‘We have to break through that wall’: inside America’s battle for gun control
A new documentary undermines the National Rifle Association’s myths of gun control as antithetical to American values and traces the movement to loosen its grip
The modern iteration of the National Rifle Association as a political force opposed to any measure of gun safety was familiar to Fred Guttenberg even before his 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed along with 16 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February 2018.
The group’s response to Parkland was the same as after 26 people, including 20 children, were killed at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, the same as after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, after Sutherland Springs, after Pulse Nightclub, amid gun violence that claims 100 lives a day in the US: the only solution to gun violence is more guns, everywhere. Or, to quote the NRA’s longtime executive vice-president, Wayne LaPierre, following Sandy Hook: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The day after his daughter was killed, a distraught Guttenberg attempted to put words to the unfathomable at a vigil. “My job is to protect my children,” he said, voice cracking, “and I sent my kid to school,” where Jaime was supposed to be safe. When he returned home, the first thing Guttenberg said to friends and family was “I’m going to break the fucking gun lobby,” he told the Guardian. “Because I knew the NRA and I knew their influence.”
The Price of Freedom, a new documentary on the history of the NRA and the toll of its mythology, reveals, in meticulous detail, the artifice and apparatus behind that influence. The searing 95-minute film, directed by Judd Ehrlich, surveys the National Rifle Association’s evolution from its founding as a hunting sports’ club in 1871 to the most powerful gun lobbyist group in the country – an insular and dogmatic organization, ruthless in its politicization of gun ownership and unyielding in its fantasy of guns as central to American identity. The NRA’s figuring of gun culture as synonymous with Founding Fathers patriotism, and safety measures as antithetical to America’s founding principles, has “become so saturated into the American populace”, Ehrlich told the Guardian. “And we have to understand that if we want to combat that.”
It wasn’t always this way; as the film explains, gun control is as much a part of America’s founding as the second amendment. Delaware banned firearms at election sites in 1776, for example; Louisiana prohibited concealed carry of firearms in 1813. The NRA’s deification of the cowboy figure – the lone ranger striding in with a gun to save the day, embodied by the former western star Ronald Reagan, the first president endorsed by the NRA – is a fantasy of vigilante lawlessness. States across the country had, by the late 1800s, adopted gun safety measures that seem like political fantasies in 2021: regulation of gunpowder (Texas, 1839), compulsory registration of weapons (Illinois, 1885), bans on ownership for “dangerous persons” (Kansas, 1868), prohibition of firearms in churches and schools (Arizona, 1889).
With the input of historians and journalists who have covered the NRA for years, The Price of Freedom traces the metastasis of the NRA’s absolutist rhetoric into legislation that has contributed to an epidemic of gun violence in the US far greater than any other developed nation. The film focuses on a little-known but extremely consequential leadership coup in 1977, when former president Harlon Carter, who changed the spelling of his name to evade attention for a murder committed when he was 17, ousted most of the organization’s leadership at its annual convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. Carter, who held a sweeping and ravenous view of the second amendment, shifted the NRA’s focus from hunting sports and environmental conservation – the group supported the Gun Control Act of 1968 – to political lobbying for gun rights, and positioned the NRA as a PR-savvy organization ready to amass power at moments of fear or unrest.
“When you look at all those things and you think, what if this powerful organization had gone in a different direction, it’s hard not to conclude that we would be at a very different place in terms of how we talk about guns in this country,” said Ehrlich. Take, for instance, the proliferation of so-called Stand Your Ground laws, which essentially allow citizens to shoot to kill at their own discretion – a convenient loophole for racial bias, among many disastrous outcomes. The Price of Freedom draws a straight line from the politicization of gun ownership as a natural, fundamental right – at least for white people, as the NRA had no issue limiting the second amendment when it was the Black Panthers accessing guns – to video of Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager from Illinois, patrolling the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, in with an AR-15 in August 2020, acting as a vigilante unimpeded by police, even after he shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters. Guttenberg taped his interview for the film during the early afternoon of 6 January, as an armed mob of Trump supporters stormed the nation’s Capitol.
Guttenberg, who channeled his grief into activism for gun safety and the marginalization of the NRA, has been vocal about cracking its stranglehold on the status quo of no action in Washington. “One of the brilliant things the NRA did was create this environment where as a country, we believe gun safety legislation can never pass through Washington DC – this country can’t do it,” he said. Guttenberg is one of several figures in the film whose advocacy for commonsense gun safety legislation is rooted in losses to gun violence, including Representative Lucy McBath, whose 17-year-old son was shot by a white man after an argument over loud music; X Gonzalez, a founder of the March for Our Lives movement; and Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman from Arizona shot in the head during a meeting with constituents in 2011.
“We have to break through that wall,” Guttenberg said, pointing to the confirmation of David Chipman to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the first permanent director since 2015, and legislation for background checks as immediate priorities under the Biden administration’s push for gun reform. “And once you do, and let’s do it with background checks, then it’s no longer a matter of whether or not you can or can’t, it’s about what’s possible. Listen, after my daughter was killed, we did what seemed impossible – we got gun safety legislation passed in Florida. So it is no longer about not being able to do it, it’s about what more can we do.”
The Price of Freedom points to the aftermath of Parkland as a turning point for the NRA – the March for Our Lives movement sparked a strong public and corporate backlash to the group; the 2018 midterm elections brought candidates who ran on gun reform, including McBath and Crow, to Washington. Under public pressure, companies such as Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling semi-automatic rifles and prohibited all sales to customers under age 21. The NRA faces financial crisis, internal revolt and potential dissolution after an investigation by the New York attorney general’s office revealed corruption and fiscal malfeasance by its leadership, particularly LaPierre.
Whether or not the organization continues on, the NRA’s cultivation of an entire community and identity around an extreme view of the second amendment will probably outlive it, casting a long shadow over American life. But Guttenberg echoed several figures in the film with an eye on changing what can seem impossibly entrenched. “I have no choice but to remain hopeful and optimistic,” he said. “And when I go across the country and meet people in every community, even the communities where people say, ‘ah, that’s a gun community,’ everywhere I go, people actually believe that we can do more.
“I don’t hate the second amendment – that’s always been the big lie. I hate gun violence,” said Guttenberg. “So my hope is all based in the idea that everyone else hates gun violence, too. And if we can agree on that, then let’s fix this together.”
The Price of Freedom is now out in US cinemas with a UK date to be announced