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Never Apologize: How the NRA Fights Gun Control Even After Mass Shootings

Web ExclusiveAugust 05, 2019
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In the aftermath of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, calls are once again intensifying for Congress to pass gun control legislation, with many pointing to the political influence of the National Rifle Association as a main cause of inaction to address the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. The NRA, however, is in disarray, with allegations of corruption and a power struggle at the top of the organization rocking the gun lobbying group over the past year. For more on the NRA, its ability to quash gun control efforts, and the effect gun culture has had on civic life, we speak to reporter Alex Yablon of The Trace, a news outlet that covers guns and gun violence in the U.S. He says that even after mass shootings, the NRA never backs down from its hard-line positions. “Instead of apologizing or going on the defensive, they go on the offensive,” says Yablon. “They demand that lawmakers make it easier for more people to carry guns in public, and they very frequently attack the integrity and the character of those who want to crack down on loose gun laws.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at this weekend’s deadly gun violence. Over the span of 13 hours, the country was shaken by two mass shootings, 29 people killed, in a pair of — it’s horrible to say — slaughters, in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Senator Bernie Sanders and other Democratic lawmakers are calling on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a special session of the Senate to vote on two gun control bills recently passed in the House. This all comes as the NRA, the National Rifle Association, is imploding.

We’re joined now by Alex Yablon, a reporter at The Trace, a news outlet devoted to gun-related news. Alex’s most recent piece is headlined “Mass Shootings Are Destroying Our Sense of Public Space.”

Actually, let’s start there, before we go to the NRA. “Mass shootings are destroying our sense of public space.” What do you mean?

ALEX YABLON: So, what’s really striking about a lot of these shootings, the two shootings that happened this week, is they happened in very crowded public places, you know, places where our communal life goes on, where we go and shop, where we go to have a good time on a Friday night. I mean, the Dayton shooting, in particular, took place in this really vibrant, well-trafficked downtown area.

What happens after these mass shootings is that when the public and authorities call for a response, there really only seems to be one response. It’s more cops, more surveillance, you know, being patted down by a security guard when you go into a bar or a concert. So, it leads to much more controlled public space, or it leads to just a contraction in public space. You know, security measures are put in place such that people just can’t hang out freely and spontaneously in the way that they have in the past. People are more aware that they’re being surveilled. People may, if enough of these things happen, just simply feel reluctant to go out to large public gatherings at all.

So, I think it puts a real — a really severe pressure on our ability to freely commingle with our fellow citizens in real life, which is such an important part of just, you know, human well-being, not to mention a basic cornerstone of democracy, that we come out and see our fellow citizens. You know, we interact with people across class and racial boundaries. You know, we meet people outside of just, you know, school and work and the home.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, school. School is a major site of these mass shootings.

ALEX YABLON: Right, right. Schools obviously have been a big site of these mass shootings. Schools are public spaces, as well. And they become places where you have to go through a metal detector to get into school, where you know that there might — increasingly, there might be armed police there. And people are much more suspicious of — you know, teachers might feel pressure to be more suspicious of their students. Classmates might be pressured to be more suspicious of one another. And it just sort of chills the free exchange and free interaction between Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s turn to the NRA and what is going on there. I think most people, though, don’t realize — I mean, The Trace has done incredible work, exposé on what — on corruption at the NRA. But why don’t you lay it out, what’s happened? It’s not just your investigation. Now it has played out with the ousting of a president and much more.

ALEX YABLON: Right. So, for decades, the NRA has had an extremely close relationship with an ad firm called Ackerman McQueen. And it’s very difficult to say where the NRA ends and Ackerman begins. Ackerman produces so much of the NRA’s messaging and online content. It’s helped conceive of whole initiatives that the NRA put together, such as an ill-fated insurance program that was sold to members.

And what my colleagues and others have uncovered is that there was lots of self-dealing. That is, former employees of Ackerman would then get hired at the NRA, and work — you know, third-party vendor work would be sent to outside companies in which these former Ackerman employees had ownership stakes, which is just the most basic conflict of interest, that they were not being scrutinized for, you know, to justify their billing, which rose to as much as $40 million a year. And they were also billing the NRA for — this is perhaps the most outrageous thing — for what appeared to be just personal expenditures for senior NRA officials. Wayne LaPierre, the longtime leader, notoriously went and bought hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of suits at a Beverly Hills boutique. He asked Ackerman McQueen to pay for it. And then Ackerman McQueen billed the NRA for that.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain whose money this is, that you say they billed the NRA. Explain how the NRA developed. And whose money is this?

ALEX YABLON: So, this is money that’s donated by its members and, to a certain degree, gun companies, though we don’t really know exactly the breakdown of how much of their money comes from members versus gun manufacturers. And not surprisingly, a lot of the donors are absolutely furious. I’ve been speaking to one large donor, a man named David Dell’Aquila, who’s been trying to organize a donor strike. He’s talked to a lot of people who had had the NRA in their wills, had planned to give large portions of their estate to the gun group. And now they’re planning to withhold it. Dell’Aquila says that he’s got nearly $200 million in commitments of planned gifts that are going to be withheld.

AMY GOODMAN: And why does Dell’Aquila support the NRA? What is his interests here?

ALEX YABLON: I mean, he’s a really hardcore gun rights supporter. He is not a liberal guy. But he’s furious that his money is being misused. It doesn’t really have anything to do with a — it’s not a disagreement about policy. He is a staunch NRA supporter. It has to do with corruption.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about who Wayne LaPierre is. Who is Oliver North, how Oliver North got involved? And then, what just transpired over the last few months?

ALEX YABLON: Sure. So, Wayne LaPierre has been in charge of the NRA for about three decades now. He was a fairly unknown D.C. staffer, Hill staffer, before he went to work for the NRA. And the organization has kind of grown into its current, you know, behemoth status along with him. It’s pretty impossible to separate the NRA’s rise from Wayne LaPierre. But along the way, he’s been dogged by criticisms that he goes far outside the lane of gun rights, to lead the group to talk about things like immigration or the media. And he’s also been dogged by accusations of corruption. This is actually not the first time that Wayne LaPierre has been seriously criticized for his financial mismanagement and possible corruption. A group of board members in the late ’90s brought up very, very similar concerns, and then they were all ousted, and Wayne reasserted his control over the organization.

So, about a year ago, the NRA had Oliver North, the Iran-Contra figure, who, I’m sure, will be very familiar to your viewers, who has since become a kind of folk hero to the hard right — they had him assume the position of president, which is actually kind of a ceremonial post, as it is a — it doesn’t have a lot of power over the organization. It’s a post on the board. Charlton Heston had the same post during the '90s. And it's mainly sort of a public relations, fundraising post. But after my colleagues started publishing these revelations about how badly Wayne LaPierre and other employees of the organization were managing the money, he started to try to exercise his duty as a member of the board and to demand some accounting for what was going on with all these business practices. And Wayne LaPierre just flatly refused to give him the information that he asked for. He was stymied again and again, at every turn, whenever he tried to start an internal investigation, according to some court documents that he’s filed. And when it came time for the NRA’s annual meeting, when the group elects new board members and sort of sets — you know, sets up who’s going to be in sort of senior leadership positions, like vice presidents, presidents, chairmen of the board, he was actually forbidden from standing for reelection as president. He was kicked out of his post, despite being this huge celebrity on the right. So, he’s now out of there.

Chris Cox, who was the NRA’s top lobbyist and largely seen as Wayne LaPierre’s likely successor, was temporarily suspended around the same time because of some text messages with North that seemed to condone North’s attempt to scrutinize LaPierre, which LaPierre and other NRA attorneys said amounted to a coup attempt or an extortion attempt. He later resigned. So, the group has really sort of circled the wagons here. Some additional, less prominent board members, who had also asked for some accounting and transparency, were stripped of their committee assignments, and three of them have since resigned, saying that they don’t believe that as members of the board they can reform the organization.

AMY GOODMAN: And Wayne LaPierre remains on top.

ALEX YABLON: Yes, Wayne LaPierre remains on top.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to go for a minute to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO, speaking after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting in Florida last year. The attack left 17 dead, sparked a student-led movement for gun control. Wayne LaPierre attacked gun control advocates as communists.

WAYNE LAPIERRE: The elites don’t care, not one whit, about America’s school system and schoolchildren. If they truly cared, what they would do is they would protect them. For them, it’s not a safety issue; it’s a political issue. They care more about control, and more of it. Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms, so they can eradicate all individual freedoms. …

On college campuses, The Communist Manifesto is one of the most frequently assigned texts, Karl Marx is the most assigned economist, and there are now over 100 chapters of Young Democratic Socialists of America at many universities, and students are even earning academic credit for promoting socialist causes. In too many classrooms all over the United States — and I know you think about this when you decide where you’re going to send your kids to school, and your kids think about it, too — the United States Constitution is ignored, United States history is perverted, and the Second Amendment freedom in this country is despised.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is the NRA’s CEO. Through all the scandal, though he’s certainly been tainted by it, Wayne LaPierre remains the head of the organization, Oliver North pushed out. He’s not talking about guns here so much. I mean, this is about communism, about who are those who are opposed to gun control. So, explain NRA, how it affects our entire culture, and what he is talking about here.

ALEX YABLON: Right. So, the NRA has — under Wayne LaPierre’s leadership, has taken this extremely expansive notion of what gun rights mean, and it’s tied into this notion not just of your right to own a gun or hunt or protect yourself, but to what it means to be an American, and that it’s part and parcel of this sort of broader right-wing ideology. And it has led Wayne LaPierre to talk about, you know, as goes guns, so goes a certain notion of what it means to be an American, as you saw in that clip. And, you know, some members of the NRA are not thrilled about this. They feel like it’s a distraction. Others feel like it’s been a really, really effective messaging technique. You know, it really gets the membership very riled up. It gets them very eager to be politically active and to, you know, kind of — they know their enemy. And that’s politically effective.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does Trump fit into this story?

ALEX YABLON: So, Trump has embraced the NRA like no other Republican president, not even Reagan, who was the first to speak at the NRA’s annual meeting when he was president. Trump was supported by the NRA more than any other single special interest group. He has spoken at their annual meetings now three times, which is just unprecedented for a sitting president. And when he has signaled, in the aftermath of some of these mass shootings, perhaps not especially thoughtfully, that he might be open to some kind of gun control, then he talked to Wayne LaPierre, and he walks it back or he stops talking about it.

AMY GOODMAN: You had this strange experience last year after the Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland of the 17 students and staff at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where survivors came to the White House, and then congressmembers and senators, and you have Trump saying, “Don’t be afraid of the NRA. You can do something,” he’s telling the senators and congressmembers.

ALEX YABLON: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, then he walks everything back. Talk about how the NRA — what’s the NRA’s strategy after a massacre?

ALEX YABLON: So, the NRA, for a long time, has adopted the sort of very well-known mantra that the only thing that stops a good guy with a gun is a bad guy — the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. They have — instead of sort of apologizing or going on the defensive, they go on the offensive. They demand that lawmakers make it easier for more people to carry guns in public. And they very frequently attack the integrity and the character of those who want to crack down on loose gun laws and the sort of uncontrolled proliferation of guns, as we saw in that clip you played.

AMY GOODMAN: Right.

ALEX YABLON: You know, it’s not just these people are misguided; it’s that they actually hate a certain American way of life.

AMY GOODMAN: But it’s a little hard for them to do that right after a massacre, even if they completely disagree with what survivors like Emma González and others — like the students who survived. So, what is the strategy they adopt? Not to talk for a few days, or to say it’s political to say anything but thoughts and prayers?

ALEX YABLON: That’s what they’ve said this time. They put out a pretty muted statement on their website saying they were going to refuse to politicize this. Very frequently, they’ll wait a few days, and they won’t say anything about a specific mass shooting. And then figures like Wayne LaPierre will talk about, you know, the — in general, what comes after a mass shooting. Someone infamously, Dana Loesch, a former spokeswoman for the group, said — claimed that the mass media loved mass shootings because it was great for ratings. Then there’s a sort of conspiratorial edge that somehow the people who report on these events or are spurred to call for stricter gun laws somehow benefit from this. So, they won’t explicitly respond to the shootings themselves all the time. They will talk about, you know, why demands for gun control are wrong and how only more guns can stop gun violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Who dies in gun violence in the United States?

ALEX YABLON: So, for all the attention that mass shootings get — and they deserve that attention, they’re really horrifying incidents — only about 2% of people who die by gun in the United States die by mass shootings. The overwhelming majority are actually suicides. Approximately 20,000 or so people die by suicide every year — by gun suicide every year, and then about 10,000 by gun homicide every year. A lot of the people who die by gun suicide are actually older white people who live in rural areas. You know, Alaska, in particular, has a really, really severe gun suicide problem — isolated older people who have guns around. Then, most of the people who die in gun homicides are young men of color, women in abusive relationships. And so, it’s sort of these two very different demographics who are most likely to die from guns.

AMY GOODMAN: And if guns weren’t as available?

ALEX YABLON: I think there’s a lot of reason to believe that fewer people would die from guns. I mean, you know, the presence of a gun in the home really, really elevates the chances that the gun owner will commit suicide. You know, you see much higher rates of gun homicide in cities like St. Louis, where, you know, the state that they’re in has very loose gun laws compared to, say, New York City or Boston, where you’re in a state with very tight gun laws and much lower levels of gun ownership all around.

AMY GOODMAN: Today President Trump tweeted he’s proposing tightening background checks, following the two mass shootings, suggesting he wants to pair gun legislation with a crackdown on immigration. He tweeted, “We cannot let those killed in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, die in vain. Likewise for those so seriously wounded. We can never forget them, and those many who came before them. Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying this legislation with desperately needed immigration reform. We must have something good, if not GREAT, come out of these two tragic events!” Alex Yablon?

ALEX YABLON: So, it’s a pretty bizarre proposal, I have to say, basically holding gun control ransom for more aggressive, more — a stricter immigration policy — basically exactly what the shooter in El Paso wanted: stricter immigration laws and a crackdown on people coming from places like Mexico and Central America.

It bears repeating, though, that it appears that both of these shooters that we saw this weekend could have gotten their guns by going through a background check. Neither of them had any kind of significant criminal history. I believe the shooter in Dayton, Ohio, only had some traffic violations. I don’t know if the shooter in Texas had any kind of criminal history. So, the thing is, with a lot of these mass shootings, is that very frequently, though the perpetrator may have a history of really vile statements, perhaps personal threats, perhaps even violence against others that’s sort of known to people in their circles, they don’t necessarily have a criminal conviction, or they haven’t been, you know, committed by a judge to psychiatric care. You know, they don’t meet the legal thresholds for what gets you prohibited from buying a gun through a background check. So, background checks, though they’re enormously popular, and a lot of researchers think they may decrease gun deaths overall, are maybe not the kind of policy that is best suited to reduce these kinds of atrocities.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you think is going to happen right now? You have a number of Democrats calling on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a special session of the Senate. Of course, the fire under him must be very hot right now, given the horror of what just took place. For him, I’m sure, he thinks time is on his side. If he can just push this beyond this summer, there will be less intensity. Where does Mitch McConnell stand on all of this?

ALEX YABLON: Mitch McConnell, you know, he’s not a particularly ideological guy. He’s not known for his particular advocacy of the Second Amendment. But he holds onto power. And he —

AMY GOODMAN: And I think a lot of people might dispute you saying he’s not particularly ideological, as he pushes through as many conservative federal judges as he can.

ALEX YABLON: Well, right, he’s certainly — he’s certainly very right-wing. He’s not — he’s not a hero of the NRA, is perhaps a better way to say it. But he doesn’t ever want to give Democrats a victory, if he can help it. And, you know, there’s not any — there’s a lot of public outcry over his refusal to bring up, you know, a lot of gun bills that are passed in the House up for a vote, but there’s not a lot that Democrats can actually do to force him to do that. They can demand it. They can, you know, accuse him of letting people die in mass shootings. But they don’t have a lot of — there’s not a mechanism by which they can compel him to do this.

And, you know, even in places where Democrats are sort of more ascendant than they are in the Senate, you know, they haven’t been able to compel a lot of elected Republicans to pass gun laws. I’m thinking here of Virginia, which after the Virginia Beach mass shooting, the governor there did convene a special session of the Legislature specifically to deal with gun laws, but then the Republicans, who controlled the upper chamber of the Virginia Legislature, adjourned without actually passing anything. You know, they showed up, but they weren’t going to pass anything just because Democrats wanted it.

AMY GOODMAN: What about what happened in Florida at the Florida Legislature after Parkland?

ALEX YABLON: That’s true. That was a very — that was a remarkable, remarkable change of direction in Florida. So, in Florida, where Republicans have unified control of the state government, but, you know, they’ve been very closely allied with the NRA, the public outcry was such, after the Parkland mass shooting, that they had to — they had to respond in some way. You know, Florida is — obviously, it’s dominated by Republicans in government, but it is a purple state. And I think they’re sensitive to the fact that if they did not respond to this public outcry, they would — they might pay for it in the midterm elections.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are there ways that when the NRA sees themselves up against the wall, that they push for something less than what they see coming, like bump stocks after Las Vegas, limiting bump stocks, pushing Trump to do an executive order rather than legislation, because then it could always be easily reversed?

ALEX YABLON: Right. So, that’s a really classic example of the NRA kind of giving a little room — its Republican allies a little room to maneuver. They say, “We don’t want any laws, any new gun control laws passed. However, we’re not going to defend bump stocks.” No one really needs to own a bump stock. It’s not justifiable.

AMY GOODMAN: And a bump stock, explain again what it is.

ALEX YABLON: A bump stock is a device that kind of works around — it’s designed to kind of get around a legal — a very strict regulation of fully automatic weapons, machine guns, basically allows you to fake having a machine gun, instead of — you know, the way a machine gun works, you pull the trigger and hold it. A bump stock allows you to pull the trigger a lot of times really fast. And —

AMY GOODMAN: And what ultimately happened? What got passed?

ALEX YABLON: So, no law was passed by Congress. But the Trump administration had a rule change, you know, a sort of a regulatory change by the ATF, where in the past the ATF had said, “Look, bump stocks are not technically machine guns, so we can’t regulate them like machine guns,” they now said, “Oh, we were mistaken. They are machine guns. And that means that you can’t legally own them. You can’t sell them. You have to get rid of them.” So, the thing is about that is that a rule change can be — a later administration could say, “Actually, I want to revisit that determination.” It’s not going to have the same strength as legislation.
So, sort of similarly, you often see the sort of — the mental health playbook, you know, that we really —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we saw that over and over again this weekend.

ALEX YABLON: We’ve seen that over and over and over again this weekend. You know, Republicans and the NRA, they won’t say we shouldn’t do anything; they’ll say, “We need to address mental health.” So, for instance, after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which was committed by a young man who had been ordered by a judge to seek psychiatric care, but records of that court-ordered psychiatric care hadn’t been entered into the background check system, the Bush administration passed a law that was going to give grants to states to improve reporting of mental health, psychiatric hospitalizations. So, again, not restricting the size of gun magazines, not imposing broader background check rules, but sort of something around the edges that isn’t really a new restriction on guns, or it doesn’t require elected Republicans to vote one way or the other on restricting access to guns.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you think will happen at the NRA right now?

ALEX YABLON: It’s really hard to say. It’s in a really unprecedented situation. I think Wayne LaPierre has made clear that he is going to be on the defensive. The next kind of point at which something could happen is a board meeting that’s happening this September. But a lot of people are sort of furious that this is not going to really result in anything — for one thing, it’s in Anchorage, Alaska, so it’s going to be very, very hard for a lot of people to get there, particularly people, you know, who might not be, you know, well-heeled — and feel like that distant location will sort of shield them from scrutiny. Not as much media is going to go and cover this thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Three board members have quit, right?

ALEX YABLON: Three board members have resigned, basically saying they don’t think that, in its current form, the NRA is reformable. The way the board is structured, it really protects Wayne LaPierre from any kind of scrutiny, and it really makes it very risky for people to speak out. You know, they could be stripped of any kind of committee membership, basically making them, you know, just a board member, but they don’t actually have anything to do. And there are so many board members. It’s a 76-member board. You know, most nonprofit organizations have like a 15-member board. You know, it’s very hard to build up a big enough bloc of directors to require some kind of reform. So, I think that there’s going to be a lot of outrage building from the membership, from donors. But I don’t know if the leadership will actually do anything, because they have been given their marching orders that it’s Wayne’s operation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there for now, but, of course, we’ll continue to cover this issue. Alex Yablon is a reporter at The Trace. His most recent piece, “Mass Shootings Are Destroying Our Sense of Public Space.”

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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