After Newtown: National Rifle Association vs. Gun Control

January 25, 2013

In the wake of the tragic school shooting in Newtown, CT, students learn about and discuss renewed calls for gun control and the National Rifle Association's history of successfully resisting such reforms.

To The Teacher: 

On December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old named Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, armed with two semi-automatic pistols and an assault rifle. He then opened fire, killing 20 children and six adult staff members before turning a gun on himself. It was the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. The shooting has renewed public conversation about gun control in the United States.
 
As is often the case following high-profile incidents of gun violence, gun control advocates have pushed for tighter limits on possession of deadly firearms. As always, they are facing strong resistance from the country's most powerful pro-gun organization, the National Rifle Association (NRA).
 
This lesson will take a closer look at the NRA and its strategies for preventing the passage of gun control legislation. The lesson will be divided into two readings. The first reading takes a look at the NRA's history, its sources of funding, and its political influence. The second reading examines the NRA's response to the Newtown massacre, as well of criticisms of this response. Questions for student discussion follow each reading.

 


 
 
Student Reading 1:
The Political Power of the National Rifle Association

 
On December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old named Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, armed with two semi-automatic pistols and an assault rifle. He then opened fire, killing 20 children and six adult staff members before turning a gun on himself. It was the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
 
In the wake of the Newtown massacre there has been renewed public conversation about gun control in the United States. Proponents of gun control argue that the huge number of firearms (it is estimated that Americans own 200-300 million of them) and the ease with which they can be legally acquired are to blame for the increasing frequency of mass shootings such as the one in Newtown. The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, according to a 2007 Small Arms Survey, and 60 percent of U.S. homicides occur using a firearm. The U.S. has far more gun violence than Europe, Canada, India or Australia, though there are countries with higher rates of gun violence than the U.S. 
 
Political leaders of various stripes—including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, President Obama, and many members of Congress—have begun publicly discussing the need for stricter gun control legislation in the U.S.
 
As is often the case following high-profile incidents of gun violence, gun control advocates have pushed for tighter limits on possession of deadly firearms. As always, they have run into strong resistance from the country's most powerful pro-gun organization, the National Rifle Association (NRA).
 
The NRA was founded in New York in 1871 to promote marksmanship. Over the years it has evolved into a pro-gun membership organization with more than 4 million members. In recent decades, the NRA has grown into a very effective political lobbying organization that spends a large amount of money to promote its agenda in Washington, DC. As the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics reported in 2011, "During the 2010 election cycle, the NRA spent more than $7.2 million on independent expenditures at the federal level." These expenditures included television advertisements and other messages for or against political candidates.

The NRA's political efforts have yielded results. The organization has been effective at promoting laws that have significantly expanded gun ownership rights. Even in spite of recent high-profile incidents of gun violence like the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, the massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and the Newtown massacre,  states have consistently been adopting more lax gun restrictions. As David Weigel of Slate.com wrote on December 14, 2012:
 

[T]he recent trend in gun laws has been toward expansion. Dramatically so. The 2010 Republican wave allowed a series of stalled bills to sail through the states. In 2011, Kansas and Nevada made it legal to "purchase long guns in non-contiguous states," Wyoming passed a "permitless carry" law, Arizona, North Dakota and Kentucky made it easier for people who'd lost their gun rights due to "mental illness commitments" to get those rights restored. Maine, Texas, Indiana and North Dakota made it legal for gun owners to keep their weapons in their cars. Oklahoma and Alabama protected their citizens from "illegal gun raids."

 
In addition, many U.S. states have passed "Stand Your Ground" laws, which hold that an individual bears no responsibility to retreat to safety before resorting to the use of deadly force for self-defense. These laws became the center of controversy in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida in February of 2012. As the National Institute on Money in State Politics notes, between 2003 and 2010 the NRA gave $2.7 million dollars to the Florida lawmakers who were a driving force in the passage of this law. (http://fcir.org/2012/03/23/nras-behind-the-scenes-campaign-encouraged-stand-your-ground-adoption-across-the-country/)
 
The "about us" section of the NRA's website emphasizes the organization's reliance on membership activism:

While widely recognized today as a major political force and as America's foremost defender of   Second Amendment rights, the NRA has, since its inception, been the premier firearms education organization in the world. But our successes would not be possible without the tireless efforts and countless hours of service our nearly four million members have given to champion Second Amendment rights and support NRA programs.

Critics, however, charge that the NRA is less a grassroots movement than a group that serves the needs of the gun industry. As investigative journalist Lee Fang writes in a December 14, 2012 article at The Nation:

Despite the grassroots façade, there is much evidence to suggest that corporations that profit from unregulated gun use are propping up the NRA's activities, much like how the tobacco lobby secretly funded "Smokers Rights'" fronts and libertarian anti-tax groups, or how polluters currently finance much of the climate change skepticism movement.

In a "special thanks" to their donors, the National Rifle Association Foundation lists Bushmaster Firearms Inc., the company that makes the assault rifle reportedly found with the shooter responsible for the mass murder today in Newtown, Connecticut. How much Bushmaster Firearms Inc. (a firm now known as Windham) contributes is left unsaid.
 
The Violence Policy Center has estimated that since 2005, gun manufacturers have contributed up to $38.9 million to the NRA. Those numbers, however, are based on publicly listed "sponsorship" levels on NRA fundraising pamphlets. The real figures could be much bigger. Like Crossroads GPS or Americans for Prosperity, or the Sierra Club for that matter, the NRA does not disclose any donor information even though it spends millions on federal elections.

If serious gun control laws are ever to be passed in the United States, advocates will have to overcome stiff resistance from the NRA and its powerful supporters.
 

For Discussion: 

1.. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered

2. According to the reading, has gun control gotten more or less strict in recent years? What is an example of this trend?

3. The NRA presents itself as a grassroots organization; however, critics believe it is a front for gun manufacturers. What do you think? Which position do you think is more plausible

4. According to the reading, "the NRA does not disclose any donor information," despite its active involvement in politics. Do you think that the NRA and other lobbying groups should have to disclose their sources of funding? Why or why not?

5. Why do you think that, despite high-profile incidents of gun violence, the NRA has been more successful in advocating for gun owners than supporters of gun control have been in promoting tighter restrictions?  Can you think of actions or strategies that gun control advocates could try to change this?

 


Student Reading 2: The NRA Responds to the Newtown Massacre

Typically, in the wake of shootings like the one in Newtown, the NRA does not offer an immediate comment. Instead, NRA spokespeople assert that the aftermath of a tragedy should be a time devoted to memory of the victims and not to contentious political debate. Critics argue that, in the past, this has been a convenient way to sidestep any serious discussion of gun control.
 
Following the massacre in Newtown, the NRA broke with its tradition of avoiding comment. On December 21, 2012, just a week after the shooting, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre held a press conference to argue for expanding gun ownership as a way to prevent crime. In his statement at the conference, LaPierre repeated what has become an unofficial slogan of the NRA, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." He went on to ask, "Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away... or a minute away?"
 
LaPierre later blamed violence in video games and other media for the rising number of mass shootings:
 

There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people... through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse. And here's one: it's called Kindergarten Killers. It's been online for 10 years. 

 
LaPierre concluded his remarks by unveiling a new NRA plan to prevent school shootings like the Newtown massacre from happening again in the future. Dubbed the "National School Shield Program," the proposal calls for placing armed guards in schools to protect children. As LaPierre explained:
 

[W]e need to have every single school in America immediately deploy a protection program proven to work — and by that I mean armed security.... Every school in America needs to immediately identify, dedicate and deploy the resources necessary to put these security forces in place right now. And the National Rifle Association, as America's preeminent trainer of law enforcement and security personnel for the past 50 years, is ready, willing and uniquely qualified to help.

 
The NRA's plan drew criticism from many quarters. Some argued that it is not feasible to place a guard in every school. Others contend that militarizing schools does not create an environment conducive to learning. Adding to these positions, journalist Alex Seitz-Waltz argues in a December 21, 2012, article for Salon.com that such a plan is unlikely to work:
 

Before we just laugh away the NRA's plan to put armed guards (either police or volunteers) in every school in America, it's worth at least asking: Would it even work? People who actually study gun violence were not impressed.
 
"The statement by the NRA is without any evidence that it would be effective," said Dr. Fred Rivara, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington and the editor-in-chief of the pediatrics division of the Journal of the American Medical Association, in an email to Salon.
 
In fact, there was an armed sheriff's deputy at Columbine High School the day of the shooting. There was an armed citizen in the Clackamas Mall in Oregon during a shooting earlier this month. There was an armed citizen at the Gabby Giffords shooting - and he almost shot the unarmed hero who tackled shooter Jared Loughner. Virtually every university in the county already has its own police force. Virginia Tech had its own SWAT-like team. As James Brady, Ronald Reagan's former press secretary cum gun control advocate, often notes, he was shot along with the president, despite the fact that they were surrounded by dozens of heavily armed and well-trained Secret Service agents and police.
 
"It's kind of fantasy thinking to assume that armed citizens are going to take out the bad guy and that nothing will go wrong," Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told me.

 
In a January 14 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58 percent of respondents indicated that they would favor a ban on assault weapons, a gun control measure that the NRA opposes. However, 55 percent also support the idea of putting armed guards in schools.
 

For Discussion: 

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2.  After high-profile incidents of gun violence, the NRA routinely says that the aftermath of a tragedy is not the time to talk about gun control. Do you think this is a legitimate response, or do you think it is a way to sidestep serious discussion of gun control?
 
3.  NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre cites video games as a cause of violence. What do you think? Do you think that video games really do incite young people to violence?

4.  The NRA's plan to prevent future school shootings is to make sure there is an armed security guard in every school. What do you think of this plan? What are some of the criticisms of the plan?
 
5. In a recent poll in the wake of the Newtown shootings, 58 percent of respondents indicated that they would favor a ban on assault weapons. The NRA opposes such a ban. Where do you stand? Explain your reasoning.