IT'S TIME for America to wake up to a new reality - that for more than a generation, a radical fringe group has held sway over the nation's politics.
We're talking about a cadre that traffics in conspiracy theories as loony as many militias or "Patriot" groups, accusing the president of planning to grant himself dictatorial powers while embracing "black helicopter"-style tropes about the United Nations. It's a posse that's clashed with America's police chiefs over public safety while thwarting all efforts to eliminate weapons that are good only for committing mass murder.
This is not about the millions of responsible American gun owners - folks who overwhelmingly support reasonable steps toward preventing violence.
No, this is about the leadership of the National Rifle Association - a group that has veered far from its 20th-century origins as a sensible gun-safety group. And it's about their funders - merchants of death who've learned that paranoia can be profitable - and a handful of radical foot soldiers who pretend to speak for all.
The horrific mass murder that took place Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School should make America finally think differently about the NRA and any role it plays in the national conversation.
The NRA must be marginalized, pushed to the far fringes for promoting hysteria and enabling violence, drowned out by the voices of the majority of Americans who desperately desire gun sanity.
Candlelight vigils after all-too frequent mass killings are just the first baby step of a thousand-mile journey. This must be a radical movement. Politicians must be made ashamed to take the NRA's money and do its bidding. Cities that agree to host its convention should be embarrassed, not honored.
It must be made shameful to have your name linked to the NRA. That's radical. But that's what it will take to get sane gun laws.
Most people don't know the history of the NRA - that it was long a group that supported firearms training and sensible regulations, including the gun-control laws enacted in 1934 and 1968. But in 1977, its leadership was hijacked by radicals, and it has since moved toward the far-right fringe, often engaging in paranoid and apocalyptic fearmongering in the spirit of the John Birch Society or, more recently, Glenn Beck.
"With four more years of Obama, your firearms freedoms are gone," NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre wrote in October. "And we'll spend the rest of our lives mourning the freedoms we've lost . . . Every freedom we cherish as Americans is endangered by Obama. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The truth is that since taking office, the only gun bill that Obama signed allows people to pack heat in national parks. Meanwhile, NRA-fueled fear has driven gun and ammo sales to new highs, with gun merchants plunging some of those profits into campaign cash and lobbying that dwarfs spending by pro-gun-control groups by 10-to-1.
Political extremism has led to extreme inaction on everything from hollow-point "cop-killer" bullets to background checks on purchasers at gun shows. A cowed Congress wouldn't address even high-capacity magazines after an assassin used one to wound their colleague, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and kill six others.
The irony is that the leadership of the NRA has grown so out-there that it no longer represents its own members. Some 74 percent of NRA members said they support background checks for all weapons purchases, for example - and that was before Newtown.
Still, restoring gun sanity will be hard work, and time-consuming. When the NRA gets its most fanatical 60,000 to show up in Houston in May for its convention, the no-longer-silent majority should circle the building with 70,000. But will they?
Personally, I think change would look like the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, brave young men and women who took the matter of desegregating interstate buses into their own hands, risking life and limb - and winning. Real social change comes only through courage, and never from compromise.
In a new century, who will be the Freedom Riders of gun sanity?