- Frank Smythauthor and investigative journalist.
The massacre in a Boulder grocery store came just after a Colorado judge ruled in favor of the National Rifle Association’s challenge to the city’s ban on assault weapons, which was passed in 2018 after this type of weapon was used in the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Despite increasingly regular mass shootings, the NRA has pushed for expanded gun rights since the 1970s and insisted that more guns, not fewer, would prevent gun deaths. “The NRA’s ideology is something that they’ve convinced the overwhelming majority of elected officials in the GOP, especially on the national level, to believe,” says investigative journalist Frank Smyth, author of “The NRA: The Unauthorized History.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Less than a week after a gunman in the Atlanta area killed eight people when he attacked three Asian-owned spas, news broke Monday of another mass shooting. This time, 10 people were killed in a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store. The powerful gun rights lobby group the National Rifle Association responded by tweeting out the text of the Second Amendment.
The massacre in Boulder came just after a Colorado judge ruled in favor of the NRA’s challenge to Boulder’s ban on assault weapons, which was passed in 2018 after this type of weapon was used in the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. The NRA celebrated the judge’s ruling, saying it was written in a way that will, quote, “make it even harder to overturn, should the city appeal it,” and that, quote, “the principles behind the ruling will apply to other localities who are considering passing any similar counterproductive ordinances.”
Well, none of this is new. Despite increasingly regular mass shootings, the NRA has pushed for gun rights since the ’70s and insisted that more guns, not fewer, would prevent gun deaths. The NRA organized a rally in 1999 in Denver after the Columbine shooting at Columbine High School. After the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut, the NRA called for schools to arm themselves.
This comes as the NRA is now actually in a deeply weakened state. It filed for bankruptcy last year after New York state Attorney General Letitia James sued them for fraud, saying the NRA’s chief executive officer, Wayne LaPierre, and other top officials broke state and federal laws to enrich themselves and their families. LaPierre and the NRA were major supporters of President Trump.
Now President Biden is calling on Congress to pass new gun restrictions — in fact, is calling on Congress to pass an assault weapons ban.
For more on the role of the NRA and how we got there and what could happen next, we’re joined by longtime investigative journalist Frank Smyth, author of the book The NRA: The Unauthorized History, former arms trafficking investigator for Human Rights Watch, has reported on the group for decades.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Frank.
FRANK SMYTH: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us again. Give us a history of the NRA and how it’s possible now, after these two mass shootings in a week, that the Congress — at least, at this point, the Senate has made clear that they are not for gun control.
FRANK SMYTH: Yeah, the NRA has a history that they don’t want anyone to know about, because for over a hundred years the NRA was focused on improving marksmanship among military forces, and later expanding that throughout the gun-owning community in the United States, meaning competitive target shooters and then also hunters. But in 1977, they underwent something they don’t like to talk about but which is still known in their own lore as the Cincinnati revolt, when the NRA turned, literally overnight, into the nation’s largest gun club into the nation’s largest gun lobby.
So, since then, the NRA has put forth an ideology which says that you can’t have a little gun control without sacrificing all your guns, and a little gun control, even background checks, can precipitate a slippery slide to disarmament, and then all the way to genocide. And to support this theory, they’ve distorted the history of the Holocaust, falsely claiming that gun control was a significant factor in enabling the Holocaust. And they’ve also, more recently, falsely claimed that the early NRA helped defend freed slaves during Reconstruction against the Ku Klux Klan. These go beyond historical revisions that are, in fact, fabulist inventions, but they allow them to claim that gun control itself is racist, not them, and that gun control is not only racist, but it’s actually genocidal. And the problem is this is ridiculous, and no Holocaust scholars support this theory, or Reconstruction historians, their theory about freed slaves, or their claim.
But the problem is, the modern NRA, even as it’s waning, even as it looks like it’s going to dissolve as we know it and reincorporate in Texas, even as it’s being pummeled by the New York attorney general lawsuit, where the evidence originated from within the NRA with Oliver North — despite all of this, the NRA’s ideology is something that they’ve convinced the overwhelming majority of elected officials in the GOP, especially on the national level, to believe, along with many, if not most, of the 74 million people who voted for Trump’s reelection. And that’s the problem. They’ve convinced a great many people that even background checks — which LaPierre supported back in 1999, by the way — but they’ve convinced people that even background checks pose an existential threat to their freedom, and ultimately their lives. And this is the obstacle the Democrats and the Biden administration and other gun reformers face going forward.
AMY GOODMAN: So, and yet, the NRA is at its weakest point ever. It declared bankruptcy last year. And you couple that with the overwhelming support — Republican, Democrat — at the grassroots level in this country, even of the NRA membership, for gun control.
FRANK SMYTH: The NRA filed for bankruptcy, but this is a way of trying to escape the New York attorney general lawsuit, right? But the thing to keep in mind, the NRA is weaker than it’s ever been in the modern era, right? They had financial problems in prior centuries. But the gun rights movement — and the NRA is really the modern father of, that helped give — gave rise to the gun rights movement — is stronger today than it’s ever been.
And part of the evidence for this, Amy, is the fact that we are now undergoing in the United States something that is unprecedented, among all the other unprecedented things. And that is what the NRA calls the “great ammo shortage.” Since last summer, since the Black Lives Matter protests, people went out and not only bought weapons, but they bought ammunition, to the point that stores, online vendors and retail stores, over-the-counter stores, ran out of ammunition starting last summer. The ammo shortage continued through 2020. And now the NRA expects that ammo shortage to last through most of 2021.
So, there are great many people with a great deal of influence in the Republican Party who believe their ideology. So, even as the NRA is weaker, the gun rights movement is stronger than ever. The gun reform movement, because of the Parkland students, is also stronger than ever, setting the stage for, I think, an epic battle. But right now I don’t think the Democrats have enough votes in the Senate probably to pass background checks, let alone the other measures that Biden has proposed.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain Manchin’s position? He’s not representing the overwhelming feeling of the people of West Virginia, yet he has already stated that he will not support two bills that the House just passed around gun control.
FRANK SMYTH: Joe Manchin is trying to walk a very fine line as a Blue Dog Democrat from West Virginia. And he supported the background — he was the co-author, the sponsor, of the background checks bill that was proposed in 2013 after the Sandy Hook shooting. And he supported that bill on the condition that he included language that would make it doubly illegal for any federal official to compile new gun registries or new lists of gun owners and gun transactions. And that’s something that’s a redline for the NRA and for other people in the gun rights movement. So he backed the background checks bill then.
But now we’re in a different environment. We’re now dealing with the Trump-led GOP. And Manchin is worried, like other people closer to the center in Congress, that if he supports either of these background check bills now, he’s going to get voted out of office. And that is a very serious concern on his part. And the problem is, even though there’s more support for gun reform now than ever before, the gun rights movement is invigorated, and they now see the combination of the pandemic, as well as the Black Lives Matter protests, which I think put a great deal of fear — irrational fear, but fear — into the minds of many Americans — has led to a state where now the NRA has gotten what it’s always wanted, which is blanket opposition from a great many people in Congress to even the most seemingly benign and, really, symbolic steps forward for gun reform.
AMY GOODMAN: Frank, I wanted to go to Georgia Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock, who was speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday after the shooting in the Atlanta area that killed eight people, including six Asian American women.
SEN. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: This shooter was able to kill all of these folks the same day he purchased a firearm. But right now what is our Legislature doing? They’re busy, under the gold dome here in Georgia, trying to prevent people from being able to vote the same day they register. I think that suggests a distortion in values, when you can buy a gun and create this much carnage and violence on the same day, but if you want to exercise your right to vote as an American citizen, the same Legislature that should be focused on this is busy erecting barriers to that constitutional right.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Reverend Warnock, who is one of two newest senators from Georgia. If you can comment on this? And also, were you surprised by President Biden saying he supports an assault weapons ban, at this point? Biden, who was the point person, as vice president for President Obama, after the Sandy Hook massacre, the killing of all of these 6-year-olds, to come up with legislation that would pass, and they ultimately were not able to accomplish any of that back in 2012, 2013.
FRANK SMYTH: Yeah, I don’t think this is going to go well for Biden and for people in favor of gun reform, the way this is going forward.
But in terms of the notion that — and you can buy a gun — it’s easier to buy a gun, and you can buy a gun faster than you can register to vote in Georgia, as well as in other states, this reflects the notion that nothing should impede the ability of citizens to be able to buy arms, whatever arms they want, as easily as they possibly can, merely by showing a driver’s license and being able to establish residency and that they are an adult, in most cases, 18 or, in some states, 21. That is what the gun rights movement wants. They want no impediment to be able to buy firearms.
And going back to your last guest, Representative Sullivan, the reason they want this firepower is they want to be able to fight criminals, as well as armed mobs. And the Rodney King riots and scenes from that back in 1992 are iconic and still loom large for people in the gun rights community. And they also want to be armed to be able to fight government forces, including law enforcement. So they want to have the same level of firepower as police do. That’s why they want AR-15s.
And they do not care. It’s the price of freedom, as far as they’re concerned, if kids get killed, first-graders get killed in Connecticut, or women and others get shot in Atlanta or people get killed in a supermarket in Boulder. That doesn’t matter as long as they have access.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want —
FRANK SMYTH: Most Americans don’t buy this, but that’s a dominant view. Go ahead. Sorry.