that requires gun stores, before selling a weapon, to consult a federal database of criminal records.
“We have been arguing since before the Virginia Tech incident … that people that are adjudicated to be mentally incompetent or mentally ill should be in a national firearms registry so that they can’t purchase a gun,” Keene said. “Not people that you and I think are nuts, but people that have been adjudicated that way.”
Keene breezily dismisses arguments that first-world nations such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan experience a tiny fraction the United States’ estimated 11,000 annual gun deaths because of their severe restrictions on firearms ownership.
“Japan is very homogeneous and has a very different culture than we do,” Keene argued. “The fact is that in the last couple of decades, as we’ve relaxed our gun laws, the murder rate has dropped. The relationship is not always what people think it is ... According to the FBI statistics in 2010, in this country more people were beaten to death than died as a result of being shot by any long-arm weapons—assault-like weapons or hunting weapons. If you’re dead, you’re dead. Statistics can tell you anything.”
Like LaPierre, Keene warned against imposing quick, simple solutions to solve a problem—i.e., the cause of mass shootings in schools, movie theaters, and other vulnerable public places—that is dizzyingly complex and difficult to define.
“You don’t want to overreact,” Keene said. “This is a country which likes its problems solved right away. Schools get shot up and everybody has their solution, and we often overreact. So you’ve got some people saying, ‘It’s the guns. Get rid of all guns.’ Or, institute a so-called assault weapons ban. Well, there is an assault weapons ban in Connecticut, and the gun that kid used is legal in Connecticut.”
Regarding the NRA’s opposition to additional background-check requirements at gun shows, Keene claimed that “98 percent of the guns are sold [at gun shows] by dealers, subject to the same background check.” He added with a laugh: “The only way a felon can buy a gun is if he’s working for the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency on the border”—a sarcastic reference to the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking scandal that has plagued the Obama Justice Department.
When I asked if the NRA hopes to have a voice in Vice President Biden’s gun-violence task force, which the president has charged with formulating proposals by January, Keene simply laughed. “I haven’t given it any thought, frankly,” he said.
Still, the NRA has come under severe attack in the past week, including “hundreds of death threats” directed at Keene personally, he told me. And several of the gun lobby’s longtime supporters—people such as Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida—are ready for more restrictive gun legislation.
But Keene insisted the NRA is as powerful as ever.
“We’ll see,” he said when I asked if the NRA is losing clout. “I don’t believe that at all … The NRA probably has more clout—that’s the wrong word. All we can do is speak for the people that are with us. The fact is, there is more interest in firearms today than there was five or 10 years ago.”