We are being cautioned, mostly by those with an ulterior motive, that this is a time to mourn, not the time to talk about gun control. Thank God this morning no one seemed to be listening. Both of the news programs I watched were all over the subject. Being MSNBC, participants were pretty squarely in the pro-gun control camp but I am quite sure an equally impassioned counter-discussion was going on at Fox.
So this morning I heard that 2012 may see the highest casualty rate from mass shootings ever. News people brought up events that either I had never heard about – a nightclub shooting in Houston for example – or that I had forgotten, perhaps as a result of the subsequent directive to mourn rather than discuss or act. I also heard, though I didn’t need reminding that this was the second mass shooting in less than a week.
I also learned that there are some 277 million guns in this country of 300 million people. Interestingly only 47 percent of us own guns, a number that is declining in every demographic. This means that more and more guns are becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer owners. People collect guns, fair enough. People also assemble arsenals.
And I heard about a poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz last July that found 70 to 74 percent of National Rifle Association (NRA) member favor one of several types of gun restrictions presented to them. These included a minimum age for ownership, background checks, and outlawing guns for some categories of Americans, i.e. persons with a history of mental illness or persons on the terrorist list, a restriction incidentally that the NRA has strongly opposed.
I have written in this space before about the thrall under which the NRA holds both our politicians and our national dialogue and how hopeless we seem to feel about breaking through it. But the Luntz survey makes one thing crystal clear; there is a soft underbelly to the NRA.
First, NRA is clearly not representing the majority views of its individual members but rather of the gun manufacturing sector of their membership. This is the case even though NRA’s reported $200 million annual budget comes in large measure from some four million members, mostly casual gun owners who enjoy hunting, target shooting, or just collecting guns.
The Association is pretty secretive (and has recently been accused of inflating its membership numbers significantly) but a quick calculation comes up with income of $140 million per year from individual membership fees. The balance of their budget may be from sales of the impressive selection of Second Amendment bumper stickers and hunting caps it stocks, proceeds from its periodic fund raising scare tactics (Quick, hide your guns, Obama is coming – and by the way send us 50 bucks) and unquestionably some very big subsidies from gun manufacturers.
That $140 million is the organization’s soft underbelly and it makes our course clear. If even one quarter of the 70 percent who feel the NRA is, on some level, making unreasonable demands can be convinced to drop their membership it would be over $24 million less in NRA coffers every year; $24 million less to buy our government or to pay its odious executive vice president Wayne LaPierre his $970,000 salary. A rapidly declining membership would also blunt NRA’s threats against anyone who speaks or votes in opposition to their wishes.
Most important it could destroy them in the eyes of the gun manufacturers who are following the Koch Brothers/Tea Party model. Like the Tea Party, the NRA is a convenient foil to co-opt a whole group of people and use a common interest to manipulate them en mass. If NRA can no longer point to 4 million compliant members those gun manufacturers will be looking for a better way to wield their influence.
Those of us who have seen one too many Newtowns must start talking to NRA members. We all know one or more and most are members because they enjoy the magazines and the discounts, not because they are gun-crazed Branch Meridians. We must speak with them one-on-one and do it while holding both a carrot and a stick.
The carrot is an appeal to their better angels. Would they like to see reasonable compromises? Do they think the organization sometimes goes too far? There are many gun owners who believe open or concealed carry into a day care center or a tavern or the proliferation of “stand your ground” laws are really pushing it. Explain the power they have to influence the organization and that they are in an ideal position to make the case to other gun owners as well. A celebrity NRA member with thought processes more evolved than the Charlton Heston/Ted Nugent issue could really jump-start such a member campaign.
The stick is making it clear that the organization is fast becoming a detriment to legitimate gun owners. Pendulums swing two ways and NRA has pushed its cause to the top of that arc. When it swings back it will be hard and it won’t just be assault rifles or mega-magazines that will be at risk. Many of us are furious and we will make gun rights an issue in 2014; we will bring new cases to a Supreme Court which will be changing and perhaps its rather bizarre Heller interpretation of the Second Amendment along with it. Convince reasonable members they must move the NRA toward sensible reforms because right now that is all we are asking for.
Give us another shot-up shopping mall or one more massacre of kindergartners and all bets will be off. Even if Obama isn’t coming for all their guns the rest of us might be pushed to the point where we might just try.