On Sunday, the National Rifle Association wrapped up its 136th annual convention in St. Louis. Sixty-thousand attended. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre fired up the crowd, telling them, "Today, there is not one firearm owner whose freedom is secure."
On Monday, one of those owners shot more than fifty students, staff and teachers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Thirty-two of them died, the worst such massacre in American history. So much for their freedom.
At that same St. Louis meeting -- amidst sessions on African big game hunting, "methods of concealed carry," and quick draw competitions -- Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, chillingly warned of an event remarkably like Monday's shootings. Warned, not because of the bloodshed or the anguish it would bring the bereaved families, but because such an incident would give gun control advocates "a green light to do it all," by which he meant, he said, "gun bans, gun registration, gun owner licensing, gun rationing, taxes and fees."
Cox callously declared that for those in favor of stricter gun laws such a tragedy would be "the Hail Mary of their playbook." Hours after his remarks, innocent victims lay dying, shot down by a maniac with a pair of handguns.
Frankly, I wish Cox were right about at least some of what he propagandizes as the vast power of the gun control lobby. How many times do mass killings such as what happened in Blacksburg, Virginia, have to occur before we get it through our thick, wired for the Stone Age skulls? For that matter, how many times do people have to write a column like this one decrying the insanity of gun violence in America?
And how many times do we have to put up with NRA bullies and loudmouths screaming about the right to bear arms? You can have your guns for hunting and collecting and skeet, trap and target practice. Hell, you can have a permit for a gun to protect your business or home, even though it's 22 times more likely to kill a member of your family than an intruder. But the rest?
Let's face it, the reality is that NRA officials have a much broader agenda than most of their four million members probably realize. At its root is opposition to government regulation of any kind. They mention the United Nations as an alien force almost as often as those black helicopter loons in Idaho. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton was even one of their convention's guest speakers, inveighing against the perfidy of international arms trafficking treaties.
Maybe here in New York City we're more hyper on the issue. Thirty years ago I had a handgun pointed at me during a robbery on a Manhattan cross street. It got my attention. And don't start with me, suggesting that if I'd had a gun I could have fought back. More likely, I'd be dead.
Friends have had similar close calls. And a month ago, just a few blocks from my apartment, two unarmed auxiliary policemen were gunned down by a lunatic not unlike Monday's campus killer.
As for Virginia, well, to modify their tourist slogan, the state is indeed for lovers -- of firearms. "Having a gun is not a liability in this state for a politician," George Mason University politics professor Mark Rozell explained to the Washington Post last month. This was after an aide to the state's new junior senator, Democrat James Webb, was arrested with a loaded handgun and ammunition, entering a US Senate office building. He said the gun belonged to Webb.
The senator is "clearly committed to the Second Amendment and has a gun close by when he is in Virginia," Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist Robert Holsworth told the Post. Senator Webb, a former Marine marksman, proudly showed off his carry permit during last year's election campaign and received an NRA approval grade of "A."
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gives Virginia a grade of C- on legislation preventing gun violence (New York State gets a B+, Mississippi an F). Virginia has no law requiring gun registration, although a permit is needed to carry a concealed weapon. If you buy firearms from a licensed dealer in Virginia, you have to pass a criminal background check, but there is no such rule for buying weapons from unlicensed dealers at gun shows, a loophole both congressional and state legislation aim to close (the bills are vehemently opposed by the NRA).
The Virginia Tech killings will be blamed on a variety of things, just as Columbine was. Regardless of the true motive, some will suggest that the shootings were an aberrant incident timed to mark the anniversary of Columbine, Waco, Oklahoma City -- even the 1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord and Hitler's birthday -- all of which took place at this time of the month. Or that if this young murderer is, as the Chicago Sun-Times was reporting Monday night, a Chinese national on a student visa and not an American, it somehow doesn't count.
Polling indicates that although a majority of Americans favor stricter gun control, they tend to blame such senseless massacres more on a poor family upbringing and the dark influence of popular culture than a lack of sensible gun laws. There's some truth to that, of course. The argument also will be made that regardless of the law, a lunatic or criminal can get hold of a gun.
Yet take a look at a study released last fall by Johns Hopkins' Center for Gun Policy and Research. In 1999, a gun store in the Milwaukee area was found to be the leading seller of guns in America that later turned up in the hands of criminals. The shop cleaned up its act, observed the laws and there was a 44 percent decrease in new guns going to local bad guys. According to Daniel Webster, the study's lead author, "Increased scrutiny of the few gun dealers linked to the most crime guns has the potential to significantly reduce the supply of new guns to criminals in many other US cities." (According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, one percent of licensed dealers are responsible for more than half the guns recovered from criminals.)
We have some 200 million, privately owned firearms in America, 65 million of which are handguns, the primary purpose of which is to threaten, hurt and kill people. Every year, there are 30,000 gun deaths and 300,000 gun-related assaults in this country. All of this violence costs America an estimated $100 billion a year. Toys are regulated with greater care and safety concerns.
Over the next days and weeks and months, there will be much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments but what will be done? If the past is any guide, the majority who favor stricter control will in all likelihood be shouted down by the vitriol, and the electoral and lobbying money power, of the well-armed few. Oh well, we all too probably will say. Until the next time. And the time after that. Unless we make a noise. Now.
Sadly, perhaps the person with the sanest, existential perspective on all this was Jamal Albarghouti, the Virginia Tech grad student who shot the cell phone video that has been seen on all the networks. What was he going to do next, an anchorwoman asked him. "Get on with my life. What else can I do?" he replied.
"Of course," he added, by way of an explanation, "I'm from the Middle East."
Michael Winship is a Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers.
Copyright 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers