Viewpoint: Changes in the politics of guns

By Mary Holway

The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 by Civil War veterans in an effort to improve the abilities of union soldiers. Over the years that followed, the mission of the association had nothing whatsoever to do with the Second Amendment and the right of Americans to bear arms. Contrary to present times, the NRA of the past lobbied for sensible gun control and responded positively to changes in laws that prohibited the open carrying of firearms in public areas.

In 1934 and again in 1938, in response to the dangerous era of the mafia, Congress enacted the National Firearms Acts which prohibited machine guns (“tommy guns”) and silencers, as well as tightening registration and license requirements for gun ownership. Those and other safety restrictions were sustained for over 30 years with the support of the NRA. Following the assassination of JFK and a rise in shootings during the ‘60s, bans were issued by the Congress on mail-order gun purchases and on military-style semiautomatic firearms. From 1994 to 2004, those restrictions remained in place, resulting in a decrease in gun violence. Sensible reactive controls on guns drew the support of both the Reagan administration and the NRA.

In recent years, one by one, state by state, the laws limiting gun use and sales have been discarded. The ban on assault weapons, expired in 2004, has not been renewed. Since that time, gun violence in our communities has escalated. The horrific massacres involving military assault weapons have risen to a level of intolerance. Today, there are more guns in our country than there are people, and America has taken its rightful place as far and away the greatest offender of gun violence in the world.

What happened? Why the reversal in support of gun control on the part of both the NRA and Congress? There are two occurrences in today’s politics and social culture that may be contributing to America’s change in attitude toward guns and in the unwillingness and inability of Congress to act on reasonable gun control measures.

First is money. Clearly, the money that is attached to the NRA gun lobby (and to our election process) knows no bounds. With more and more money at its disposal, the NRA has taken on a more ardent role as one of the most influential donors present in our election process today. New and more hardline leadership has emerged as the organization has changed. Today, the NRA places tremendous political pressure onto the Republican Party and therefore onto conservative platform and policy. In order to keep politicians in line with the contemporary goals of the NRA, the organization exercises a policy of grading politicians from A to F and contributing campaign funding accordingly. Today’s NRA has come a long way from its original goal of helping American citizenry become more proficient gun owners. It has instead become a huge political machine for the profitable manufacturing and sale of guns and ammunition.

Secondly, the political viewpoint of many Americans has evolved and morphed into an aggressive antigovernment view of Washington and of its neglect to protect the safety and well-being of the average citizen. With the rise of the Tea Party and political conspiracy theory, more and more Americans believe that there is a “deep state” at work subversively in America whose mission it is to destroy freedom and democracy. The NRA lends its support to this and other conspiracy theories by fostering the notion that gun restriction and excessive regulation place gun owners on a slippery slope of gun confiscation by the government. As the fear in “deep state” theory rises, so do the sales of guns.

With the overwhelming response to the most recent school shooting in Florida, it appears, hopefully, that change could be on the way. The March for Our Lives movement includes not only large crowds of weary American people, but angry crowds of American voters as well. Based on our past, Americans are aware of how slow change can be. They’re aware that when one door is opened, another can be shut in response. But at least the young people in our country who will have to live (and die) according to the changes we make in our culture are speaking out. And their voices are loud and clear.

Given the power of the NRA and the partisan and polarized times in which we live, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to move gun reform legislation (or any legislation) through the system any time soon. Even as the protesters were marching across the country for stricter gun control, the NRA held its own banquet in Florida, where it continued to tell worried gun owners that the liberals are manipulating our kids and that the goal of the Democrats is to make it illegal to own guns in America.

It will be an arduous task to convince gun owners and enthusiasts of the Second Amendment that gun restrictions and reforms will not infringe on their right to own guns. While Republican lawmakers may agree to some extensions to background checks and age limits on purchasing semiautomatic guns, etc., they are not likely to support any meaningful and comprehensive gun reform laws unless and until they are voted out of office.

Enough really is enough. The government isn’t coming to collect all our guns, but a mentally troubled person may be coming for our kids with an assault weapon.

At some point, for the life of us, we will have to ask ourselves, who is crazier, the mentally disturbed people who continue to shoot up our kids in their schools, or a society that allows them to buy an AR-15 to do so.

Mary Holway is a writer and retired social worker. She lives in Southwest Harbor.

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