There is something thrilling to an American about the notion of force and velocity, of distance conquered, of speed and blinding light, of sound and fury. Space shots continue despite an expenditure of greenbacks that, if applied, say, to education, would make us the Japan of the 21st century, or the America of the 19th, take your pick. We are partial to auto races in which men and, these days, women, too, roar around oval tracks in scant sheaths of metal and fibre glass challenging the laws of physics and every standard of good sense. Fire someone from a cannon, and we will be there to cheer. Fill the skies with rockets and Roman candles and you’ve got our vote. Wear a six-shooter on your hip, and we swoon in your arms.
Gun-packing is especially sacred stuff in these parts. We started our history with an armed insurrection – and a dandy one, at that – and proceeded directly toward the winning of the West, not to mention the North, South and East, usually by means of black powder and well-placed slugs. Cowboys, soldiers, cops and robbers – we have never lost our taste for the brandished weapon and bandolier. Domestic dispute or drug deal gone bad, argument with a neighbor or convenience store caper, we reach for that venerable equalizer, the frontiersman’s friend. Bam! That settles it.
Our Constitution speaks to the bearing of arms, although it is quite certain that the bewigged visionaries of yesteryear did not anticipate that, two centuries hence, their descendants would have exhibited a zeal that verges on sexual disorder. How could poor old Jefferson and Franklin have known that, in 1989, schools would install metal detectors to identify students carrying pistols instead of peanut-butter sandwiches, or that ordinary citizens could drop by their local gun shops and walk away with enough firepower to restage the Revolution itself, or that something called the National Rifle Association would function more or less as a fourth branch of government?
Suggest that we have turned the nation into a free-fire zone, and, sure enough, some oracle with an NRA decal on his back window will arrive to warn of Armageddon should Americans choose to disarm. Listening to the standard rifleman’s pitch, one might think those dratted Nicaraguans were marching through San Antonio after all, just as Ronald Reagan feared they would, or that the nation was about to be attacked by herds of killer deer – disgruntled creatures who take exception to the theory that sportsmen hunt only to save Bambi from starvation.
In the past, the NRA has been able to outshout advocates of gun control and coerce members of Congress but, lately, the organization looks less formidable. Trouble began earlier in the year when a gunman killed five children and wounded 29 others and one adult in Stockton, Calif. The fellow’s weapon of choice was a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle – an awesome item able to fire nearly 100 shots without reloading. It occurred almost immediately to citizens in California and elsewhere that the AK-47 perhaps should not be as easy to buy as a bran muffin but, predictably, the NRA disagreed. Outlaw the assault rifle, said the organization, and you tamper with America’s soul.
George Bush, an NRA member himself, hesitated at first but, when fury over the Stockton incident failed to subside, the President banned imported assault rifles and called for prohibitions on high-capacity ammunition magazines manufactured in the United States and overseas. Proponents of gun control found the chief executive’s move disappointing – assault weapons made in the United States can still be marketed – but the NRA, accustomed to getting its way, was livid, nonetheless. “The whole thing is a farce, and the general public better wake up,” said one NRA official. “This has nothing to do with assault weapons. They want to ban all semi-automatics.”
The NRA got more bad news when Colt Industries Inc. suspended commercial sales of the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, and it took another jolt when the California legislature voted to ban manufacture and marketing of all semi-automatic assault weapons. Some police groups, feeling cops are endangered by the easy availability of guns, have withdrawn support for the NRA and are especially rankled by the organization’s refusal to support a ban on the Teflon-coated shells that can penetrate bulletproof vests. There are reports of tension at the NRA’s executive level and, in New York, rival factions are tussling. Setbacks such as those are unfamiliar for the NRA and may at last signal that gun control activists are making progress. In that case, the NRA can be expected to respond in characteristic style – like a grizzly with a chunk of hot metal in its shoulder.
First in the NRA’s clutches could be Republican office-holders. Some NRA members feel betrayed by Bush and the California legislators who voted for the state’s tough new law regulating assault weapons. “The Republican party is going to get a swift kick in the ass from us if anything happens,” cautioned NRA executive Robert K. Brown shortly before Bush announced the federal ban on imported assault weapons. While NRA lobbyists may not actually apply wing tips to the pinstriped posteriors of GOP politicians, they could do worse by withdrawing financial support. During last year’s election season, the NRA showered its favorite sons with $5.4 million – not exactly buckshot, brother – and rare is the legislator willing to offend so wealthy a constituent very often.
Finally, though, the matter rests with the American people. We are in clear need of group therapy on the matter of gun ownership. Somehow, we associate firearms with our most basic rights – freedom of speech, assembly, religion and press, and the freedom to tote Uzi submachine-guns. In California, gun dealers report brisk sales of semi-automatic assault rifles that will be banned as of Jan. 1. “We have sold more assault weapons in the last three months than in 10 years before that,” said one manager whose shop, incredibly, is only 10 km from the Stockton school-yard massacre. Such spirited response to the new legislation may cheer the NRA. But others may wonder about the emotional needs we satisfy by packing an AK-47, and how many more innocents must die before we come of age.