In 1974 I was a proud member of the NRA. I was 12 years old and a bit of a hyperactive kid. Strangely, lying prone and perfectly still on a canvass mat and feeling my own breath move in and out as I prepared to squeeze the trigger and fire a .22 rifle at a small circular target 50 feet away relaxed me and was as close as I would ever come to a state of meditation. On August 26th of that year I was awarded the National Rifle Association’s Marksman—First Class Award for proficiency.
Our instructor that summer was Boyd Bailey, a broad-shouldered, robust Penn State student and country boy who as a bunk counselor was probably the most tolerant of our occasional food fights and midnight panty raids but who was absolutely no-nonsense on the rifle range. We hit the mats, picked up our rifles, loaded and aimed at long intervals and only on command. There was not one false move during the entire summer of ’74, and if there had been we knew we were never coming back to the range. The potency of our rifles was ingrained in us, and we respected our instructor. To me, Boyd Bailey was the NRA.
The NRA at that time promoted gun safety and scientifically based training. There was no stigma attached to being a member, any more than there was a stigma attached to joining the Boy Scouts or the YMCA. I was not keenly aware when the very next year the NRA got into the business of bigtime pro-gun lobbying in Washington by founding the Institute for Legislative Action or that Harlon Carter began hijacking the organization and transforming it into a radical entity bent on proliferating every type of deadly weapon to every unstable individual in every corner of the United States ostensibly in the name of profits for a handful of gun manufacturers. That was the year I discovered the NFL and girls. But as the 70s wound down I became aware that some sort of paradigm shift had occurred and it wasn’t a good one.
Today, four decades and over a million American gun deaths later, we live in the end product of this grotesque metamorphosis. The internet warehouses several of my desperately sardonic editorials commemorating various landmark atrocities—Columbine, the lifting of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, Sandy Hook—each one marking in time and futility my growing older as the nation grows stupider and deadlier. There have been many atrocities since Sandy Hook but probably none so powerful in driving us to drink, bottomless despair, and the communal sense of being utterly beyond redemption.
The NRA is not winning the debate. There is no real debate. The NRA won the tournament itself many years ago with money, ruthless organization, bullying, and the average American’s sensitivity to being called a wimp. The current mortality rate and ongoing NRA agenda amount to little more than maintenance. We are what they want us to be—a nation of zombies living between massacres. We are well beyond thinking there is anything we can do to turn the tide. Instead, we have become experts at the drill—catch the carnage on one of the networks or news websites, share shock and grief with friends and loved ones, express gratitude that it wasn’t us, take it on the chin for politicizing the issue so soon after the tragedy, and go back to business as usual. That cycle used to be a week. Now it’s about a day. Eventually it will be an hour.
There is no logical limit to the NRA’s complete dominance on this issue. Did you know that a nuclear weapon is basically a gun? Yes, indeed. For instance, a uranium bullet is fired at a larger piece of uranium, with the containment of the impact causing an explosion of 50 megatons. Consider—if you take the right to bear nuclear weapons away from a three-year-old mentally ill convicted terrorist on the federal No Fly List, you are in essence trampling on everyone’s constitutional rights. That’s a very slippery slope. This is precisely the scenario that Jefferson and Madison were mulling over in 1787 when they wrote about “a well regulated militia.”
In 2017, any scant vestige of the once vigorous debate takes place entirely on the NRA’s home turf. That’s why moderate, rational people are gratified when the pathological juggernaut throws a bone by merely considering supporting a very limited ban on the bump stocks that helped enable the massacre in Las Vegas. Thank you sir, may I have another.
Being somewhat beaten into submission myself, I can’t say I have a specific winning strategy to offer. But I can suggest this much. The philosophical underpinning of the modern NRA is the notion that those who oppose them are weak, spineless dweebs. Including the now grown 12-year-old who got his Marksman—First Class Award back in the day. Including the boy’s father who served in the army in the 50s. Including nearly a dozen of his father’s cousins who faced fire in places like Omaha Beach and the Ardennes. These people, living or otherwise, lack some sort of heart and in effect turned against the United States the moment they stopped buying into our suicidal free-range gun culture.
Even as a frail, effeminate background check advocate, I am still capable of putting a bullet in Wayne LaPierre’s eye, especially lying down from 50 feet. But I know that will accomplish nothing beyond the sort of false martyrdom I despise. Instead, anyone who believes as I do that the NRA has, more than any other organization, been responsible for irredeemable harm to this nation must find a way to harness that rage productively. Everything short of violence is now fair game. Politically, the safety lock has to come off.
Rich Herschlag is well into his third decade as an author, consulting engineer, husband and father and is very tired.