There is, it seems, no saving the US from its epidemic of gun violence or from the influential lobby dedicated to preventing the passing of gun-control legislation that would help end it.
The gun rights group known as the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is by far America’s most powerful, most secretive and most controversial lobby, held its three-day annual convention this past weekend in Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana, where during the opening ceremony on Friday thousands of gun enthusiasts in attendance sang along to the saccharine-sweet lyrics of “God Bless the USA” that blared from the speakers in the convention hall.
Evidence of that group’s renown was made abundantly clear when former Donald Trump and former vice president Mike Pence appeared at the podium to deliver speeches supportive of the NRA’s agenda, while 2024 GOP hopefuls Florida governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and South Carolina Senator Tom Scott addressed the conventioneers by video.
In his introductory remarks, the NRA’s Chief Executive, Wayne LaPierre (whose annual salary of well over $1 million compares favourably with the $400,000 earned by a US president, the $298,000 earned by a Supreme Court justice and the $174,000 earned by a House/Senate member) warned that “gun-hating politicians should never go to sleep unafraid of what this association can do to their political careers”.
Then, after the loud cheers died down from the audience, he went on to say that the Second Amendment, which protects the right of ordinary citizens to keep and bear arms, was included in the Bill of Rights so that “from the day they are born” Americans will enjoy “their God-given right to carry guns”, a right, he added, that “cannot be infringed upon”.
In his video speech, DeSantis went even further, claiming that that right was “the foundation on which all other rights rest”, one that “gives Americans the ability to rule themselves”.
But make no mistake about it, when the NRA makes a claim, you pay attention.
Just as the indelible advertising slogan coined by the brokerage firm EF Hutton had it in the late 1970s and early 80s (“When EF Hutton talks, people listen”), so it is with the seemingly omnipotent NRA. When leaders of the National Rifle Association talk, warn or pledge, we stop and listen — to be sure, not as in the memorable commercial, where we see joggers halting in mid-stride, commuters on a train putting down their newspapers and dinner guests ceasing to pass the mashed potato plate, but certainly we stop and listen.
And we do so because the NRA is not your garden variety lobby. It is a national maker and shaker with enormous clout — and has been around long before your grand-grandfather and mine walked the earth.
The NRA, which today boasts of a membership that exceeds 5 million, is as old as baseball, founded as it was during Reconstruction, and like baseball its pull is woven into the fabric of the American psyche. And clearly it would not have acquired that clout were its aims not reflective of the seductive affaire de coeur that Americans have with their guns.
The disquieting fact is that a staggering number of Americans love to own guns — and to frequently use them to kill other Americans. And it is not altogether far-fetched to trace that sentiment, as some psycho-historians have done, to the Old West — often more appropriately called the Wild West — a time when the rule of the gun trumped the rule of law, when men would never have dreamed of riding the range without a gun and when these rugged folks lived, worked and socialised with guns held in holsters strapped around their hips.
It was also the time when President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) declared that the territorial expansion of that Wild West (“taming” it was the telling word used then) may have come at the cost of “the shedding of blood”, which was admittedly “not agreeable”, but the whole enterprise had been a “healthy sign of the virile strength” of the American people.
In our time, that “virile strength” continues to manifest itself in the form of massacres perpetrated with the regularity of a metronome at schools, churches, supermarkets, banks, shopping centers, offices, supermarkets and … well, name the place and it won’t be beyond a gunman’s choice of venue to perpetrate one.
We wonder, and we wonder some more, why gun violence has become a fact of life in America, why it has become an integral part of the country’s social archetype. And that it has indeed become so is evident: As many as 148 mass shootings have taken place across the US so far this year, a record not matched by any other country in the world.
We don’t know and maybe we will not know how to explain this fact.
In the introduction to his recently published book, The NRA: The Unauthorized History, my friend and colleague, the award-winning investigative journalist Frank Smyth, writes: “What that fact says about this country and what it means for the people who live in it — who each day go to schools and workplaces, who attend religious services and who go to shopping malls, restaurants, movie theatres and concerts with their families (places where deadly shootings have routinely taken place) are questions this book will attempt to illuminate but cannot answer”. Neither can this column.
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association, a quintessentially American non-profit organisation unequalled in its size, influence and prestige in the nation, indeed in the world, continues to nurture the Wild West fantasies of gun nuts around the country — not to mention the White House ambitions of GOP presidential hopefuls ready and willing to pander to it.
I for one see this as no less than the sharp diminution of the role that literate thought plays in American culture. For how else, pray tell, should one see it?
Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.