Rebranding the Gun Culture

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During the five years of the 1990’s that I served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, one other member and I would occasionally upset the others by asking why the ACLU did not defend the Second Amendment rights of individuals.

My colleague asked because he was an 80-year-old Hollywood communist who understood that political power grows from the barrel of a gun.  That’s what we celebrate on the Fourth of July, he’d say.  I asked because I was a connoisseur of icy stares and the specious rhetoric of the left that dominates the ACLU and dogs our political discourse.

Director Ramona Ripston did not disappoint.  With a cold subtext, she would explain that the ACLU did not defend individual rights under the Second Amendment because it was “different.”  The union considered it a collective right of state governments, and that would remain the ACLU’s position until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

Otherwise happened in 2008, and then again in 2010, when the Supremes ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right—first against federal infringement, and then against state infringement.  Like most landmark civil-rights rulings, these didn’t just “happen.”  They were the result of careful preparation over many years by a number of principled constitutional attorneys, law professors, and civil-liberties advocates.  The chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute, Robert Levy, was the man who organized and filed the 2008 lawsuit, which the National Rifle Association and others had been too timid to touch.

So the ACLU changed its position, right?  You know better.

“The ACLU disagrees with the Supreme Court’s conclusion about the nature of the right protected by the Second Amendment.”  Why did the Court’s decision not affect the ACLU’s position?  “[L]ike all ACLU policies, [this position] reflects the ACLU’s own understanding of the Constitution and civil liberties.”

That official ACLU view isn’t just intellectual dishonesty; it reflects the antifirearm fetish of the chattering class, defined by the originator of the term, British journalist Auberon Waugh, as “those who are politically active, socially concerned and ‘highly’ educated; especially those with political, media or academic connections,” whose opinions tend to shape both public opinion and law.  In the early 20th century, the renowned Sage of Baltimore, journalist and essayist H.L. Mencken, called such people “the uplifters”—the nanny staters seeking to hoist up humanity by giving it a statist utopian migraine.

Today, they are the arguing heads on TV.

America’s almost entirely liberal chattering class has for years undermined the fundamental right to keep and bear arms by creating false metaphors based on academic frauds and emotionally charged language.  Disseminated through pop culture, these pejorative factoids are now ostensibly unshakable.  And unfortunately, the ability of the average Second Amendment defender to reject the chatterers’ use of the negative term “gun lobby” has been woefully insufficient because the typical Second Amendment defender tends to be a literalist who is disconnected from popular culture.

Nonetheless, recent polling indicates the chattering class’s ability to reframe Second Amendment rights may be diminishing despite the massive amounts of money billionaires like Michael Bloomberg and George Soros have spent on their media campaigns.  Why?  “The more negative coverage the elite media have dished out, the more people have been attracted to the NRA and gun culture,” claims University of Toledo communications professor Brian Anse Patrick.

Not so fast, says Clinton, Inc. author Daniel Halper.  He sees a wild card in the attitudes of “new Americans” who come to this country from places with no cultural tradition of private gun ownership or other fundamental rights.  Halper says Democrats are counting on them.  Thus, those polls could indicate that the window of opportunity for meaningful public discourse on gun control is slipping away—and at a time when the average person increasingly sees a gun as an essential tool for protecting himself against terrorists, crazies, and criminals—whose constitutional rights the ACLU is happy to defend.  It’s as if politicians and activists alike are engaged in a desperate attempt to keep a weary and angry public stirred up about guns.

Speaking of which, did you know that male gun owners are compensating for a small penis?

That fabricated Freudianism is regularly reinforced in snarky commentaries, jokes, and Hollywood entertainment.  “Guns have become penis extensions, if not penis substitutes, and the phallic similarities are obvious,” says Daily Banter editor Bob Cesca.  FOX Television’s Family Guy spent an entire half-hour characterizing gun owners as having extraordinarily insignificant members.

By the way, do you deny that a semiautomatic rifle is really an automatic rifle and, therefore, an assault weapon?  This “assault weapon” hornswoggle comes to us courtesy of influential fear-phrase activist Josh Sugarmann.  “The public’s confusion,” Sugarmann writes,

over fully-automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is presumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.

In the 1980’s, Sugarmann also started the false panic about “plastic guns” that could supposedly evade X-ray security detection.

Defenders of the Second Amendment have responded to fabricated fear-phrases like ABC News’s nonexistent “cop-killer bullets” and the New York Times’s racially charged “Saturday Night Special” in typical literalist fashion—with facts.  Yet those facts go largely unheard because the literalists’ words are not clever, and they are not delivered by the right messenger in the right forum.

Creativity, presenter, and venue aside, a bigger problem for Second Amendment defenders is that they cannot formulate a straightforward answer to the hectoring question, Why won’t you agree to reasonable gun controls?

Why don’t Second Amendment defenders clearly and confidently respond that they won’t agree to these so-called reasonable controls because they are a ruse to gain the registration and confiscation of all firearms in private hands?

Despite grandstanding affronts to our intelligence (by the likes of MSNBC’s former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, FOX Business News’s Neil Cavuto, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, and other media stars) that insist there is no evidence that the ultimate goal of gun-control activism is confiscation, anyone who can tell the sun from the moon knows, or ought to know, that the founder of the modern “gun control” movement, the late Nelson “Pete” Shields, plainly said so:

We’ll take one step at a time . . . We’ll have to start working again to strengthen the law, and then again to strengthen the next law and again and again.  Our ultimate goal . . . is to get registration.  The final problem is to make possession of all handguns and handgun ammunition . . . totally illegal.

After Shields’s death, his Handgun Control, Inc. was renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  It’s a totally bogus title, because the Brady group’s actual goal, as I was confidentially told while an ACLU board member, is not really to prevent violence but to undermine private firearm ownership as a prelude to registration and confiscation.  And they are particularly targeting blacks, according to an investigation by The Nation’s Robert Sherrill.

According to Shields and other key “gun control” advocates I have spoken with—including former Brady spokesman Michael Barnes, a one-time Democratic congressman from Maryland, and former Rep. William Hughes (D-NJ), the way they achieve that objective is to turn an endless string of emotionally charged measures characterized as “reasonable” or “meaningful” or “common sense” into laws before the next round of limitations are demanded.

Still, “Morning Joe” Scarborough insists, “Noooobody is going to come take your guns!”

The antigun fetish even transcends the immediate political concerns of the left, a fact that was confirmed by documents found in the Clinton Library by Tucson attorney David Hardy:

The first find was nothing less than staggering—a fax from Jody Powell, President Jimmy Carter’s press secretary, to George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton’s new press secretary, warning Clinton to back off from gun control because . . . it just doesn’t work.

 

Powell: “Much as I hate to say it, the NRA is effective primarily because it is largely right when it claims that most gun control measures inconvenience and threaten the law-abiding while having little or no impact on violent crime and criminals.

Powell wasn’t expressing unfounded opinion about the NRA being right.  He was repeating the conclusion of the blue-ribbon Justice Department study commissioned by Jimmy Carter:

It is commonly hypothesized that much criminal violence, especially homicide, occurs simply because firearms are readily at hand and, thus, that much homicide would not occur were firearms generally less available. There is no persuasive evidence that supports this view.

That’s not what Carter expected his commission to find, and it’s not what sociologists James Wright, Peter Rossi and the peers who reviewed their work told me they expected or even wanted to find.  They had expected to verify the Johnson administration’s study, which concluded that guns do cause violence and that private ownership of handguns—but not rifles and shotguns—should be outlawed.  That view was expressed numerous times by commission chairman Milton H. Eisenhower and became an unalterable truth to gun-prohibition activists.  However, the Carter commission and later researchers noticed the Eisenhower study was “results oriented”—possibly rigged to say what politicians and antigun activists wanted.

Other documents confirmed a suspected sub rosa collusion between the Clinton administration and Brady activists, as well as candid discussions about ways to help reporters and the Centers for Disease Control willingly shill for gun prohibition with concocted stories and studies.

So no matter what gun-control laws are passed, the chattering classes will always clamor for more.  Members of the media will continue to conspire among themselves in carefully vetted chat rooms like JournoList to sell each new demand as if the continued existence of humanity depends on it.

It’s a Fabian scheme to be sure, but it may better be described as Lilliputian in that it ties down the unfettered exercise of a constitutional right with an endless number of niggling restrictions against which Second Amendment defenders must spend massive amounts of money and time in litigation.

And the attacks don’t all come from the left—some on the putative right are just as eager to drive a stake through the heart of the Second Amendment.  Prominent neoconservative Charles Krauthammer has called for the confiscation of all privately owned American firearms:

Ultimately, a civilized society must disarm its citizenry . . . Passing a law like the assault weapons ban is a symbolic—purely symbolic—move in that direction.  Its only real justification is not to reduce crime but to desensitize the public to the regulation of weapons in preparation for their ultimate confiscation . . . Yes, Sarah Brady is doing God’s work.

George Will actually wants the Second Amendment to be repealed:

Whatever right the Second Amendment protects is not as important as it was 200 years ago. . . . Gun control advocates who want to square their policy preferences with the Constitution should squarely face the need to deconstitutionalize the subject by repealing the embarrassing amendment.

Of course, any acknowledgement of the ultimate goals of gun prohibitionists and their “reasonable” controls can be ridiculed as a conspiracy theory, as Barack Obama did at a town-hall farce on CNN in January.  “Yes, that is a conspiracy,” Obama told Anderson Cooper.  “I’m only going to be here for another year.  When would I have started on this enterprise?”

But did Obama’s denial and expressed contempt for the very notion of an ulterior motive behind the push for “reasonable gun controls” mean he thinks that the allegedly all-powerful “gun lobby” is too inept to mount a proper p.r. riposte to such a blatant intellectual insult?  In a word, yes.

And Obama and his fellow prohibitionists are probably right.

Together, the Second Amendment Foundation, the National Rifle Association, and Gun Owners of America make up the oft-mentioned “gun lobby” bogeyman.  Their influence on legislation designed to protect the Second Amendment has been quite good—but not so Corleonesque that they hold legislators in their pocket, despite the claims of the left.

The “gun lobby” is effective in the courtroom and the legislative process.  But, as mentioned before, when it comes to p.r. and the sort of verbal acuity that wins hearts and minds beyond its hard-core constituency, not so much.  NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris Cox told me the NRA seeks to coddle the base at the expense of expansion.  NRA chief Wayne LaPierre had better hope Obama doesn’t accept his recent invitation to a nationally televised debate about guns.  LaPierre is no doubt a good man, but for reasons that matter on television, he is the wrong man to challenge Obama to a verbal slapdown.

LaPierre’s stock phrases—“law-abiding citizen,” “good guy with a gun,” “gun grabber”—have become “gun lobby” tropes that positively register only within the particular culture that forms the “base” of pro-gun support.  Same for the word hoplophobe, which firearms expert and retired Marine Col. Jeff Cooper invented: “I coined the term ‘hoplophobia’ in 1962,” Cooper wrote, “in response to a perceived need for a word to describe a mental aberration consisting of an unreasoning terror of gadgetry, specifically, weapons.”

Among hard-core Second Amendment defenders, hoplophobe is a put-down of those who think that guns possess free will.  Outside of that group, especially to those who didn’t learn in school about the ephebeia or read the Anabasis, it isn’t.

What the Jeff Cooper fan club does not grasp is that among the left-liberal chattering classes, a fear of guns is not a mental aberration: It’s a sign of reason, sanity, and even honor.

“I’m afraid of guns,” CNBC morning anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin recently declared.  Co-anchor Joe Kernen then noted that, while he isn’t afraid of guns, “it has taken me eight months to get a license to buy a gun, and I think that’s reasonable.”

Within the dominant New York City culture, both Sorkin’s and Kernen’s views are considered normal.  In the heartland, they are not.  “My wife grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska,” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg writes, “where gun ownership was nearly as common and natural as snow-shovel ownership.  I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and I never knew anyone who owned a gun.”

The NRA, the SAF, and other Second Amendment advocacy organizations have the ability to hire people who could reframe their rhetoric and rebrand their image, effectively countering media snark and pejorative.

It has been done before: If Arianna Huffington could rebrand herself from the far-right ideologue she was when I first met her in 1995 to the leftist ideologue she now claims to be, the gun lobby can change its image.

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