Partners in Death: The GOP and the NRA

Amidst the comprehensive moral and intellectual collapse of the GOP, nothing captures its utter bankruptcy more than the issue of gun violence. Lest this seem too stark, we must consider its stunning record of rhetorical and legislative obedience to the NRA.
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Brendan Walsh looks at a rifle scope in the trade booths showroom during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee April 12, 2015. REUTERS/Harrison McClary
Brendan Walsh looks at a rifle scope in the trade booths showroom during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee April 12, 2015. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

The tragic toll of war stupefies and stuns. In the 240 years since the Revolutionary War, we have sacrificed nearly 1.4 million Americans to war. In itself, this number is hard to grasp.

But harder yet is to reckon the human cost -- of husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters; of perished potential; of achievements and kindnesses which will never be; of families forever shattered. However justified some wars may be, war sobers us, diminishes us, cheats us. We struggle to find some national purpose to console us, some nobility of spirit to uplift us. We mourn the tragedies of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, the wars of our last half-century.

In less than that same half-century, from the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy until now, guns have claimed over 1.5 million Americans -- 100,000 more deaths than in all the wars of our history.

Here there is no nobility, no consolation, no parades or speeches or monuments or national days of remembrance. Nothing but the indelible stain of mindless butchery and private sorrow.

Every year, year after year, we lose over 30,000 more of us to homicides, suicides and preventable accidents. Every day, we average more than one mass shooting -- four or more people dead or wounded. Perhaps a name attaches to that day: Charleston, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook; perhaps we see a memorial service on our screen. Beneath such days are buried the death of 88 more people that day, and every other.

And the carnage moves inexorably forward. In the first two months of 2016, we have had 28 mass shootings. In two weeks time, we have added the names of Kalamazoo and Hesston, Kansas to this litany of shame. And yet nothing changes.

Why? It is not that America has more crime -- our crime rates are comparable to other advanced countries. Instead we are stalked by something uniquely American: death by gunshot -- four times more per million than the next highest country, Switzerland; 20 more times than Australia. America is the first worlds' slaughterhouse.

Most Americans deplore that. A solid majority believes the the epidemic of deaths by gunshot is a serious problem; that mass shootings are something that can be stopped; and that our gun laws should be aimed at stemming these tragedies. Indeed, over 90 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun purchases. So why hasn't Congress taken steps to protect our safety.

Because Republicans refuse.

Amidst the comprehensive moral and intellectual collapse of the GOP, nothing captures its utter bankruptcy more than the issue of gun violence. Lest this seem too stark, we must consider its stunning record of rhetorical and legislative obedience to the NRA.

Start with the party's most recent presidential candidates. At the height of the campaign season, the massacres in Kalamazoo and Kansas provoked no comment. To a person, they oppose any legislation or government measures whatsoever to prevent gun violence. Instead, their answer is more guns in the hands of more Americans, no matter how dangerous an individual may be. As for gun safety legislation, they consistently -- and falsely -- characterize it as an effort to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens.

Three of the principal contenders suffice to capture this cowardice and cynicism will:"You don't stop the bad guys by taking away our guns," Ted Cruz says. "You stop the bad guys by using our guns, and a free and armed American citizenry is how we keep ourselves safe." The recently-departed "mainstream" choice, Marco Rubio, asserts that "gun laws fail everywhere they're tried."

Attempting to outdo his rivals, the probable nominee Donald Trump claims that "we already have tremendous regulations. Now, if you look at my opponents, they're very weak on the Second Amendment. I'm very very strong." Again and again, Trump suggests that the only solution to gun violence is for Americans to carry weapons wherever they go.

And they mean it. For example, as senators both Cruz and Rubio voted against expanded background checks to keep dangerous people from acquiring guns . Both opposed banning high-capacity magazines of over 10 bullets. And on and on, for there is not a single measure to reduce the toll of death that they support.

This opposition is not grounded in reason. Instead, the GOP hides behind a shopworn litany of excuses which do not withstand scrutiny.

First, there are the myths perpetuated by the gun lobby about self-defense. No question that law-abiding citizens have the perfect right to buy a gun for self-defense or any other lawful purpose. Advocates for gun safety laws don't debate this. To the contrary, they believe that, to the extent possible, the law should protect all of us -- whether we choose to own guns or not -- by keeping dangerous people from acquiring weapons

There is certainly a need for such protections. Gun ownership alone won't keep us safe -- to the contrary, the assertion that guns used for self-defense keep us safer is counterfactual. A 2012 study by the Violence Policy Center showed that for every justifiable homicide there were 32 criminal gun deaths. The study concluded that: "The reality of self-defense gun use bears no resemblance to the exaggerated claims of the gun lobby and gun industry." With respect to women and domestic violence, a study by researchers at Boston University confirms a grim reality -- in states where gun ownership is higher, more women are killed by people they know.

As for the claim that gun safety legislation will do no good, it is bogus, a logical fallacy. The goal of such legislation is not the impossible -- to stop every possible death -- but to make it more difficult for dangerous people to kill with a gun. And it works. Incremental measures to stop deaths from smoking and drunk driving have drastically reduced both. Obviously, they did so without banning driving or even smoking. So, too, the effort to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others with a propensity for violence -- as the shooter in Hesston, Kansas, freshly served with a domestic violence restraining order, so tragically exemplifies.

Which brings us to the greatest falsehood of all -- that gun safety legislation means denying law-abiding Americans the right to own a weapon, whether for self-defense or any other lawful purpose. Not only would such legislation be unconstitutional, but nothing the Republicans so adamantly oppose remotely resembles the straw man of confiscation they so conveniently invoke.

Yet again and again, the NRA and GOP deploy a preposterous perversion of the "slippery slope" argument -- that any legislation to prevent criminals or terrorists from buying guns is a step toward barring gun ownership by all Americans. Bereft of rational arguments and terrified of fact, they traffic in demagoguery and paranoia. The NRA's propaganda marks the absolute bottom of American political discourse -- rooted in fear, fomented by hysteria, dependent on lies and, in some cases, fueled by fantasies of blowing away "the other."

As for the assertion that the 5 - 4 Supreme Court decision finding a constitutional right to bear arms means that guns cannot be regulated to protect law-abiding citizens, it is nonsense. No constitutional right -- including free speech -- is absolute. As to guns, the Supreme Court made clear that nothing in its opinion barred reasonable regulation to protect the public safety, such as background checks to screen out gun purchases by criminals, spousal abusers, and the adjudicated mentally ill. The Second Amendment protects the rights of law-abiding Americans to buy a gun, not the rights of violent felons to endanger the law-abiding.

When all else fails, the NRA and its Republican handmaidens traffic in a particularly distasteful brand of diversion. A lot of homicides are gang-related, they argue, so why should we care? Besides, they say, many gun deaths are suicides, not homicides -- ignoring that the prevalence of guns means that a person in despair has a quick and easy way of placing themselves beyond second thoughts, or the help of others. Particularly odious is the suggestion that a mass murderer like the demented young man in Sandy Hook would simply have found another weapon to wipe out so many kids and teachers so quickly. With what -- a knife, or slingshot?

And, finally, this: given the NRA's success in promoting gun ownership and opposing gun safety legislation, why aren't we dramatically safer? Why so many mass murders? Why so many more killings than in any other first world country? Is the only answer that more Americans should carry weapons? Do the Republicans in Congress really believe -- for one tragic example -- the only protection for the black churchgoers murdered in Charleston would be bringing guns to their place of worship? Do they ever ask themselves whether our society is truly that helpless?

In truth, it doesn't matter what Republican officeholders know or believe in their hearts. They are the NRA's legislative arm -- without them, the NRA could not have succeeded in making America the first world's most dangerous place. Because, quite simply, they are the craven servants of the gun lobby -- their services bought and paid for at whatever cost in human lives.

They don't come cheap. Since 2010, the NRA and its allies have spent more than$46 million in soft money alone to influence federal elections. In the last election cycle , the NRA spent $18.6 million on candidates. Throw in lobbying, and the NRA spent $32.5 million in 2015 . Virtually every dollar spent on candidates went to Republicans. Along with that comes a small cadre of voters obsessed with guns, who respond to whatever scare tactic the NRA comes up with.

What have the Republicans given the NRA in return? Anything it wants.

Take background checks. The current law exists to prevent felons, fugitives, domestic abusers and the adjudicated mentally ill from purchasing weapons. This is no small matter: in 2013, for example, 61 percent of women killed with guns were killed by intimate partners; in 57 percent of mass shootings, one of the victims was the shooter's partner or family member. Since taking effect in 1994, the law has blocked more than 2.4 million gun sales to dangerous people.

Patently, this has nothing to do with taking guns from law-abiding citizens -- it exists to protect them. But the law needs to be strengthened. Due to a gaping loophole which exempts gun shows and the Internet, roughly 40 percent of gun sales occur without a background check. That's millions of guns every year -- imagine what Republicans would say if TSA failed to check 40 percent of airline passengers. And even the existing system is hampered by a process of record-keeping which is badly underfunded.

But Republicans have blocked absolutely all legislative efforts to strengthen the system, extend background checks, and close loopholes. Conspicuously, that includes Senators Rubio and Cruz. Just who are they protecting? No one but dangerous people who can't pass a background check. Their rationale -- that they are protecting gun rights from an oppressive government -- is shamefully dishonest, the fig leaf of a political lapdog.

And shamefully typical. Days after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino killed 14 people, the House and Senate considered a bill to ban the sale of guns and explosives to people on the FBI's terrorist watch list. After the NRA opposed the measure, the legislation was voted down by all 241 Republicans in the House, and 53 of 54 Republican senators -- including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

At the time, President Obama asked, "what could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi automatic weapon?" Rubio's answer? He was worried about "people that basically just have the same name as everybody else, who don't belong on the no-fly list." Incredibly, Rubio claims to be more concerned about bureaucratic error than allowing terrorists to buy weapons of mass murder.

The GOP's duplicity and hypocrisy is exposed by another favorite excuse -- that the problem is not guns, but mentally ill people with guns. " The country," Rubio says, "should examine mental illness."

By this logic, the GOP would want to extend background checks on the mentally ill by closing the gun show loophole -- which, of course, it opposes. But there is more. As part of a relatively modest gun safety measure, in 2013 Obama proposed to increase funding for mental health programs designed to identify and help people who are potentially dangerous. At the behest of the NRA, Republicans in the Senate killed it . Note here an ironic coda -- two weeks ago, an Idaho pastor who appeared with Ted Cruz was gravely wounded by shooter with a history of mental illness. But there is no incident, however personal, which causes Republican politicians to reflect on their obedience to the gun lobby.

Indeed, another important part of the Republican cover up is to help the NRA suppress research into the cost and causes of gun violence. This is critical to deceiving the American public -- to the gun lobby, facts are more deadly than bullets.

Thus for 20 years. Republicans in Congress have banned the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention from conducting basic research into gun violence and its impact on public health. No other research topic is subject to a ban -- which Republicans in Congress extended yet again in December 2015. The reason is simple: the NRA fears the research will refute its propaganda against gun safety laws, and expose its bogus claims that measures like concealed carry laws save lives.

Little wonder -- a recent research project showed that, since 2007, 763 people were killed by shooters with concealed carry licenses, including 29 mass killings which took 139 lives; the murder of 17 police officers; and, ironically, 223 suicides. Only after he left Congress did the NRA's point man, Republican Congressman Jay Dickey, admit that "I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time." "I have regrets," adds Dickey. "If we had somehow gotten the research going, we could have somehow found a solution to the gun violence..." If the Republicans still in Congress feel any regret, they keep it to themselves.

Indeed, at the instance of the NRA, the GOP has enacted more, and more deadly, suppressions of potentially life-saving information regarding guns. A 2003 Republican sponsored measure prohibits the ATF from releasing information to cities and states which would allow them to trace crime guns. This effectively prevents law enforcement agencies from examining patterns of gun trafficking to criminals or identifying crooked gun dealers linked to large numbers of gun crimes.

Another GOP-backed provision frees dealers from submitting inventories to the ATF, allowing crooked dealers to supply guns to criminals and they claim they were "stolen." Yet another provision requires the FBI to destroy within 24 hours all records of approved purchasers gained from background checks. This makes it very hard to retrieve guns issued to dangerous people by mistake -- like Dylan Root, the Charleston shooter -- or from purchasers later shown to be criminals, mentally ill, or spousal abusers.

A major cause of gun death is assault weapons. In 2004, Republicans in Congress voted to allow the federal assault weapons ban to expire. As the New York Times comments, "as a result, gun manufacturers have been allowed to sell all manner of war weaponry to civilians. Including the super destructive .50-caliber sniper rifle... Why any civilian would need this weapon, designed to pierce concrete bunkers and armored personnel carriers, is a question that should be put to the gun makers who profit from them in the politicians who shamelessly do their bidding."

The Republicans only coherent answer is to cite the difficulty in defining an "assault weapon" -- without, of course, entering into any effort to address the problem. Beyond that, they are reduced to insisting that Americans have the right to purchase any gun they want, up to and including military style weapons designed for mass killing. But such guns are hardly necessary or even suitable for self-defense; as for hunting, their use on a deer would yield not a trophy, but ground venison.

In truth, all that such weapons are good for is killing a lot of people quickly at close range. Which is why they were used by the shooters in the massacres at San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Aurora, Colorado, Umpqua Community College in Oregon and on and on. Offered a chance to rethink this after Sandy Hook, Republicans in Congress blocked an effort to renew the ban.

As a result, gun companies are aggressively marketing military-style weapons to boost their profits. As the Times reports, their advertising says it all: "'As Close as You Can Get Without Enlisting,' reads one tagline under a photo of a poised shooter aiming the civilian version of a military rifle. An ad for a semi automatic shotgun promises security whether in 'Iraq, Afghanistan, Your Living-room.' An ad for an armor-piercing handgun shows an embattled infantrymen above the line: 'Built For Them... Built For You."

They will face no consequences for manufacturing unreasonably dangerous guns and selling them in ways that only enhance the dangers. Why? Because in 2004 a Republican majority in Congress passed one of the NRA's top legislative priorities: a bill granting gun manufacturers and dealers -- no matter how crooked -- broad immunity from lawsuits in state or federal court.

Similarly, Republicans in Congress have blocked the federal consumer products administration from requiring that guns have even basic safety features. Cars and food and aspirin and kids toys must be made safer -- only guns are sacrosanct.

But there is seemingly no end to the NRA's appetite, or the GOP's servility. Recently, stymied by the Republicans in Congress, President Obama took modest administrative steps to try to strengthen background checks, expand access to mental health treatment , and improve gun safety technology. At once Ted Cruz rushed forward to claim that the president was proposing "taking away our guns."

But Marco Rubio equally captured the spineless servility of the GOP to the NRA's dystopian demagoguery. President Obama, he claimed, "has waged war on the Constitution. He is obsessed with gun control." He charged that Obama's measures were "meant to further erode the Second Amendment." But, of course, the ever-vigilant Rubio promised to protect us: "I believe that every single American has a constitutional -- and therefore God-given -- right to defend themselves and their families... On my first day in office, behind a desk, don't worry, those orders are gone."

For sheer fear-mongering and dishonesty, that is hard to beat. One wonders whether Rubio ever asks himself who will pay the price in blood for this kind of "leadership." But if you want to define the word "servility" with pellucid clarity, you will not require a dictionary. Far better to contemplate Mitch McConnell.

After President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, McConnell was asked if, as Majority Leader, he would permit a vote on Garland in the event that a Democrat won the presidency in November. McConnell flatly said that he would not. Here is his reason: "I can't imagine that a Republican majority in the United States Senate would want to confirm, in a lame duck session, a nominee opposed by the National Rifle Association."

Truly, ineffably, servile.

The annals of American politics are rife with self-serving hypocrisy. But the Republicans' cowardly and contemptible servitude to the NRA stands alone in its cravenness and in its costs: the death and maiming of so many thousands of Americans, year after year, shattering families and inflicting the stain of violence on our country. And the GOP's only answer is to promise us more.

It is long past time for Americans to call them on it.

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