- Mike Spiessenior staff writer at The Trace.
The National Rifle Association still plans to host its annual meeting Friday in Houston, Texas, despite Tuesday’s mass shooting at an elementary school that left 19 children and two adults dead in the state. More than 55,000 people are set to attend and hear speeches by former President Trump and Republican Texas lawmakers including Governor Greg Abbott and Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. Michael Spies, senior staff writer at The Trace, says the NRA convention will serve as a “Republican pep rally” to uphold “an absolutist vision of the Second Amendment,” and argues the Republican Party’s devotion to unrestricted gun access goes beyond the NRA, whose power he says is slowly weakening. “The machine works on autopilot now,” says Spies, who also discusses a pending Supreme Court case which could do away with a New York law requiring gun owners to hold a permit to carry concealed guns.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
As we reported, the NRA, the National Rifle Association, plans to host its annual meeting Friday in Houston, Texas, with more than 55,000 people set to attend and hear speeches by former President Trump, Republican Texas lawmakers including Governor Greg Abbott and Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, this despite Tuesday’s massacre at a Uvalde elementary school. The death toll so far is 19 children, mainly age 9 and 10, and two fourth grade teachers.
For more, we’re joined by Michael Spies, senior staff writer at The Trace, where he’s reported extensively on the NRA and the fight for gun control.
Michael, welcome back to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with the response of Congress, the division with the Republicans and Democrats, and what’s happening this weekend. It reminds me of, I believe after Columbine, there was also a major gun meeting. But what’s happening with this meeting of the NRA, and what it’s representing and pushing for?
MICHAEL SPIES: Well, you know, it’s their annual meeting, so it comes up every year, and it is planned well in advance, so the timing, as horrible as it is, is coincidental. But what it really represents, especially now, is — it’s sort of a — I guess you could call it a Republican pep rally. I mean, that’s the main point, is to hold this big event in a theater where some of the most important Republican lawmakers — or, in certain cases, former president — in the country come together to make speeches, to talk about an absolutist vision of the Second Amendment and how that particular freedom defends all other freedoms. And that’s sort of the purpose, to bring people together to rally around that idea.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mike, in terms — the NRA was wracked by major, major financial scandals just a few years ago. How has it been able to survive and remain intact as such a potent force on the right?
MICHAEL SPIES: Well, I think it’s barely surviving. And I actually think — and this is sort of a — you know, the president was mistaken when he talked about the country being beholden to the gun lobby, because I’m not sure that’s so much the case anymore. I think for a long time the NRA was a potent force and did an exceptionally good job at socializing its members — and most specifically, Republican constituents — into absorbing its ideas about the Second Amendment and its messaging and the fearmongering and all of that stuff. But I think it’s sort of the machine works on autopilot now, and I think that the Republican Party effectively absorbed that platform and is now just beholden to its platform and the sort of monster they created.
But I do think that if the NRA disappeared tomorrow, for example, I’m not sure that the party would be able to move its position or would be willing to. And that’s sort of the bigger issue, right? It’s just it’s now — I mean, there used to be a little more gray area, but now it’s now really just Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. And I don’t think, for instance, if there was — if there was a Republican senator who was willing to break ranks, with the exception of maybe like Romney, who’s in a sort of different, unique position in the state of Utah — but if a Republican lawmaker in the Senate was willing to break ranks, I don’t think they’d have to worry about the NRA drafting a primary opponent. I think just somebody — I think just a primary opponent would surface and then would use the issue to sort of, you know, beat the incumbent over the head with. And that’s sort of the predicament that we’re in.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve been following especially the Supreme Court and its possible upcoming case on pistol permits. Could you talk about that, as well?
MICHAEL SPIES: Yes. So, for a long time, in order to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon in the city of New York — or, in the state of New York, rather, there were a number of boxes you had to check off, one of which was you had to provide a good reason for needing to carry a gun. There are other things you have to do, too, along with training. You have to pay a fee. You have to undergo reference checks, which are especially important because, as you can see, when it comes to the background checks, there are a lot of factors that aren’t part of that process.
And that case has now been challenged in the Supreme Court, and a decision should be coming down imminently about whether or not the permitting system here in New York is constitutional. It seems obviously likely that the Supreme Court is going to find in favor of the plaintiff and will probably strike down the idea of whether or not it’s constitutional to require applicants to say whether or not they — or, to require applicants to provide a good reason for needing to carry a weapon. But there’s a larger potential issue, which is that it seems also plausible that the Supreme Court could do away with the concept of permits entirely and say that those constitute an infringement. And that would obviously be a — I mean, it’s hard to overstate what a change that would be in New York, and how also it’s not —
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about open carry.
MICHAEL SPIES: No, not open — I mean, not open carry. Concealed carry, meaning that the — right now the permit that you need in order to carry a concealed handgun in New York, you need to get a permit and go through all the processes I just mentioned. So, in some ways, to be totally honest, open carry can be — I mean, it’s unnerving to see, on the one hand; on the other hand, you can see someone who’s carrying a weapon, and that provides its own — you know, there’s some sort of — it’s a signal. At least you can — you know, whereas when you’re living in a city of 8 million people, and now all of a sudden it’s the case, where it formerly was very unlikely that anybody would be legally carrying a concealed firearm, changing to virtually anybody could be carrying a concealed firearm is — I mean, I don’t know how — it’s very hard to imagine how law enforcement, which already struggles to deal with effective policing in the city of New York, I’m not sure that — how you deal with that.
And I’m not sure how that plays out on a subway — right? — where it’s not — this isn’t comparable to other states that have permissive gun laws that make it easy to carry concealed firearms. There’s no other city in this country that has 8 million people in it. There’s no other city where you have people crammed on — in that situation, where you have people crammed on subways, where they bump into each other on sidewalks, or there’s just excessive traffic all the time and people are in a bad mood. There’s any number of reasons why it’s a completely different situation here than it is anywhere else. Also true in other states that have restrictive permitting laws, like California, etc., where you have the city of Los Angeles or San Francisco. The cultures of those places are totally different than they are in, say, Tennessee or Vermont or any other — or Georgia, states that have fewer people than just the city alone does.
AMY GOODMAN: And today, Mike, the Senate is holding a confirmation hearing for Steven Dettelbach to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agency has been without a permanent leader for seven years. In the past, Dettelbach has supported a federal assault weapons ban and universal background checks. Can you comment on this?
MICHAEL SPIES: Well, I think the ATF, as I’m sure viewers know, has been a largely toothless agency that hasn’t had much of — you know, that hasn’t been able to provide effective oversight at all, really, in quite a long time. And not having a leader is one of the ways in which that is made possible. I think one thing that the ATF should focus on, and has not been able to — and this, in part, is part of the larger issue — when it comes to illegal guns, is focusing more on how to better regulate gun dealers. One thing that’s routinely come up is this idea of straw purchasers, bad apple gun dealers, shops that are routinely and clearly selling weapons to people that are — or, selling weapons to people that intend to traffic them is a known issue that hasn’t been effectively policed at all. There’s also another problem, which is that, if you didn’t know, gun stores aren’t required to secure their wares in a way that is any different than any other place of business, which is to say that it’s incredibly easy, and it happens quite frequently, for — you know, incredibly easy for robbers and burglars to break into gun shops and steal, easily steal, a ton of weapons, and then those wind up also going through the illegal pipeline, adding to more guns on the streets. You know, as we were saying before, there’s hundreds of millions of weapons in the country right now, more than people.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Spies, we want to thank you for being with us, senior staff writer at The Trace.
Next up, we’ll speak with Manny Oliver, the father of Joaquin, “Guac,” one of 17 students killed in 2018 in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. And we’ll also hear the Senate floor speech of Senator Chris Murphy, who had just been elected to the Senate but was still a House member when Sandy Hook took place in his district, the massacre 10 years ago. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Wildfires” by Sault. During that break, we showed images of George Floyd, killed two years ago today, and at the protests that ensued.