Although individual groups representing blacks, Hispanics, and women have called for stricter gun control measures in the past, none of them have carried enough clout at the polls to effect legislative change. But what we just witnessed in this past general election is a game changer.
[Updated: November 20, 2012. The NRA section below has been updated to include information from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence ‘Meet the NRA’ website].
There are some solutions that could help curb the staggering loss of American life to gunfire. Guns falling into the hands of those convicted of violent crime as well as the mentally-ill has clearly been a problem. Such individuals can, at least in part, be identified through background checks. Closing the ‘gun show loophole’ (that by-passes background checks) should reduce the number of guns falling into the wrong hands. Not a perfect solution as a currently ‘law-abiding citizen’ may not stay that way. And millions of mentally ill individuals are missing from the background check system; and who’s to say that an emotionally-stable individual will remain that way when dealing with life’s pressures. But, none-the-less, still a workable solution that should produce some level of measurable benefit.
However, there is an issue for which there really has been no solution. Those holding hateful ideological beliefs can legally arm themselves, as long as they don’t have an existing record that would prohibit them from doing so – and some of them have demonstrated the capacity to kill innocent people simply because of their race, ethnicity, religious belief, sexual preference and even gender (domestic violence). ‘Stand your Ground’ or ‘Shoot First’ laws, where only the shooter is left standing, makes a plea of self-defense by an extremist essentially a license to kill.
Our behavior and habits are shaped by conditioning we receive during our lives. We respond, often without even thinking, by the way we have been conditioned. As an adjunct professor and Course Director for Leadership Development, I taught that personal and executive development is an introspective process. It was Viktor Frankl, an Austrian born psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, who made the point that between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space we have the freedom to choose our response. This was central to Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Successful People” where he advocated for making conscious choices to break old habits from prior conditioning and form better and more productive ones. I also used that principle in work I have done with foster children in showing them that they could make a conscious decision to break the cycle of abuse to which some of them had been exposed.
Regrettably, some individuals have been conditioned to hate and fear. A point that Morris Dees makes in his book “A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees Story” is that there is no gene that makes one a racist – people are taught (conditioned) to hate. And it is the mixing of guns with individuals who have been so conditioned where stimulus can lead to the devastating response of taking an innocent life simply because of what that person is.
This issue is ‘Gun Right’s’ fatal flaw. It constitutes a threat to our country’s remarkable diversity through those who harbor hateful beliefs. I submit that there has been no real solution to this issue as we do not deny access to guns based on ideology. No solution, that is, until what we just witnessed in this past general election.
An Explosion of Anti-Government and Hate Groups
What is written here should not be construed as a statement that all individuals who harbor anti-government or hateful beliefs are prone to violent behavior. But it is clear that there are, and will continue to be, those who have taken the step to terminate many innocent lives motivated by those beliefs.
Intelligence gathering by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has shown an explosive growth of the radical right in recent years. This growth has been fueled by recent economic pressures, a proliferation of conspiracy theories such as government concentration camps and Sharia Law, the changing racial/ethnic demography of America, and our first African-American president who many on the far right view as an enemy to their country.
Over 1000 hate groups have been counted by SPLC, up from 602 in 2000, the rise being attributed to the successful exploitation of non-white immigration, president Obama’s election, and the economic recession. Indeed, it was when the Great Depression hit Germany in the 1930’s that voice was given to far right extremism (fascism): marked by an ultranationalism (a reclaiming of the country that had been lost); defining those who fit and did not fit; portraying those who did not fit as the cause of problems, referring to them as vermin, cancers (or today, moochers and takers who want stuff?); and, ultimately “eliminationism” (a politics and a culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination) – reviewed here.
Included in the list compiled by SPLC are anti-gay groups, anti-muslim groups, black separatist groups (that are but a sliver of the larger white ‘sovereign citizen’ ideology that had its roots in white supremacy and who believe they have no obligation to government), Christian Identity Groups, Ku Klux Klan Groups, Nativist Extremist Groups (that harass and confront individuals they suspect are undocumented immigrants), Neo-Confederate Groups, Racist Skinhead Groups, and White Nationalist Groups. A graph of the growth of such organizations since 2000 is displayed below. A link to an interactive map of the United States where such groups can be identified on a state by state basis can be found here.
But the truly stunning growth came from anti-government “Patriot”/militia movement that views the government as their primary enemy. These groups formed in the mid-1990’s based on the perception of violent government repression of dissident groups at Ruby Ridge, ID in 1992 and near Waco, TX in 1993. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 is attributable to this movement which peaked a year after the incident and then rapidly declined. But the movement was once again energized in 2008 with the economic recession and the appearance of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate. The numbers of these groups rose from 149 in 2008 to 1,274 last year. Of these, 334 were militias. A state by state listing of these groups is provided here. A graph produced by SPLC showing the meteoric growth of such groups is displayed below.
The loss of life from gunfire by those holding extremist views has been reviewed by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in a report entitled Guns and Hate: A Lethal Combination. The document makes clear that it is not intended to provide a comprehensive accounting of all hate-related crimes and shootings, but provides a review of prominent events between July 1999 and June 2009. Excerpting from the Executive Summary:
“On June 10, 2009, a white supremacist who believed it was “time to kill the Jews” took his gun to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and started shooting immediately upon entering, leaving a security guard dead. Ten years earlier, a white supremacist gunman terrorized the Midwest, shooting African-Americans, Asians, and Jews throughout Illinois and Indiana, killing former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong in Skokie, Illinois, and Indiana University graduate student Won- Joon Yoon in Bloomington, Indiana, and wounding nine more. In another hate-crime spree in 1999, five people were shot at a Los Angeles Jewish Community Center before the shooter shot and killed a U.S. postal worker. Other recent extremist shootings have targeted churchgoers, abortion providers, U.S. soldiers, and police officers.”
And the shooting sprees by such individuals has continued since 2009, a recent prominent incident being the mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin by a white supremacist.
A Largely Partisan Issue Fueled By the NRA and Conservative Media
A protest at the University of Mississippi against the re-election of president Obama escalated into a crowd of about 400 people with shouted racial slurs. An analysis of tweets containing racial slurs following Obama’s re-election was published in The Atlantic – although coming from many states, the highest incidence occurred in Alabama followed by Mississippi. And no president has had his birth right as an American citizen questioned as has Barack Obama through the ‘Birther Movement’ (code for ‘he’s not one of us’).
This regrettable aspect of America is gamed and stoked for political advantage by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and conservative media.
The NRA “goes to great lengths (and spends a huge sum of money) to defend the right to bear arms. It is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, background checks for gun owners, and registration of firearms” (ref). This election cycle the organization spent over $1 million in political contributions, about $1.5 million in lobbying, and near $18 million in outside contributions. And Republicans were the beneficiary of 90% of the political contributions. But in accepting these contributions, these politicians are giving sway to the extremist positions and conspiracy theories propagated by the NRA that target American diversity.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence has published a review of the NRA and extremists under part three of this report. The NRA “has employed inflammatory and anti-government rhetoric that bears a chilly similarity to some of the language of the hate groups followed by spree killer Benjamin Smith, the Holocaust Museum shooter and other dangerous extremists”. The ‘over the top’ rhetoric of this organization caused president GHW Bush to give up his NRA membership. The NRA “has viewed the Second Amendment as providing citizens, in the Constitution, with the means to maintain an insurrection against the government”. This issue has also been considered by Josh Horwitz (Executive Director, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) and Casey Anderson in Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrection Idea. In that work it is argued that more guns do not equate to more freedom and that the insurrectionist idea constitutes a true threat to freedom in the United States.
NRA ties to extremism, racism, sexism and the gun industry has been reviewed by the Violence Policy Center (ref). Additionally the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has created a Meet the NRA website that details numerous statements made by that organization’s leadership on the issues of race, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. Some selected statements are excerpted below, and readers can view the full array of comments through the provided links.
In Vol. 12, No. 3 of Jeff Cooper’s Commentaries published in March 2004, Cooper wrote, “We note that there are those who object to our referring to Japanese as Nips. However, the Nips have no reticence about referring to me as a gaijin. I do not know why we have all suddenly become almost hysterically touchy.” Turning to the topic of “hyphenated Americans” (an early 20th century slur for Americans of foreign birth or origin), he added, “We were pleased to be singled out by some members of the New York City Council as one of the sort of evil person who sits on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association. I did not know any of those other people were listening, but I certainly enjoy following the lead of Theodore Roosevelt in disdaining hyphenated Americans, and thus preferring assimilation to diversity. I do wish these people would stand up and fight, as I relish this sort of thing, but I cannot swing at a target if I cannot see it.”
In an August 28, 2012 interview with The Hill, Blackwell made references to controversial remarks made by U.S. Representative Todd Akin (R-MO). On August 19, 2012, Akin commented on the issue of pregnancy induced by rape, stating, “It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” Later, Akin publicly stated that Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan had personally asked him to end his candidacyfor the U.S. Senate. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also announced that even if Akin, who was trailing Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill in two recent polls, managed to pull even with her, “We’re not going to send him a penny.” Commenting on this imbroglio, Blackwell stated, “I think it was a mistake not to get the leaders in Missouri lined up before [GOP national leadership] went up and looked overly heavy-handed in the way they were pushing [Akin] … I’ve encouraged people at the Senatorial Committee to wait about five days and do a poll and see if things have stabilized. If things have, they might want to readjust. Senatorial committees can do anything. It is not as if some of the damage they’ve done can be papered over but they can reverse themselves on it.”
[Author’s note: In October of this year, well after Akin’s ‘legitimate rape’ comment, the NRA endorsed Akin as a US Senate candidate.
In an August 2007 letter to a constituent who asked about the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy concerning homosexuality, Craig wrote, “It is unacceptable to risk the lives of American soldiers and sailors merely to accommodate the sexual lifestyles of certain individuals.”
And conservative media has been playing the ‘race card’ for conservative political gain. Consider Glenn Beck, on Fox News before a national TV audience, stating that Obama has a “deep seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and openly called Obama a “racist”. Or Bill O’Reilly on Fox News stating on election night that “The white establishment is now the minority” and with this country’s changing demographics that “It’s not a traditional America anymore”. Or O’Reilly again in 2007 on the issue of immigration: “They want to break down the white, Christian power structure, which you’re a part (Senator John McCain), and so am I, and they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have”. Or Rush Limbaugh playing on his radio show a song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro” during Obama’s candidacy for his first term; Obama was given Secret Service protection, in part, for threats on white supremacist websites. And Limbaugh is no stranger to race baiting. Media Matters compiled a list of what they considered to be Limbaugh’s 20 worst racial attacks on minorities in general and Obama specifically, including referring to Obama, who has a black father and white mother, as a Halfrican American.
This type of language reinforces bigotry and hatred that results in violence against minority groups. And the mixing of hatred and extremism with guns has taken, and will continue to take, innocent lives. The link between hate language and violence against Hispanics (and other groups such as LGBT’s) is one that the National Hispanic Media Coalition has explored.
Politicians have been able to accept NRA contributions with impunity and oppose sensible gun control because there have been no political consequences. And others fear political retribution from the NRA if they do not do the organization’s biding. Although groups representing women, Hispanics, and African Americans have called for tighter gun regulation in the past, none of them individually have carried enough clout at the polls. However, what we just witnessed in this recent general election is a game changer.
Although president Obama captured only 39% of the white vote (the lowest margin since Mondale in 1984), he won the election by winning 80% of the non-white electorate capturing 93%, 71%, and 73% of the African American, Hispanic, and Asian vote, respectively (ref). But Obama’s campaign was more than just harnessing the power of demographic change. It targeted key constituencies (under Operation Vote) that made up his coalition including African Americans, Hispanics, young voters and women (particularly those with college degrees).
This coalition struck down those holding extremist positions. Women railed against “legitimate rape”, rape pregnancies being “a gift from God”, mandatory vaginal ultrasound prior to abortion, and a young highly educated woman being called a “slut” and “prostitute” by Limbaugh for her congressional testimony regarding contraception. Hispanics saw onerous immigration laws, profiling, and conservative opposition to the DREAM Act. African Americans saw voter suppression tactics and gerrymandering that weakened their voice. Although statistics were not found for LGBT’s, support from that group would likely be meager for a party whose national platform included bringing back DADT and banning same-sex marriage. And this coalition was immune to excessive campaign spending; large sums of outside money spent in opposing Obama and supporting conservative senate candidates produced exceptionally meager return on the investment.
This same coalition could reshape the political landscape regarding gun control as they represent the groups who suffer most from gun violence. And NRA campaign spending had little sway with this coalition as the millions the organization spent produced an exceptionally meager 0.81% return on investment . Brady Campaign’s president, Dan Gross, noted that the NRA spent 88% of its federal independent expenditures in 7 races and their candidates lost in the presidential race and 6 key Senate races.
Polling has shown that Hispanics and blacks, the people most impacted by gun violence, want stricter gun laws. Likely driven by increasing gun violence in Latin America, 86% of Latinos support mandating a background check on all gun sales. And in addition to the violent acts blacks have suffered at the hands of extremists such as white supremacists, gun homicide has been cited as the leading cause of death among black teens. And the youth vote, including young educated women, would be a powerful part of the coalition. Data from the General Social Survey, summarized by the Violence Policy Center, shows that the decline in household gun ownership in America since the 1970’s is attributable, in part, to a lack of interest in guns by youth and the increase in single-parent homes headed by women – and gun violence statistics for women, as summarized by the Brady Campaign, are appalling. Further, data analyzed by SPLC has shown that homosexuals are far more likely than any other minority in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crimes, and this group continues to be demonized through extremist hate language “often amplified by certain politicians”.
The coalition exists. No doubt there are districts where this coalition would likely not be effective. But, also little doubt that there are many where it would. What will be critical is that the leader who drove this coalition in the general election, president Obama, step up and make gun control an issue in the 2014 mid-term elections. And considering what this coalition pulled off in the general election, this issue should only help his party. He has already stated his interest in seeing an assault weapons ban reintroduced. But a reshaping of the political landscape and psyche by this coalition could produce a number of important legislative advances, such as closing the gun show loophole.
The time to begin organizing is now. It will not be possible to prevent all gun violence in this country. But with diligent groundwork, as was done in the general election, we can take the step to make our country safer and render those harboring hateful ideologies less dangerous.