I wasn't going to write this column. There were many reasons not to. I'd already done a lot of reporting on a different topic, timely if less emotional. Besides, more than five years has passed since the gun debate "ended" after America chose to do nothing about the slaughter of 20 little kindergartners and first graders in Newtown, Conn., so what words were left for this? … A 19-year-old with an AR-15 semiautomatic shooting up the Florida high school he'd been kicked out of, snuffing out 17 mostly young lives. That "our remaining shreds of humanity compel us to beg them to do something about the very real terrorism of gun violence in this country"? That's what I wrote after a madman with no discernible motive murdered 58 outdoor concert-goers in Las Vegas. How'd that work out? People in America have lost faith in the notion that words and deeds are stronger than bullets. Mine has wavered.
But then Wednesday night I watched … scratch that, there was nothing to watch. Wednesday night, I read President Trump's hollow Twitter thoughts and Twitter prayers — and also read that the least empathetic president in American history had initially rejected the advice of his top aides that he speak to an emotionally fraught nation about what had just happened in Parkland, Fla., to at least attempt to share our grief.
The president did eventually turn up Thursday morning with teleprompter consolations and no mention of how a 19-year-old gets a semiautomatic rifle in America. Trump's initial "opting out" of his moral duty as president reminded me of the evil banality of saying nothing, and of the words that are attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., that "our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Do the families and the other mourning people of Parkland need time to heal before we can talk about how this happened and what needs to happen next? They didn't seem to think so; indeed, one thing that was both striking and sad about Wednesday's massacre was how little shock we now feel to learn that 17 kids and teachers have been gunned down in their classroom, and that the conversation so quickly turns to our utter frustration.
"We have trained for this," Mellisa Falkowski, the heroic teacher who shielded 19 kids in her classroom closet, told CNN on Wednesday night. "We've trained the kids what to do, and the frustration is that we did everything that we were supposed to do … and still have to have so many casualties. … It's very emotional." She then added: "I feel today like our government, our country, has failed us and failed our kids, and didn't keep us safe."
She's absolutely right. There were so many ways this 19-year-old killer could have been stopped, with stronger, saner policies that wouldn't have stripped anyone of cherished Second Amendment rights. The type of weapon that he used — the AR-15 semiautomatic, which has been used in most recent mass-casualty shootings — was, essentially (with loopholes that can be closed the next time around), banned in the United States as recently as the early 2000s. The gunman was able to legally purchase high-powered weapons despite documented treatment for mental health issues — and when he's not legally old enough to buy a can of beer. Trump, tweeting Thursday morning from his bathrobe or whatever, said Americans "[m]ust always report such instances to authorities, again and again!" — apparently unaware that the shooter's bizarre conduct had even been reported to the FBI and nothing happened.
I'm not going to go chapter and verse here about the small, medium, and big things our political leaders could do that wouldn't end gun violence in America but would at least reverse things, back toward the right direction — restoring (and improving) the assault-weapon ban that was in effect from 1994-2004, banning high-capacity magazines that are only really useful for mass murder, strengthening background checks, outlawing bump stocks, etc. There's no need to discuss these in detail because none of them will happen as long as our discourse about guns is held hostage by an organization that has metastasized from a special-interest group into a hate group with an agenda that is fundamentally anti-American. I'm talking, of course, about the National Rifle Association. The NRA.
It's sad, because — in a nation with a constitutional amendment that's been interpreted as guaranteeing gun ownership — we could use an advocacy group for responsible gun training and safety. The NRA started out as exactly that, and in 1968 — after guns were used to assassinate King and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy — the group endorsed legislation with the now politically incorrect goal of "gun control." But as the 1960s ended, the NRA joined the rest of America in going off the deep end — riding both the cultural backlash against liberals and the unfettered capitalism of highly profitable high-powered gun-makers to market a brand of fear and paranoia only loosely connected to the issues surrounding gun legislation that the organization now uniformly opposes.
That sounds extreme, but listen to the NRA's latest batch of hype videos, usually narrated by its right-wing mouthpiece Dana Loesch; one from last summer seems to incite violence against the left, proclaiming that "[t]he only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth."
In case you doubted whether the NRA has become an odious lifestyle brand, where stopping any and all gun legislation is just the loose justification for right-wing rebellion, listen to its boss, Wayne LaPierre, rail against what he calls "America's greatest domestic threats," which he describes as "academic elites, political elites, and media elites."What's that got to do with bump stocks? Not much, but the NRA does cash in on its popularity as a brand that drives liberals crazy — the exact same brand that propelled NRA supporter Trump all the way to the White House.
It's a bond that's increasingly sealed with money. The top gun lobby spent a whopping $30 million in untraceable "dark money" to drive Trump's narrow victory in 2016, and — in arguably the most 2018 thing ever — the FBI is reportedly probing if some or all of that $30 million came from Russian sources to evade U.S. scrutiny. It would make sense. With its contempt for a free press, academic liberty, and rational discourse, the NRA was already fighting to undermine American democracy even before Russia came along to help.
And now Trump is paying back the NRA with interest. His first favor to the gun lobby was signing a law overturning Obama-era regulations aimed at making it harder for people who are mentally ill to buy guns, the kind of situation that just played out in Florida with lethal consequences. His administration has massively defunded gun background checks. Indeed, as Trump was taking office, his people at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were working closely with an NRA lobbyist to craft a rollback of our already weak gun regulations.
No wonder Trump was so slow to anger his big-money sponsors by making a public condemnation of the mayhem in Florida. In the meantime, dozens of lawmakers — most but not all of them Republicans — raced to Twitter on Wednesday to hurriedly post their obligatory "thoughts and prayers," hopefully before anyone looked up their lengthy histories of accepting the NRA's blood money and cowering in fear from pro-gun lobbyists.
The biggest reason the NRA's insanity continues to flourish is because it's built up an air of invincibility. That happens when you win a lot, but there's no rational reason for this. Poll after poll has shown the American people — even Republicans and even the rank-and-file NRA members — support stronger background checks and other gun regulations that are opposed by the NRA leadership and its multimillionaire death merchants. The truth is that, when it comes to gun sanity, we outnumber them. And two things need to happen.
First, we need to acknowledge the NRA for what it really is: a hate group that uses its immoral tolerance for gun violence for profit and power. The result of that is a nation unlike any other in the world, where children go to school in the morning and there's no guarantee they'll return, living day-to-day in a climate of "shelter-in-place" fear. For the politicians and others who feed at this sordid trough, accepting the NRA's blood money and doing its bidding needs to be seen on the same moral level as an official who associates with, say, white supremacists. Indeed, as the corpses pile up, I believe a day will come — although I may not live to see it — when the pro-NRA politicians of today are seen by history with the same mix of curiosity and contempt that we view Washington's filibustering segregationists of the 1950s and '60s.
Which brings us to Step Two. You can end the NRA's reign of terror with one simple, powerful act. Vote. Vote as if your child's life depends on it — because it does — and vote the NRA and its handmaidens out of power. All it would take is one massive turnout this November to at least flip the U.S. House toward gun sanity. And what if a politician in your own party takes the NRA's tainted dough? Support his or her primary opponent who won't. What if there is no primary opponent? There's still time to circulate petitions and run yourself.
That's not pragmatic? Yes, both Democrats and Republicans have shown a "pragmatic" fear of the NRA at the polls, and too many rank-and-file voters have bought into this. Pragmatism has only gotten our kids killed. It's time for voters to be bold and courageous, and elect a brand-new Congress that will reflect the will of the people and not fight for the profits of gun manufacturers. America's children get this. They want to live. This is what Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student journalist David Hogg told reporters Thursday morning:
"Please, take action," David said. "Ideas are great. … But what's more important is actual action … saving thousands of children's lives. Please, take action." We grown-ups have let David and his generation down, terribly. But we can fix this, and the solution begins on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Meet me at the ballot box for the beginning of the end of a hate group called the National Rifle Association. This is a thing that matters.