Guns, the NRA and the Obama Opposition
by Leonard Zeskind
Guns, ammo and paraphernalia were bought and sold like baseball trading cards at sixty-one gun shows in twenty-seven states during the ten days between August 14 and August 23. Certainly, there are still sportsmen at these gun shows who use their rifles for hunting game and their pistols for target shooting competitions. A few collectors remain, who display antique weapons in the same way as their cousins might collect stamps, particularly at the smaller weekend events. Nevertheless, as anyone who has been around these shows long enough to remember the time when mahogany exhibits of Civil War muskets were the rule and not the exception, the larger expos have changed. Fewer deer rifles and more assault-style guns are sold each year. Hunter orange has been replaced by camouflage fatigues. Preparing for societal collapse has taken precedent over cleaning and oiling up your 30-06 bolt action Springfield.
This transformation of the gun show business reached its apotheosis in the 1990s, when restless young men like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh traveled these circuits like itinerant preachers looking for new souls to save. Even today, vigilantes such as the anti-immigrant Minutemen and the re-emergent militia groups search for recruits among the mountains of lead bullets and brass shells available at these shows. There is one organization that stands above all others, however, in its ability to channel the raw anxiety, fear, and anger of these gunners into money and political power: the National Rifle Association (NRA). And it has used both, largely in the service of an ultra-conservative agenda.
The NRA’s annual convention usually show cases both its ability to draw the largest group of gun enthusiasts as well as to draw as many as possible to into its troubling political web. Last May in Phoenix, for example, a total of 64,329 people visited the NRA’s Exhibit Hall. By personal experience I can attest to the fact that everything from the latest styles in backpack-holsters to black powder reload equipment has been available at these expos in past years. In Phoenix some 6,000 also attended the banquet dinner and listened to Oliver North and 20/20 host John Stossel. (At the 2008 banquet, TV and radio talker Glenn Beck gave the keynote address.)
The board of directors elected this year included names from the conservative and Republican stable of leaders, including American Conservative Union boss David A. Keene, now the organization’s first vice president; Larry Craig, disgraced former senator from Idaho; the infamous Bob Barr from Georgia; Robert K. Brown, publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine, Ollie North and a host of other similarly styled luminaries. They are joined by an occasional anomalous figure such as Harvard-trained attorney Sandra Froman.
Gun and ammo industry leaders are also on the board, and as Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center has repeatedly pointed out, there are numerous instances when the NRA protects the business interests of the firearms manufacturers over the rights of its own members. For example, it pushed for legislation limiting the liability of gun makers when they were sued for producing defective weapons that injured their users. The organization also opposed putting traceable tags in black powder, putting the gun lobby on the opposite side of the fence from federal and state law enforcement–agencies that it pretends to support.
In the 2008 election cycle, the NRA’s Political Victory Fund PAC spent $17,938,707 in independent expenditures—money not directly given to candidates, but used to support campaigns and issues through mass mailings and advertisements of every kind. It gave a little over a million dollars directly to federal candidates, and 78% of that went to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Highest on their list for attack was Barack Obama, now characterized by the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action as “our greatest danger.”
The Political Victory Fund PAC is already extremely active in the 2010 election cycle. As of June 30 this year it has received over $5 million in new contributions, and spent almost $900,000, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Among the many state and federal candidates it has already made direct contributions to 33 of the 93 members of the nativist House Immigration Reform Caucus. NRA also gave money this year to Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner (Rep.), not a member of the caucus, but an advocate of draconian anti-immigrant legislation nevertheless. (His bill failed to pass in 2005.) These funds are of particular note because early financial support is often the hallmark of a winning candidate–and the NRA knows this well. And the candidates are sure to show their appreciation. In addition to opposing Obama by giving money to his Republican opponents, the NRA mobilized as many resources as it could to oppose the Judge Sonia Sotomayor elevation to the Supreme Court.
The broad culture war politic of the gun lobby is best summed up in a recent pamphlet entitled, “Freedom in Peril.” The enemies list here includes: “the gun-ban bankrollers,” exemplified by the “Hungarian-born” George Soros; “the gang of opportunists,” meaning liberals and Democrats all; “the one-word extremists,” you guessed it the United Nations; the “animal-rights terrorists;” and the “illegal alien gangs.” The NRA concludes that “Second Amendment freedom stands naked in the path of a marching axis of adversaries far darker and dangerous…” You get the picture.
One would never guess that gun rights are now fairly anchored in American life. The Supreme Court recently held (for the first time ever) that the Second Amendment includes a right to the individual ownership of guns. Nor would you understand that it is recently passed state-level legislation backed by the NRA that allows those anti-Obama protestors to carry guns at public events.
Not all gunners are convinced by the NRA’s racist fantasy politics. Some understand the ultra-conservative politicking, and they oppose it. This fall, when deer season comes to Missouri, a small group of trade unionists, farmers and friends will gather in the north central part of the state to hunt and then clean and package their collective catch. These are pale-skinned men and women, angry at the government’s continued inability to serve the interest of ordinary working and poor people like themselves. Significantly, not one of them will be a National Rifle Association member.
Leonard Zeskind is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, and president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights. He blogs at www.LeonardZeskind.com