Will the Gun Lobby Block New Safety Laws Again?

After the mass shootings in Uvalde, Buffalo, gun control demands at both the federal and state levels are growing. We speak with Frank Smyth, longtime investigative journalist who has been covering the National Rifle Association, about the gun lobby’s grip on U.S. lawmakers. He says the Democratic strategy to “find common ground” with conservatives is failing, as the growing gun rights movement refuses to do the same, and discusses how the NRA’s history of hypocrisy and corruption has weakened the formal, centralized power of the group. “The NRA is imploding … but the ideology that they have cooked at the same time they are waning is stronger than ever,” says Smyth.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Funerals continue in Uvalde for the 19 fourth graders who were shot and killed at Robb Elementary School. The state’s probe into the police handling of the school shooting is facing a major new obstacle as the police chief of the Uvalde school district, Pete Arredondo, is refusing to cooperate with state investigators. He was the incident commander who ordered officers to wait in the school’s hallways for about an hour instead of confronting the gunman, who was eventually shot dead by a Border Patrol agent. On Tuesday, Arredondo was secretly sworn into office as a city councilmember. However, no public ceremony was held.

In the midst of all the grief and investigations there is growing demand for legislative gun control legislation. On Tuesday, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met with President Biden at the White House, discussing how she responded to the Christchurch mosque mass shooting, that killed 51 people in 2019, by banning most semiautomatic weapons. This is Biden.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’ve been to more mass shooting aftermaths than, I think, any president in American history, unfortunately. And it’s — it’s just — so much of it is — much of it is preventable, and the devastation is amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: Bipartisan talks are currently underway about a red flag bill that might be able overcome a Republican-led filibuster of the Senate and allow police to remove guns from those deemed to be a threat to themselves and others. Lawmakers are meeting after Texas Senator Ted Cruz, President Trump and other Republicans addressed the National Rifle Association’s annual convention this weekend and opposed calls for new gun control laws.

SEN. TED CRUZ: Many people would still argue that the evil at Uvalde and Buffalo comes from ordinary American citizens having guns. It’s far easier to slander one’s political adversaries and to demand that responsible citizens forfeit their constitutional rights than it is to examine the cultural sickness giving birth to unspeakable acts of evil.

AMY GOODMAN: After his speech in which he blamed other factors for mass shootings in the United States, Texas Senator Cruz went to dinner with Indivisible Houston board member Ben Hernandez.

BENJAMIN HERNANDEZ: And why did you come here to the convention —

SECURITY: Sir, you must back up. You must back up.

BENJAMIN HERNANDEZ: — to take blood money?

SECURITY: Backups are important. You must back up.

BENJAMIN HERNANDEZ: Why? When 19 children died.

SECURITY: You must back up.

BENJAMIN HERNANDEZ: Nineteen children died! And it’s on your hands! It’s on your hands! Ted Cruz, that’s on your hands!

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Frank Smyth, longtime investigative journalist who’s been covering the NRA More than a quarter-century. He’s author of the book The NRA: The Unauthorized History.

Frank, we are glad to have you back. Democracy Now! Your history is fascinating, and your reporting over the years, whether you were exposing France’s support for Rwandan genocide by giving military arms there or the same in El Salvador, the U.S. Support for the murderous regime and in Guatemala, taken hostage in Iraq during World War II, when Gad Gross was killed. Now, you are taking on the responsibility. NRA. It’s an incredible history that you give. And I’m wondering, as we see NRA member after NRA member — the politicians, that is, not the rank and file — you know, fighting against gun control, you tell a very different history in this book. Why don’t you bring out, in a nutshell, the relevant points over the years that have been basically erased of what this organization was about?

FRANK SMYTH: The organization, NRA — and thank you, Amy — claims to be the oldest civil rights organization in the United States. This is a total canard. The NRA didn’t raise gun rights at all until more than 50 years after it was already in existence, in response to a New York state gun law passed in 1911 that now, ironically, is before the Supreme Court, as well as the Bolshevik Revolution. These two events led to the first editorial voicing concern about gun rights in 1922. NRA Founded in 1871. The NRA Supported gun control, including the 1934 National Firearms Act, which outlawed fully-automatic weapons as a response to the violence of the Gangsters like Al Capone during Prohibition. It also established the first system to regulate wholesale firearm transfers from manufacturers to wholesalers. And that’s a system that the NRA doesn’t like to talk about but they still support, because it’s quite convenient.

The NRA then underwent its own, what’s known in the lore as the Cincinnati revolt, or an internal revolt, a self-coup, if you will, shifting from an organization that prioritized the shooting sports and, later, hunting and always gun safety to then prioritize gun rights or consumer access to firearms, which is what gun rights really means, above everything else. So, over the past 45 years, they have pursued an absolutist vision of gun rights, which is based on the idea that there could be no compromise between gun ownership and gun regulations, something that’s a complete flip-flop from what the NRA It did for more than a century before.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Frank, what caused or was it the basis for this dramatic shift in its policies and procedures?

FRANK SMYTH: It was the Gun Control Act of 1967, signed by President Johnson. This was in response to the assassinations. JFKThese three were Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. It was passed in 1968. It banned interstate sales of long rifles, such as the one linked to the assassination. JFK. It also banned the sale of guns for minors and other measures. There was also a group outside and within the government. NRAThis was interpreted by the alleged oppressive government overreach.

The gun rights movement also likes to claim that the NRA They have roots that go back to the Revolutionary War, and many other places. This is also a serious problem. America’s gun rights movement started in response to the Gun Control Act of 1968. Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms was the first gun rights group in the United States. It was formed in 1972. The Gun Owners of America emerged in 1974. And three years later, in ’77, the NRA It was the Cincinnati revolt. These are the things that the NRA doesn’t want anyone to know. And they’ve created other myths to advance their agenda.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in essence, the change came not only in response to Lyndon Johnson’s passage of that ’68 law, but this was also the period when there were racial disturbances and rebellions in cities across the country. And I recall pictures of hundreds of thousands of people lining up at gun shops — white Americans — to buy guns because they believed at the time that there was a potential racial civil war occurring in the United States.

FRANK SMYTH: Absolutely.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What role does race play in these policy changes?

FRANK SMYTH: It played an undercurrent and had a tremendous role, even though it’s rarely talked about. Johnson signed the 1968 Gun Control Act. NRA, which — that divided the gun community. It is clear that the 1960s racial tension played a significant role in radicalizing people. NRAThey saw consumer access to firearms as a priority, and that it was something that should be prioritized. And also, you can’t discount the vigilante movies of the 1970s and the crime that was rising in the early 1970s especially, and the vigilante concept captured in films like Dirty Harry, Death Wish Serie of films Taxi These and many others. All of this played a role in radicalizing a certain element of America’s gun movement, which led to these gun rights groups or the Cincinnati revolt, the turn of the NRAAll of this was in the 1970s.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted 1999 to be my year. I wanted to go to 1999. NRA It held its annual convention in Denver, just weeks after the Columbine High School massacre. NRA President Charlton Heston presided over the meeting — yes, the famous actor. This is a clip showing Charlton Heston speaking in the following year.

CHARLTON HESTON: So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: “From my cold, dead hands.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Charlton Heston, soon after the Columbine massacre. Now, at the same time that you have him as president — you can talk about how that happened — you have Wayne LaPierre rising up in the organization. We go from the events that took place after the massacre to one year later to this weekend. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre speaks again just after a massacre in Houston, Texas last weekend.

WAYNE LAPIERRE: It’s time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions. And that’s why we, the NRAWe will never stop fighting for the rights and freedoms of the innocent, law-abiding citizens, to defend ourselves against the evil, criminal elements that plague our society.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Wayne LaPierre’s rise, Charlton Heston and what we’re seeing today.

FRANK SMYTH: Well, Wayne LaPierre became — he joined the NRA 1978, exactly one year after the Cincinnati revolution. He was also a Blue Dog Democrat who had worked in Virginia’s state House on gun legislation. And before that, he briefly was a special education public high school — public school teacher in both Virginia and New York, which I think is somewhat interesting. When he joined The Observer, he was only 28 years old. NRA.

He helped to pass the Firearms Owners Protection Act (1996) during the Reagan Administration. This act rolled back some of 1968’s law, which gave him some credibility in the Reagan administration. NRA. They elected LaPierre to be the executive vice president in 1991 after a series scandals and infighting within the organization that threatened to bring it down. CEOHe uses the title “The title”, which is the combination title he uses now, in 1991.

Neal Knox tried to depose him as a means of trying to outflank his organization on the main issue. LaPierre and his aides recruited Charlton Heston to take on that challenge. So, when Charlton Heston raised that flintlock rifle and said, “From my cold, dead hands,” he was playing to the public, and he was also playing internally to the NRA, because he needed to show his gun rights credentials in order to keep — to support LaPierre and keep him in power.

Now, what’s also interesting after Columbine is LaPierre — and nobody talks about this, but CNN unearthed it recently — testified and talked about how the NRA He has no problem with background checks that are thorough. And he is not averse to universal background checks. This is an amazing thing, because now they claim, and for 20 years they’ve claimed since then, that background checks pose an existential threat to liberty and could lead to genocide, because background checks wouldn’t work now, as they explain it, without gun registration, and gun registration, we all know, is the slippery slope to disarmament, followed by tyranny and genocide. This is absurd. LaPierre, however, said the exact opposite after Columbine. So this flip-flop is something he hasn’t been held accountable for, though it would be very easy. But I think both gun reformers and Democrats have been reluctantly to challenge the assertion. NRAThey are committing a strategic error.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Frank, I wanted to ask you — those who want to defend gun rights, supposedly, within the NRA These mass shootings are always cited as the result of individual evil and reflect a moral decay within society. They don’t talk about comparing the United States to other nations, this unique situation in which the United States has so many guns and so much violence. It would be helpful to put it in perspective for those who don’t know what the situation in other countries.

FRANK SMYTH: Yeah. Juan, thank you. Great question. Here it is. The United States has 25x the average amount of gun violence compared to other advanced nations. Twenty-five times. So what’s the difference between us and those other advanced nations? Each of these nations has a national system for regulating retail firearm sales and consumer firearm sales. The United States is the most advanced nation and nation anywhere in the globe that leaves retail regulation of consumer gun sales up to individual states or our regional governments. This is a first. So, what that means is that in Chicago up to 60% of the weapons seized in crimes came from out of state, because it’s the states with weak gun laws that supply the guns that are used in crimes, to a large degree, in the states with stronger gun laws — not to mention guns that are trafficked to Mexico, Central America and throughout the Caribbean.

The NRA Ted Cruz stated that cultural sickness is something Ted Cruz enjoys talking about. There’s a movement now in the gun reform community or the gun safety community to talk about it as a gun safety issue and talk about — reframe it all as a safety issue. I think that’s not strong enough. I think we should be reframing this issue in the United States, those — I’m an independent, but I support gun control, and I’m also a gun owner, by the way, and I support gun control. We need to ask ourselves why we are the only country that doesn’t regulate retail firearm sales. And why is it that — 50 years ago, this was talked about by President Johnson. Why is it today that neither Republicans — though the Democrats are afraid to talk about this issue, while the Republicans are using it to derail every measure that the Democrats bring forward? It’s almost like a chess game, and the Democrats have been completely outmaneuvered by the Republicans and the gun lobby, meaning the NRA and the gun industry, and they really don’t know what to do. The Democrats are divided and unclear on what they want right now. This is a problem because it doesn’t seem to be clear what the next steps should be. And that’s because the Democrats have encouraged the gun reform people to take the approach.

You can pass legislation if you reach across the aisle and find common ground. The whole gun lobby’s whole point is no compromise, no common ground. Josh Hawley spoke a year back about gun registration as a threat of liberty when they raise background check. And he didn’t mention it, but this is a canard based on a fabulous distortion of the Holocaust, claiming prior gun registration lists enabled it, right? This is completely false, but it is the kind of propaganda that the gun lobby has used in the United States. Talk to anyone in the gun rights community. NRA meeting, or if you go to gun clubs, and you ask people, “Hey, explain to me the slippery slope,” they’ll read it like it’s gospel truth. This is part of the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank, we have to wrap up now, but I wanted to ask you about the fact that — isn’t the NRA At its lowest, what is corruption probing? The interaction between the NRA — and you describe this so well in your book — with the gun industry, and how much power that has, and its nexus, how it all got exposed at Sandy Hook?

FRANK SMYTH: Yes, it is. NRA My view is that the economy is in danger. They will not be able to survive a New York attorney General civil lawsuit against them for massive corruption, where the charges stemmed from Oliver North, the whistleblower. People forget that, but it’s Oliver North, Iran-Contra Oliver North, who first accused LaPierre of embezzling funds. And he hasn’t backed down; he’s just gone quiet about that. So they’re in trouble.

However, the ideology they have created at the same moment they are losing their power is stronger than ever. And this is what is — this is the legacy of the NRA and the gun lobby, and I believe this is what people who want gun reform do not get. It’s not the NRA’s money, not so much anymore — it’s still important — but it’s the ideology. It’s the fact that they’ve convinced tens of millions of Americans that any gun control poses an existential threat to their freedom. This is ridiculous and kind of remarkable that they have convinced people of this, because it’s all based on false history and convoluted theories that are as crazy as anything you’d find on QAnon, and predate QAnon, but the NRA This has been going on for decades. And it’s having — they’ve managed to convince a great many people. And this is something that the Democrats and the gun reformers haven’t even begun to address.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank Smyth, thank you so much for being here, long-time investigative journalist, and author of The NRA: The Unauthorized History.

Next came the U.S. drone strike on March 29, 2018, which killed five cousins and struck a car carrying five men. Four of them were killed. We’ll hear from the survivor. Stay with Us


AMY GOODMAN: Larry Gatlin is a Texas country music legend. This is “Light at the End of the Darkness.” He’s also known for his song “Houston.” He’s one of four musicians who refused to play at the NRA Convention and called for gun control. He said he didn’t even think the NRA convention should have taken place — he’s an NRA member himself — only if they met to have a moment of silence for the people who were killed, the children and teachers, in Uvalde.