Last Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington – and around one million throughout the country – to call for tighter gun laws following the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, last month.
There are calls for action each time there’s a mass shooting but they fizzle out – until the next tragedy.
This time though it’s looking a little different. The kids from the Florida school, where 17 died, are unusually eloquent and energetic. They used their social media skills and formidable performances in TV interviews to keep the murders in the forefront of the news and overcame logistical problems to transform emotions into well-organized rallies.
I am a gun-owner and, for a few years until 2016, was an NRA (National Rifle Association) member. I didn’t join because I believed the US Constitution’s Second Amendment, which enshrines the right to bear arms, was in jeopardy of being repealed.
My chief reason for getting membership was that I live in Washington DC and the best recreational range near my home is at the NRA’s HQ in Virginia, a 30 minute drive away.
Criticism of the protesters was led by the NRA which accused them of calling for the destruction of the Second Amendment and said they were “being funded and organised by Hollywood elites, gun-hating billionaires and gun-ban politicians.”
When I joined the NRA I vaguely thought of it as an enthusiasts’ club, akin to bird-watching or stamp collecting hobbyists.
I was irritated by those, particularly many hectoring Brits, who think it’s bizarre, dangerous, and psychologically unhealthy for America to have such easy gun access, and who advocate confiscating almost all weapons (as in the UK after the 1996 massacre of 16 pupils and a teacher at a school in Dumblane, Scotland).
The gun cultures in the UK and US are historically markedly different.
In the US even if all legally-held weapons were confiscated tomorrow, the illegal arsenals would keep criminals and nutters supplied for decades.
I also find it difficult to take seriously objectors who don’t know the difference between an automatic and semi-automatic weapon and erroneously call the AR-15 style of rifle, used in many of the recent massacres, a machine gun.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Mass shootings in schools, churches and music concerts such as Las Vegas last autumn, are, for some reason, overwhelmingly carried out by white males. But only 158 people have died in those since 2000, while tens of thousands, mostly young black and hispanic males, have shot each other dead in the same period.
The school shooting victims are defenseless kids. Many of the black and hispanic victims are also kids but both killers and targets are often not very innocent – dealing narcotics or gang members. Their deaths don’t provoke many tears.
Most Americans don’t see a problem banning the AR-15 or similar military-looking weapons because they are not the tool for home protection or hunting.
They are fun to fire though. But I’ve seen lots of their owners also dressing in camouflage uniforms and acquiring night sights, and other cool military accessories. Some join white supremacist, survivalist, or “freedom” groups and obsess about government conspiracies. I suspect too many are fantasizing about an excuse to use their weapons for real.
The NRA’s immense financial patronage influences politicians of all parties and its endorsement of candidates is often critical, especially in elections in rural gun-owning areas.
I was slow to realize that the NRA isn’t a gun hobbyists’ club but an efficient and devious PR machine to increase the market for gun manufacturers. It uses romantic legends of Wild West gun law, fear of violent crime, anxiety about terrorism, scare stories that only widespread gun ownership prevents tyrannical government, to promote the need for ever more weapons. It has convinced many Americans that any curbs are the thin end of a wedge to prohibit all guns .
The march was along the wide Pennsylvania Avenue stretching from the southern edge of the White House to near the Capitol, housing Congress. Most participants were of school or college age, serious in their purpose but not puffed up with self-importance. Adults included teachers, and war veterans from Vietnam and the current conflicts. The core message was pupils wanted to feel safe in their schools.
Most were unprepossessing, nice kids. There was no trouble, everyone I met was polite, and I thought there was something determinedly American and hopeful about them. I felt proud of them.
And I felt angry that the NRA wasn’t collectively man enough to greet these impressive young people, even if they disagreed with them. Instead the NRA heaped insults and scorn upon them accusing them of being puppets, dupes or even paid actors pretending they were pupils from the Florida school.
I’m hanging on to my .38 Smith & Wesson revolver but I’m not going to renew my NRA membership. Perhaps these young people have set in motion something that will endure and eventually result in the sensible changes to the regulations that most Americans want. I hope so.