NRA's Bizarre Press Conference: 'More Guns Now!'
This piece has been updated.
After a week of hiding after the school massacre in the Sandy Hook community of Newtown, Conn., the National Rifle Association today broke its silence with an extraordinary press event in which Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre blamed everybody and everything but the gun culture it has fostered for the deaths of 20 children and seven adults last week at the hands of Adam Lanza.
As media swarmed into Washington, D.C.'s historic Willard Hotel for the NRA event, protesters led by CREDO Action, bearing signs emblazoned with the slogan, "Stop the NRA," gathered outside the hotel with the stated goal of delivering petitions signed by some 235,000 citizens. The petitions read: "In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the NRA must stand down and stop blocking Congress and the President from passing gun control legislation."
Petitions from CREDO Action stacked outside the Willard Hotel on Dec. 21, 2012, await their attempted delivery to NRA leaders. Photo: © Josh Lopez
Time was when the National Rifle Association was an organization for hunters and law enforcement officers, among its main aims public education on the safe use of firearms. But that was decades ago, before the NRA found more lucre in its current role trade association and lobby for manufacturers of firearms and ammunition, a business sector that, these days, shows no shame in being among the nation's foremost merchants of death.
Paranoia Runs Deep
Given the paranoia in which right-wing leaders traffic, there's a natural alliance between the arms merchants and the political right. Add to that the neo-libertarian ideology of much of the Tea Party movement, which opposes virtually all forms of government regulation, and you have a perfect confluence of interests that keeps conservative politicians of both parties in the NRA's thrall, hungry for the campaign dollars the organization dispenses through its PAC, and fearful of its opposition at primary time.
At the press conference, LaPierre laid down, in no uncertain terms, that a ban on assault rifles or large-capacity magazines, such as that being suggested by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calf., is unacceptable. (Hear that Republicans? Don't even think about voting for such a thing.) He complained that the media "demonized" gun-owners, and claimed that a ban on particular weapons such as assault rifles would do nothing to avert future tragedies.
LaPierre then went full-bore into the fear-mongering mode those on the right traditionally invoke in order to win converts. (It's not for nothing that sales of assault rifles -- particularly the AR-15 model used by Lanza -- and high-capacity magazine clips have soared since the massacre.)
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre calls for the arming of school personnel at Washington, D.C., press conference. Photo: A.M. Stan
From LaPierre's prepared text:
How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame...A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?
And the fact is, that wouldn't even begin to address the much larger and more lethal criminal class: Killers, robbers, rapists and drug gang members who have spread like cancer in every community in this country. Meanwhile, federal gun prosecutions have decreased by 40 percent — to the lowest levels in a decade.
Actually, crime rates among the sort of violent criminals named by LaPierre have dropped steadily in recent years, with a gain so small as to be statistically insignificant over the last year. (There has been a rise in unarmed, so-called "simple assaults," which raises violent crime figures overall.)
Using Tragedy to Sell More Guns
LaPierre went on to unveil the NRA's gift to the nation, a program to arm school personnel called The National Shield. Apparently this is what organization leaders meant when, in a brief statement announcing the upcoming press conference on Tuesday, they promised: "The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again." Flat-screen monitors that flanked the podium showed a graphic for the program, which appeared to be styled in the manner of the offerings on the Obama-era White House Web site.
"The NRA is going to bring all of its knowledge, dedication and resources to develop a model National School Shield Emergency Response Program for every school that wants it," LaPierre said. "From armed security to building design and access control to information technology to student and teacher training, this multi-faceted program will be developed by the very best experts in their fields."
Twice during his speech, LaPierre was interrupted by protesters from CODE PINK, each of whom stood at the front of the room, before the velvet-draped barrier, some four feet high, that appeared designed to protect the NRA speakers from the press. The podium was set back some 10 or 15 feet from the barrier, evoking the sense of paranoia that drives America's gun culture.
The first sign, held up by a male protester, was a pink banner that read: "NRA KILLING OUR KIDS." After unfurling it, he was escorted out of the room by security. About 10 minutes later, CODE PINK founder Medea Benjamin stepped with her own banner: "NRA, BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS". Receiving the same treatment as the previous protester, Benjamin shouted as she was taken out the door by security personnel: "Ban assault weapons now!"
LaPierre never acknowledged the protesters, and simply returned to his prepared text after each interruption.
Although billed as a press conference, NRA President David Keene announced at the beginning that none of the speakers would take questions, before he introduced LaPierre, who simply delivered a speech rife with blame-laying -- on video games and gun-free school zones, Quentin Tarantino and President Barack Obama (the latter of whom he said had cut the budget for school security grants). LaPierre went so far as to play a clip from a video game called "Kindergarten Killer," which showed a cartoon child being shot in the head and spurting blood.
NRA security specialist scans room for potential disruptions. The barrier erected between press and the podium is seen in background.
Arming the Schools
Of gun-free school zones, LaPierre said: "Politicians pass laws for gun-free school zones. They issue press releases bragging about them. They post signs advertising them. And in so doing, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk."
He went on to blame politicians for the death of Sandy Hook School Principal Dawn Hochsprung, implying that she would have wielded a firearm had she been allowed to.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," LaPierre said. His use of the "good guy, bad guy" language was particularly offensive, since, in her widely publicized interview with Diane Sawyer, Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Kaitlin Roig recounted using exactly those terms when talking to her first-graders during the massacre last Friday, as she hid them in a small bathroom. She told them that there were bad guys out there, but the good guys would be coming soon.
LaPierre then turned the podium over to Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman and under secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, to outline the new NRA National School Shield program which seems designed, more than anything, to sell more guns.
Flat-screen displays that flanked the podium at the Dec. 21, 2012, NRA press event were used to promote the association's armed-schools program, and to show a clip from a violent video game. Photo: A.M. STAN
Hutchinson took pains to assure Tea Party followers that he was not advocating a new government program.
After Hutchinson's presentation (transcript of his remarks here), Keene returned to the podium to close the event, when a reporter began shouting a question, asking whether the NRA had sought a meeting with the White House.
"As I indicated at the outset," Keene replied, "this is the beginning of a serious conversation, and we won't be taking any questions today." A conversation, it seems, in which only one side does the talking. Keene did say that the leaders would entertain questions from the media beginning on Monday. (LaPierre is scheduled to appear this Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press.)
In the meeting room at the Willard where the press conference took place, the mood among journalists -- even mainstream journalists -- was one of incredulity. Journos marveled at how an event so tightly scripted could deliver such a tone-deaf message. But the truth is that NRA leaders aren't looking for popularity among the general public -- or even among their own members. As long as they keep their paymasters -- the gun-makers -- happy, that's all they appear to care about. They've apparently bet that their fear-stoking will pay off in the halls of Congress, where lawmakers have long been loath to cross the lethal behemoth.
But this could be the moment when the NRA has finally jumped the shark; even gun-owners back closing the gun-show loophole that allows gun buyers to skip the background check required for firearm purchase at a store, if only they by their weapons at a gun show instead.
"Wayne LaPierre's bizarre and quite frankly paranoid press conference today is a testament to just how extreme and out of touch the NRA's leadership has become," said Becky Bond, political director of CREDO, in a written statement. "If teachers could stand up to a gunman with a semi-automatic assault weapon, then Congress can stand up to the NRA and its lobbyists. The NRA is clearly doubling down on its extreme agenda in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre."