In our already bullet-riddled society, this summer’s gun-down of Mrs. Martin Luther King, Sr., was more numbing than shocking. While it dramatized once more our need for gun legislation, the ritual responses to it were as rote as consoling words at the funeral of an aged cousin. Gun buffs once more fired off a round of dour warnings against hasty action, while newspaper editors resurrected their stock columns calling for gun control. So it goes. Thanks to the powerful opposition of the National Rifle Association, nothing will change. The tragic shooting of Louis Sisler, the association’s Washington lobbyist, a few weeks after Mrs. King’s assassination is a sad and ironic monument to the association’s obduracy.
In an article I wrote several months ago ( America, March 23, 1974), I flippantly commented that “next to the Mafia the National Rifle Association surely ranks as the most dangerously irresponsible organization in the country.” The statement drew sharp rebukes from outraged NRA members across the nation. They were right, of course; to level so serious a charge without further ado is sensationalist journalism. We need to look further into the kind of interest group the NRA exemplifies.
Many good things can be said for the association. Unlike the Mafia, it is aboveground and proudly legal. It encourages family life, outdoor recreation, conservation of endangered species and natural resources. It promotes sports and sportsmanship. It urges gun safety and pays its bills; and, while some may accuse it of paternalism, it recognizes a crack markswoman as quickly as her competitors do. Roughly 1 million citizens have joined the NRA’s ranks: and, if one may believe its projected image, they are primarily hardworking, law-abiding, taxpaying middle Americans. So far, so good.
The red flag which sends NRA leaders and members into rage is legal gun control. Here the image fades behind raw firepower. In its determination to kill all effective gun law, the NRA leadership, through the family mouthpiece, The American Rifleman, and such relatives as Gun Week, pursues the following irresponsible policies:
(1) The NRA paints a distorted picture of its opposition, labeling as “commies,” “pinkos” or leftists citizens who advocate federal or state gun legislation. In fact, most of those advocates are religious or political leaders, college professors, businessmen, housewives, farmers, factory hands: hardworking, law-abiding, taxpaying middle Americans. One belief they share is in the right not to be shot; another is in the need for a sane gun law to protect the common weal. For the NRA to call the Washington Post the “uptown edition of the Daily Worker” is cheap journalism, cute but vicious. The stance of the Daily Worker is irrelevant to the virtue of any position.
(2) The NRA deliberately confuses the issues. No serious attempt is being made by anyone to ban all guns, yet NRA literature crackles with salvos against gun-banners. “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” True enough, at least by definition. The objectives of the National Committee for a Responsible Firearms Policy, for example, are to limit gun sales and ownership to qualified citizens, to ban only the cheap “specials” and to identify the flow of ammunition. Senator Adlai Stevenson’s proposed amendment to the 1968 Gun Control Act would require every handgun to be registered and every handgun owner to obtain a federal license. It would ban only the cheap specials that are not fit instruments for sporting purposes or protection. Senator Edward Kennedy’s bill is more stringent; in addition to banning the specials, it would require all gun owners to register. Both bills make a careful and considered effort to protect the rights and privileges of sportsmen. To fight those efforts in terms of “banning” obscures the issues.
The NRA also blurs the meaning of “freedom.” At 5:45 A.M. on July 5, 1974, Dale A. Bennin walked into Kugler’s Sport Shop in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, bought a .38 caliber pistol and ammunition for it, and walked out. Within two hours he had killed his estranged wife and her parents. Then, cornered by police, he blew out his own brains. One would hate to limit Mr. Bennin’s freedom to buy a gun at any time, at any place and for any purpose — unless, of course, one also considers the right to life of the three victims. Registration, including a waiting period, will be no guarantee against such incidents, but it will allow time for passions to cool.
(3) The NRA twists the Constitution, specifically the Second Amendment (“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”). The overwhelming evidence as to the will, of the Founders, a common-sense reading of the words of the amendment and the consistent interpretation of the Supreme Court all indicate that this amendment refers to a well-regulated militia. It reflects the colonists’ fear of a central standing army, and the right it guarantees is a collective, not a personal, one. Gun owners, who are dispersed, leaderless, random and largely unwilling to be counted, are hardly the well-regulated militia which the amendment explicitly cites.
Even if the point is granted that the Second Amendment protects a personal right to bear arms, it must be recognized that no civil right is absolute. In fact, the “natural rights” that Madison and Jefferson were so concerned to put beyond the reach of government can be regulated, though not infringed. For example, no government can deny the right of its citizens to marry, but every state has certain marriage regulations: minimum age, one spouse at a time, opposite sex, blood test, a license.
A parallel can be found in a civil right as sacred as that of free speech, which cannot be infringed but does suffer some regulation: pornography, fighting words, and libel are not protected from state law by the First Amendment. Examples can be multiplied for every civil right. To claim that firearms alone are exempt from such regulation as might be judged necessary for the common good is to speak self-serving nonsense.
(4) The NRA exploits people’s fears. Communism serves the NRA well as resident bogy. Its scenarios of door-to-door battles between cowboys and commies not only prolong adolescent fantasies but betray a peculiar lack of confidence in the ability of the police, the press and the armed forces to meet any such threat.
The menace of criminals, likewise exploited, is as great as it is because criminals have ready access to guns — thanks to the NRA. Even so, the danger is highly overplayed. It has been estimated that the average citizen has an infinitesimal 1-in-40,000-per year chance of becoming involved in a felony resulting in death. Since burglars try to avoid their victims and robbers to surprise them, the value of guns as a deterrent is problematic.
Finally, the Hitler argument (“he began with gun control”) not only is historically inaccurate; it elicits real fear with a false metaphor. The United States of the 1970s is not Nazi Germany of the 1930s. The first line of defense against tyranny is free elections and a free press, not Saturday night specials. But when guns flood the country, the price of fancied foes is real danger: from accidents, from anger in moments of passion, from mental derangements, from muggings. Since failure to comply with the law is sufficient reason for corralling irresponsible citizens, gun registration would limit, not expand, the threat from lawless elements in society.
(5) The NRA misstates the problem. Its propagandists claim that the cause of random gun slayings is judicial softness toward criminals. In fact known criminals account for only a small percentage of gun murders and injuries. In 1972 there were some 18,520 murders. Of these, roughly 5,000 were committed by a stranger during the commission of a random crime; the others — over 70 per cent — resulted from spouses killing spouses, parents killing children or vice versa, lovers killing lovers, etc.
Further, a person becomes a criminal in the act of committing a crime. There is no infallible way to pick out such persons before they act. Even if there were, no person’s civil rights can be violated on the ground that he will probably commit a crime. Anyway, once a crime is committed it is too late for the victim. So blaming the criminal alone puts the problem on the real horns of a false dilemma.
An increasing percentage of gun crimes are committed by people with no previous police record and/or by the mentally deranged or the ideological fanatics. Dale A. Bennin had no record; upset by a faltering marriage, he became a criminal the first time he fired, at his wife’s father. Had he lived he could have been punished — much, to the consolation of the victims’ ghosts, no doubt. The problem is the utter availability and accessibility of guns to whomever, whenever. “Guns don’t kill people. People do!” the bumper stickers pontificate. The truth is that people use guns to kill people. One can run from a knife and duck a bottle. Bullets are forever.
(6) The NRA blocks any reasonable solution. With one of the most sophisticated and well-heeled lobbies in the country ($8 to $9 million annual budget), the NRA fiercely stymies all efforts by legislators to pass gun laws, even though the results of local attempts have shown beyond reasonable doubt that such laws can be effective. Direct NRA lobbying on both federal and state levels, active letter-writing by members and personal pressure on legislators have proved so effective that we can count on roughly 25,000 gun murders being committed this year. It has been estimated that gun crimes cost taxpayers over $10 billion a year. This does not include the private cost and anguish of accidents and suicides.
The National Rifle Association could use its tremendous wealth and power to promote realistic laws that all citizens, including sportsmen and those genuinely needing protection, could live with in much greater safety. It will not do so — and this is its crime against the nation.
Distortion, misstatement, exploitation, misrepresentation, equivocation, irresponsible use of power — this is “business as usual” for the National Rifle Association in its anti-gun-control campaign. Judged by its activity, it operates on the same principle as less reputable and less legal organizations: the principle that the end justifies the means. The NRA is not as unmitigatedly evil as the Mafia, but neither is it as patriotic as it supposes. If the members I know personally are representative, they are good people afflicted with a peculiar blindness.
The Mafia takes no responsibility for the deaths and ruined lives caused by its traffic in drugs. The NRA takes no responsibility for the deaths and injuries caused by the traffic in guns. The crime of the Mafia is single: evil people doing evil deeds; the crime of the NRA is twofold: good people having the power to do good deeds and refusing, and raising clouds of dust around a problem the nation desperately needs to see clearly. The National Rifle Association is Public Enemy No. 2.
by Paul J. Weber
Father Weber, S.J., teaches political science and constitutional law at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 16, 1974, pp. 958-960. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.