The NRA is not the problem. The NRA leadership is the problem, hijacking the public interest through its influence on gun laws. A 2012 study by Frank Lutz for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, polled 945 gun owners. The results show a shockingly counterintuitive statistic: fully 74% of NRA members (and 84% of non-NRA gun owners) favor much tighter gun regulations. Let's remember that Rachel Maddow, one of our nation's most eloquent and progressive voices, enjoys shooting guns. She buys neither Rambo weapons nor 30-bullet magazines. She uses her rifles for sport. They are registered. She stores them responsibly.
And yet the NRA, one of the most powerful and menacing lobbies in Washington, continues to push for ever more lax regulation. It not only guards, but continuously expands, unfettered access to special-ops weaponry and the ability to carry them concealed into schools, churches, hospitals, movie theaters, and bars. How can a leadership exist that so smugly defies the vast majority of its own membership, not to mention most American citizens? The stridency of its minority? The depth of its war chest? Massive financing from gun manufacturers and retailers making unbridled riches? Tyranny over so many politicians?
The Sandy Hook atrocity fomented impassioned national debate for solutions. The NRA advocates an armed guard in every school. Unless he happens to occupy a heavily fortified machine-gun nest, what chance would a bored police officer or a poorly trained and underpaid security guard have against the special-ops weaponry carried by Adam Lanza? This past week, two kevlar-vested Kansas City policemen were shot in the head and killed trying to unholster their guns. Can anyone really believe this measure would create greater safety? Right in there with Mike Huckabee who asserts that a more visible presence of God in schools will get the job done. Where has God been? Since when does God so readily abandon innocent six year-olds?
David Brooks, the respected New York Times columnist and a personal favorite, wrote that although he is "on board" with any form of sensible gun control, he "doesn't hold out much hope" this will make an impact on American violence because there are already 250-300 million guns super-saturating our country. His lamentation is strongly reminiscent of those who believe we've already reached a tipping point on climate change, so why bother?
Why? When you want to climb out of a very deep and dark hole, first, stop digging.
Others have suggested that all guns should be outlawed. This paints gun owners with a single toxic brush, which is simply unwarranted. Any attempt at wholesale illegalization would rightfully create a thunderous backlash, polarizing the country still further and depriving responsible gun owners of their sport. Other countries have strict gun laws with no hint of a problem. Rachel deserves her sport. She is far from the problem. Unfettered accessibility is the problem. Anyone can take cash, drive to a gun show, point to this one, this one, and that one, and walk out easy-breezy as though purchasing a tube of tooth-paste.
Some find comfort in the notion that better profile-predict-and-prevent strategies are the answer. The pursuit of this wrong-headed approach by right-minded people plays right into the hands of the NRA. It is a deflection from the undeniable root of the problem: accessibility, accessibility, accessibility. As a clinical psychologist with 34 years of experience, it is utterly impossible to predict reliably who will turn violent, either against themselves or others. Many who are known to be violent and are reported to the authorities, either do not act at all or, worse, carry out their intentions unimpeded. Despite frequent success with suicide prevention, most clinicians will tell you they hope to get through their careers without a patient taking their own life. I am strongly in favor of better mental health care services in this time of draconian cuts, but in no way will this have material impact on gun violence.
Case in point: I recently spoke with a guidance counselor from a large Chicago high school. A student walked into her office and disclosed that he felt strong urges to kill random people. The police were called, he was transported to the nearest hospital, evaluated in the emergency room, and sent home. This easily could have gone tragically wrong, but such events happen frequently. Because hospital stays are unfathomably shortened by insurance companies, it is not uncommon for a person to be hospitalized following an initial suicide attempt. After being medically stabilized, they can simply mouth the right words to be prematurely discharged, promptly go home, and finish the job.
Case in point: Although mass murders attract our attention, what of inner city street corners? Here gun violence is epidemic. The number one cause of death among African-American males ages 12-19 is homicide. In Chicago's gang infested neighborhoods, the number of kids killed weekly can easily exceed the number of children killed at Sandy Hook. Why? Access, access, access. We are so inured to this human tragedy that we hardly notice, so long as it doesn't migrate into our own neighborhood. (I guarantee you the families of the street corner victims notice.) Psychologists call this collective denial, a comforting head-in-the sand maneuver that allows us to tune out inconvenient truths. The NRA shrewdly relies on this human tendency. Recall "this can't be happening" in the rise of Hitler. Will this time with the NRA be different? Only if the concerned majority resists the collective denial, born of powerlessness, that the NRA counts on.
The NRA leadership has slithered out from under its rock and engaged in its familiar discount-distract-and-deflect playbook regarding the blood on its own hands. In addition to advocating more good-guy guns, they conveniently rail against national incompetence to better profile-predict-and-prevent, blaming mental health services. A large majority of practicing clinical psychologists will point to the futility of such measures and the critical need for stanching the tsunami of guns.
This time, will we again yield to collective denial? Or can we scream out "this is happening!" We know the NRA playbook. Let me again be crystal clear. The profile-predict-and-prevent will only be a waste of resources and a diversion from where the responsibility lies. We need to stand up to the NRA and not sit down until meaningful change has been achieved.
Michael J. Tansey, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Chicago, IL and an Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Medical School