I was intrigued recently to discover the rhetoric of the modern gun debate, then in its infancy, in a March 1969 column in Playboy by then-Sen. Joseph Tydings, a Democrat from Maryland.
Tydings, who lost his seat after his first term thanks in large part to this stance, took to task the role and moral aptitude of the lobby that purports to speak on behalf of considerate and lawful gun owners.
“Sincere sportsmen, in whose ranks I count myself, must realize that eventually, when enough gun atrocities are committed, the public will demand legislation so strong that our pleasures really will be endangered,” he wrote. “No organization, not even one as powerful as the NRA, can intimidate for long in a free society. A gun policy that is insane for society is also insane for hunters. And the NRA serves its members ill when, instead of seizing the opportunity to help right gun crime regulation, it opposes all effective gun-control proposals.”
There it was, the same argument in a debate that’s nearly identical to the one I find myself engaging in nonstop since the publication of my column two weeks ago. For me, it has never been about guns but about the chilling effect brought to the debate and bought by an industry-specific lobby. If any other lobby helped to shift the conversation away from tens of thousands of deaths for which their industry has responsibility, they would be painted as Bond villain evil. But this lobby, in particular, has been especially good at weaving the illusion of its necessity into our foundational narrative: We need access to guns to protect ourselves from an overzealous government. That is how we came to be in the first place. But who is the “we” in this scenario?
It’s a narrative that reflects the selective memory of whites who fancy themselves potential protectors against an oppressive big government. It is part of our original myth — that of our God-like, heroic forefathers. We had to fight an oppressive government, and we might have to again. But it is not the whole truth. It paints a picture in which the white, gun-toting freedom fighter is the underdog. The victim. The reality, though, is that on the other side of that coin was the American Indian removed by the gun, the nonwhite enslaved and forced into bondage at gunpoint.
In his piece for Playboy, Tydings underscored the racial undertones — and, in this case, overtones — of the rhetoric employed in the NRA’s argument:
“The NRA fights the most reasonable legislation as unconstitutional. And it appeals to the basest, most irrational prejudices of its members.
“For example, an editorial in The American Rifleman last year titled ‘Who Guards America’s Homes?’ asked what would happen if a race riot broke out in your community while every American combat unit and the entire National Guard were overseas in a major war. What of the fate of citizens who may be trapped and beleaguered by howling mobs that brush police aside?”
The founding narrative based on liberation but stripped of oppression is not dissimilar from the right-wing tendency of featuring the founding fathers devoid of their slaves. In recalling liberation but not the enslavement or genocide that accompanied it, whites in particular subscribe to a self-serving narrative. To whom does the narrative about the good guy with a gun belong? Who has been victimized by being on the other side of that gun? What anxieties are we trying to stifle by prescribing more guns, not fewer?
This is only one of the abstractions overlooked by the political stalemate and silence the NRA, which has perpetuated racial anxieties in making the case for near anarchic deregulation, has paid for in the form of funneling tens of millions to politicians who foster that silence. And tens of millions more to oppose those who dare speak up.
I am not anti-gun; I’m simply in favor of a democratic exchange on the issue. The silence bought and paid for by an industry-specific lobby is antithetical to that.
I remain convinced that Tydings’ half-century-old assessment remains true. This is the conversation the NRA has paid for; this is the NRA’s America. Sick to death of being scared to death, people are asking why we aren’t dealing with this in a more meaningful way than simply offering lip service to its tragic nature and demanding the legislation the NRA has spent billions to make law.
This silence by omission, avoidance and blame has been particularly palpable in the Republican debates.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.