My most excellent day with the NRA
The National Rifle Association speaks! Five days after Newtown, the gun-fetish powerhouse has finally breached its silence, calling itself "shocked, saddened, and heartbroken." Furthermore, "out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer, and a full investigation of the facts."
Ah yes, a time to mourn. That's the standard NRA line. After 13 people were shot dead at a Binghamton, N.Y.,immigration center in 2009, the NRA said: "It's time for the families and communities to grieve." Two years later, after Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded and others died, the NRA said: "At this time, anything other than the prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate." Eighteen months later, after 12 were shot dead at a Colorado movie theater, the NRA said that "now is the time for families to grieve."
These remarks don't really tell us much about the gun group, except for the fact that its rote post-slaughter statements appear to have been crafted by undertakers. So allow me to enlighten you. Pull up a chair and I'll tell you a story about my most excellent day, hanging out in Washington with the NRA.
This was back in the summer of 1985. At the time, the NRA was lobbying senators to gut a modest gun control law that had been on the books for 17 years; then as now, it cracked the whip on Capitol Hill. As a young reporter, I wanted to understand what made the NRA tick. What were its leaders really like? How did they think? What was the mindset? I phoned the chief lobbyist, Warren Cassidy, and the executive vice president, Ray Arnett, and asked if they would indulge me. They said sure, come on down to D.C.
So I did. And what an enlightening day it was.
For instance, Arnett's office. There was an M-1 rifle perched against the file cabinet, a shotgun zippered by the door, an 18th-century muzzle loader propped atop the Zenith TV, a box of rifle ammo on his desk, a beaver pelt on his couch, a skinned bobcat on his floor, and, over by the window, an odd-looking bone. I asked Arnett about the bone. He said it was from a walrus penis. And I said to myself, do I have a great job, or what?
I'm not conjuring this from memory. I still have all my notes, which is why I can tell you exactly what these fellas told me. (I doubt their successors think any differently today.) For instance, when I asked Arnett why the NRA was so adamant, he said that gun control "is like having sex without a condom. It gives you a false sense of security." When I cited the latest FBI statistics - in 1983, roughly 25 Americans were killed by handguns every day - Arnett merely laughed: "I don't play the statistics game, because I'm not smart enough to remember them all....Statistics are like a bikini bathing suit. They reveal what is interesting, but they hide what is vital."
He preferred anecdotes. At one point, he told me a long yarn about something that had happened back in his younger days, when he was working in the oil business. He and a buddy went to a dance bar in the Mojave Desert. The buddy brought his wife. The wife was pretty - so pretty that another guy ("an Okie") asked her to dance. Arnett's buddy got jealous. A shoving match ensued. The Okie wielded a pocketknife, and Arnett's buddy died from the stab wound.
The moral of the story, according to Arnett: "The thing about guns and violence is, you are not going to make things better by attacking the inanimate object."
I wasn't sure I got his point, but I moved on. I mentioned John Hinckley Jr., the guy who had nearly killed President Reagan four years earlier. Hinckley had purchased his handgun with the greatest of ease in a Texas pawnshop - and he wasn't even a Texan. Wasn't there something wrong with that? Shouldn't there be laws against that? And hadn't Hinckley boasted in one of his scrawlings that guns made him feel "pornographic power?"
Cassidy, the chief lobbyist, had wandered into the room while I was invoking Hinckley. He replied first: "You mean to tell me that a nut like that wouldn't figure out how to put some gasoline inside an empty bottle, light it, and chuck it at the president's car?"
'Yeah," said Arnett. "If he was a judo expert, what would've prevented him from taking a Chinese star (an eight-pointed weapon) and hitting Reagan between the eyes?"
And even if an assailant does bring a gun to an encounter, the assailant's target should have unfettered freedom to wield his own gun. That's how Cassidy saw it. That's when I learned about the concept of "air hunger."
Cassidy explained: "There is a basic innate right of self-defense. The primary human drive is air hunger, isn't it? Ahead of water, ahead of sex, ahead of anything else. Air hunger. Which means survival, breathing. No man can pass a law which says you don't have a right to keep breathing."
That's not quite the wording of the Second Amendment, but apparently that's how the NRA interpreted it. I said that to Cassidy. I suggested that it was unfair for the NRA to view gun law reform as a mortal threat to air hunger and the right to bear arms. Did he really believe that it was all a plot to confiscate people's guns?
His eyes narrowed, and his buttery baritone was supplanted by a voice that was as cold and hard as the barrel of a. 22 snubbie: "We're accused of being paranoid. And sometimes we do get paranoid."
Three decades later, in the aftermath of Newtown, the NRA promises to offer "meaningful contributions" to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated. But I'm skeptical, and now you know why.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1