April 8, 2013

Maine Voices: Lawmakers must face down NRA, stand up for sensible gun controls

Though the National Rifle Association has strayed far from its roots, the rest of us don't need to follow.

By James H. Maier

- SCARBOROUGH - A relatively recent scholarly book about the history of the gun control controversy should be required reading for legislators and anyone else who values facts over strident opinion.

"Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America," by Adam Winkler (Norton, 2011), offers some thought-provoking revelations about the National Rifle Association as background to a dramatic description of District of Columbia v. Heller, the landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision affirming the Second Amendment right of citizens to possess firearms.

"Historically the leadership of the NRA was more open-minded about gun control than someone familiar with the modern NRA might imagine," the author says.

For example, the organization supported the first significant legislation adopted by a Congress responding at a national level to the carnage in the 1920s and '30s unleashed by gangsters with submachine guns.

The National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 called for heavy taxes on some types of firearms, requirements for some gun owners to register their weapons, and the creation of a licensing system for gun dealers selling across state lines.

When the NRA was founded in 1871, its focus was on marksmanship and rifle-shooting competitions. And for decades, a majority of NRA members embraced the focus on hunting and recreational shooting.

However, in 1977, a dissident faction, which favored a strong emphasis on using guns for self-defense in response to rising crime rates, staged a coup within NRA leadership. It brought to power individuals with paranoid fears about the government taking all guns out of the hands of U.S. citizens.

This legacy has only become more irrational and rigid with time, as the public and Vice President Joe Biden's task force are discovering. Public safety proposals being debated by the task force are dismissed as a cynical exploitation of recent mass shootings to further a secret agenda of confiscation of all privately owned weapons.

NRA leaders, including CEO Wayne LaPierre, speak of the "jack-booted thugs" of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (whose regulatory function has already been crippled by years of NRA legislative attacks) or even "blue-helmeted U.N. troops" seizing all guns in private hands.

In light of the Supreme Court's majority opinion cited above, which was actually written by conservative pro-gun Justice Antonin Scalia, such groundless fears fail the straight-face test.

The radical positions of today's NRA -- an egregious example is a campaign to block passage of a ban on so-called "cop-killer" armor-piercing bullets -- have alienated the NRA from the national police organizations which were once allies, observes author Winkler.

And increasingly, NRA leaders' "slippery slope" arguments to justify opposition to any and all common-sense gun control measures -- such as background checks and sales of guns to minors -- erodes their credibility in the court of public opinion.

Polls show that the majority of thoughtful sportsmen and gun owners clearly recognize the need for balance between individual rights and public safety.

It is significant, author Winkler feels, that the wording of Scalia's 2008 majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller makes reference to the need for some "reasonable gun control measures" in addition to its language protecting private firearm ownership.

State and national lawmakers are now struggling to undo the costly political damage to the Republican Party from tea party extremism. NRA members should recognize and push back against their own organization's dangerous sidetrack into paranoid rigidity and irrationality.

But since major funding for the NRA is now coming primarily from weapons manufacturers, which are profiting handsomely from inflammatory messages that "more and more powerful guns are needed," the NRA is not running out of money to fund legions of lobbyists and media "spin doctors."

Hopefully the NRA's intimidating influence in Congress will, and should, continue to erode as each needless gun death strengthens public demand for reasonable gun control measures.

When standing up to the bullying of the far-right "gun nuts" means being threatened with less lucrative political contributions, or predictably dire threats to candidates' chances for re-election, our legislators need to believe that their courage and common sense will be widely recognized and supported at the polls.

James H. Maier is a resident of Scarborough.

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