The Ethical Spectacle, April 1995,

Living Downstream From the NRA

The man who led the NRA to the right, to its absolutist positions on the Second Amendment and gun rights, was Harlon Carter, a former head of the U.S. Border Patrol. In 1975, testifying before Congress, Carter was asked, which was better? To have a national means of checking the backgrounds of all gun buyers, or to permit felons, drug addicts, and the mentally ill to acquire guns? Carter replied that the latter--the possession and use of weapons by the unbalanced and dangerous--was "the price we pay for freedom." (Thanks to Erik Larson, Lethal Passage (Vintage, 1994) for the quote.)

Mr. Carter: what is this "we", white man? The more I read and understand about guns, crime and liberty, the more I think that you are exercising the freedom, and I am paying the price.

Mr. Carter, you knew what it was like to squeeze a trigger and take another man's life: as a teenager, you were convicted of murder for killing another youth, a Mexican-American, whom you claimed had threatened you. The verdict was over-turned on a technicality (similar to the types of technicality Congress is attacking these days ) and the charges were never refiled. But nothing I have read indicates that you knew what it really means to be weak, powerless and a victim in this country-- a state which you can't get out of by buying a gun.

I concede that most NRA members are law-abiding, despite the presence in its management councils of killers like yourself and characters like Robert Brown, publisher of murder manuals and Soldier of Fortune Magazine (the publication where hired killers used to advertise, until the magazine got sued too many times by bereaved families of victims). I know that the feds and the BATF are overzealous and even crazed at times, trying to enforce laws that aren't quite there, and that, like the ACLU, you worry about a slippery slope . But the reason that the laws aren't quite there is because you influenced things that way, with your lobbying and campaign dollars and your political threats. No amount of your Second Amendment special pleading (what other part of the Constitution really means anything to you) obscures the fact that one group of people benefits from the guns, while another group suffers.

The real eye-opener was reading that more than 55% of the guns recovered from crime scenes in New York City, where I live, were legally purchased in the South , then trucked up here to be sold to teenagers, street gangs, and drug dealers. The minimal scheme of regulation that the NRA was so influential in architecting--the form 4473 where the purchaser is asked to declare himself a felon, drug addict, or mentally unbalanced, and which is not actually sent to any government agency; or the $35 federal dealer licenses allowing you to do business from your kitchen table and receive weapons through the mail--guarantees the flow of guns into my city and my neighborhood. Bluntly speaking, the dark side of your exercise of your liberties-- the inevitable effects of greed, selfishness and human dishonesty unfettered by any governmental oversight-- floats downstream to pollute my world.

This country, as you are probably fond of saying in other contexts, was founded on the concept of no taxation without representation-- a concept that most recently found its echo in the Contract Republican's elimination of unfunded mandates, directions by the federal government to the states to do things at the states' own expense. What is your unsupervised trafficking in guns but an unfunded mandate for which I, and the other dwellers of the cities on both coasts, must pay?

That you--you, and the young woman, the old man in the "I'm the NRA" ads-- are dangerously out of touch with my world is clearly revealed in the book Guns, Crime and Freedom (Regency, 1995) by Wayne Lapierre, the NRA's chief executive officer since 1991. In a subsequent piece, I'l respond to some of Mr. Lapierre's arguments; right now I'm too busy feeling indignation about two statements, the first from the foreword by Tom Clancy:

Gun control has no demonstrable effect on crime--or.... its effects appear to be negative, as can be crudely demonstrated in such restrictive cities as Washington and New York.

Mr. Clancy, you live in a Maryland neighborhood. The guns used to shoot children in my city were bought in your neighborhood, and in other neighborhoods like it. Don't you dare tell me that if we permitted more guns in New York City, we would have fewer shootings. We're starting to see a lot of people killed by stray shots fired by young men firing guns at other young men with guns. Ask me who we could arm in this equation to calm things down-- the fourteen year old girl a block away who caught a bullet in the back?

Gun control in my city would be very effective if people couldn't buy their guns in your neighborhood, instead. And the middle class genteel gun dealer--your friend and the object of your solicitous concerns-- might not make that legal, constitutionally protected sale--might even back off from something profitable he has a right to do--if the gun he was selling would be used to kill your next door neighbor's children. But because it will likely be used to kill my neighbor's children, not yours, its all right. Then you piously confirm this morally repugnant distancing by saying that if New York had more guns, we'd all be safer!

Lapierre takes a step further, adding a little racism to the brew:

The [New York City semiautomatic] gun ban bill was enacted only a few weeks before the Crown Heights riot of 1991 in which New York police failed to protect Jewish residents being assaulted by mobs of angry blacks. Some of the victims of this riot later sued New York Mayor David Dinkins for the city's failure to defend them. In its official reply.....the Dinkins administration asserted that "the plaintiffs simply had no constitutional or federal right to have the police respond to their calls for assistance or to receive police protection against potential harm caused by private parties."It would be difficult to find a better statement from a government official to justify widespread private ownership of firearms.

Mr. Lapierre: shut up! You know nothing about black people, and nothing about the Lubavicher Hasidim in Crown Heights. I am sure you are completely unaware of the accidental killing of a black child, when the Rabbi's motorcade ran a red light, that sparked the riots; the alleged racism of the ambulance crews; the failure of Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavicher Rabbi, to reach out to the black community by expressing sorrow to the bereaved parents; the arrogance and hatred on one side, calling out the powerless rage and hatred on the other; the effect of years of blacks and Jews living in close proximity without communication or understanding. Speaking as a Jew and as a New Yorker, I am horrified by your suggestion that a few semiautomatic weapons in the hands of the Jews would then have quelled the riot in no time. To pile mass killing on top of gross negligence and arrogance was not the solution to our problems. Instead, a few words of sorrow and of compassion, an apology, an attempt to treat other human beings with respect, would probably have been sufficient to avert this disaster.

If I literally lived downstream from you, and you polluted the river on which I relied for drinking and bathing, I would have a remedy at law preventing you from making a profit at the expense of my quality of life. Instead, I live at the end of a stream of guns from you, that invade my city, reaching the hands of hopeless, rageful children, who fire them at each other and at strangers. My taxes pay for the medical treatment of the horrendously injured people shot by the guns that were sold into the stream of commerce by the genteel gun dealer in your neighborhood. Perhaps a year or two, perhaps a decade--someday the majority in this country will wake up and refuse to contribute their own taxes, their very safety and lives, to support your gun hobby.