|NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre at the |
NRA's 2012 annual meeting.
ST. LOUIS -- The hotel minibus had barely left the airport when the guy to my left dropped the Obama assassination joke.
There were eight of us on our way to the National Rifle Association's annual convention downtown, rolling past a domino-row of highway billboards advertising the event's "Acres of Guns and Gear." The banter suggested the minibus crew was microcosmic of the NRA's claimed four million members, more than 70,000 of whom made the election-year pilgrimage. There was a soft-spoken father from Long Island and his teenage daughter headed to the University of Akron on a Division-I marksmanship scholarship. There were retired New Hampshire hunters from NRA families going back generations. There was a Russian immigrant whose only hobby is fully automatic machine guns.
And there was a professional Second Amendment extremist named Stephen Burke. An Endowment Life Member of the NRA and an attorney from Springfield, Massachusetts, Burke specializes in getting guns into the hands of ex-cons whose licenses have been revoked or downgraded for criminal activity.
Burke is a loud and boastful retired lance corporal who displays a photo of himself with NRA Executive Vice President & CEO Wayne LaPierre on his professional website. The only thing he abhors more than gun control is silence. When a conversation about former New York Governor George Pataki's pro-gun record entered a lull, he asked the group what sounded like an American history riddle or piece of trivia: "What do Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama have in common?"
The collective intelligence of the minibus was stumped. After a few beats, he delivered the answer: "Nothing. Yet."
Most of the bus erupted in laughter, but the father from Long Island looked out the window, embarrassed.
Parents who want to shield their children from presidential assassination jokes should consider vacation destinations other than NRA conventions. The group's leadership has in recent years expertly cultivated a very profitable hatred and paranoia among its membership. This fact was on majestic display in St. Louis, where NRA officials painted the president as a dedicated "enemy of freedom" quietly implementing the early stages of a master gun confiscation plan. The convention marked the opening salvo in the group's campaign to defeat Obama and his gun control allies in November. The official battle cry for this effort, unveiled on Friday, is "All In."
The NRA's election-year slogan is meant to evoke a bit of the Wild West tough guy imagery that remains central to American gun culture. The phrase comes from poker, the card game of the frontier, and the desired picture is that of a noble, steely-eyed gun lobby pushing its mountain of chips across the table of America's destiny, betting everything on one last high-stakes hand. In NRA land, where impending Second Amendment Apocalypse is a state of mind and a business strategy, the next election is always the final hand. As he did in 2008, chief NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre describes 2012 as "the most important election of our lifetime."
At an event during last weekend's National Rifle Association annual meeting, NRA chief lobbyist Chris W. Cox said that the group doesn't "apologize" for its support for "Stand Your Ground" self-defense legislation in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, adding, "We will defend our efforts. We will defend those laws."
Cox's comments came during an appearance at Friday's workshop on "Grassroots Campaigning in a National Election Year" attended by Media Matters. The head of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action was asked by an NRA district organizer to defend the NRA's support of "Stand Your Ground" legislation given the controversy currently swirling around such laws.
COX: There's support across the board for the Second Amendment, there's support across the board, even post-media hysteria over the last few weeks, there's support across the board for legitimate self-defense. We don't apologize for supporting -- whether you call it a national right or a God-given right, legislation that recognizes our right to defend ourselves. The fact that other groups and other business entities and others are supportive of that concept of constitutional freedom, whether they're concerned about it from a Second Amendment standpoint or an economic freedom standpoint, that's not my position to be, you can call them and ask them, that's not my position to take, for debate, for them. We stand in strong defense of any effort to allow law-abiding, good people to defend themselves against criminal attack. We don't apologize for that. It's not a problem in this country. We will defend our efforts. We will defend those laws, and if others want to join that fight we will.
During a Saturday speech at the annual meeting, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre attacked the media for their coverage of Martin's killing, accusing them of "manufactur[ing] controversy for ratings." The NRA's role in helping to author Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law and promoting similar laws across the country has in recent days become a focus of media attention.
Following the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin troubling questions about the role of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" legislation have emerged. The legislation expanded the circumstances in which people can claim use of deadly force was defensive, which some in the media have suggested could undermine an effort to prosecute Martin's killer George Zimmerman. Sanford, Florida's police chief has said that because Zimmerman claimed self-defense, under that statute he could not be arrested.
No figure has done more to promote the gun lobby's push to expand the boundaries of the legal use of deadly force than former NRA president and chief Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer, who was the force behind the passage of Florida's statute. Martin's death hasn't caused her to rethink the wisdom of "Stand Your Ground." On Tuesday, she told the Palm Beach Post that Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) would "waste time" if he were review the legislation:
NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, who pushed for the law, agreed [with Rep. Dennis Baxley's defense of the bill]. She said the call for action is premature, because the law allows an arrest to take place after an investigation. "So for law enforcement to rush to judgment just because they are being stampeded by emotionalism would be a violation of law," she said.
"This law is not about one incident. It's about protecting the right of law-abiding people to protect themselves when they are attacked. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the law. And if the governor wants to waste time looking at it he can knock himself out."
Hammer isn't just any NRA lobbyist. According to the NRA, Hammer "exemplifies activism" to the extent the organization annually gives out a "Marion P. Hammer Woman Of Distinction Award." Beyond her support for what critics have dubbed "shoot first laws," Hammer has expressed extremist positions and used inflammatory rhetoric during other legislative battles.
In 2005 Hammer successfully pushed "Stand Your Ground" through the Florida legislature, which was then the first state in the nation to pass such legislation. During the debate over the bill's passage, she repeatedly mocked opponents for engaging in "hysterics." The NRA's chief lobbyist Chris Cox was quick to credit Hammer's lobbying effort. In the NRA's American Hunter magazine Cox wrote:
Thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of our own former President Marion P. Hammer, law-abiding Floridians may now stand their ground and defend themselves against attack by violent criminals without fear of criminal prosecution or civil lawsuit.
Later that year, Hammer presented Florida's legislation before a task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC subsequently adopted Florida's bill as model legislation which they promoted throughout the country using their network of conservative state legislators. The effort was quite successful. According to the Legal Community Against Gun Violence, 24 states currently have "Florida-style" laws, with seven others having similar laws that allow expanded self-defense claims in specified locations.
Hammer's lobby efforts also attracted controversy last year as she successfully pushed NRA-authored Florida legislation that prohibited pediatricians from asking their patients about guns kept in their homes. The bill muzzled the ability of doctors to ask children and their parents about gun safety issues such as proper storage and other issues related to children's access to guns. Hammer objected complaining that pediatrician questions about guns constituted "privacy intrusions." The original version of the bill "fined physicians up to $5 million and sentenced them to up to five years in prison" before the Florida legislature made amendments.
Health care experts warned the bill would result in "more children injured and killed from firearms." In September U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, an appointee of George W. Bush, blocked enforcement of Hammer's doctor gun-related gag order on First Amendment grounds.
Other controversial actions by Hammer have been documented by MeetTheNRA.org, a website maintained by the Educational Fund To Stop Gun Violence. Hammer has pushed to allow guns on university campuses and keep them from being banned in hospitals and nursing homes. In 1996, Hammer joked in a New York Times profile that a possible solution to ending the gun debate was to "get rid of all liberals."
In 1988, Hammer distributed a newsletter to members of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida--an NRA affiliate organization--accusing state legislators who favored closing loopholes in a concealed carry law of supporting "a modern-day Gestapo movement." One of the loopholes the legislation sought to correct allowed violent individuals to possess firearms pending a criminal judgment. Republican State Senator John Grant called for Hammer's resignation and said, "I think Marion Hammer has lost any effectiveness that she might have or any credibility she might have with legislators on both sides of the issue." Republican State Senator Malcolm Beard added, "I never have been for gun control. But this letter from a lobbyist is filled with half-truths." The Republican Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Criminal Committee, Bob Johnson, said Hammer possessed, "the lowest standard of integrity I have ever seen for a lobbyist in Tallahassee."
On Monday, Media Matters noted the role of controversial Florida gun laws in the shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Martin was shot and killed as he returned to his father's house by Zimmerman, who told a 9-11 dispatcher that Martin was "a real suspicious guy."
Zimmerman has thus far successfully claimed the shooting was defensive amidst rapidly growing national attention to the incident and news that the FBI and Department of Justice have begun an investigation of the shooting. Thanks to Florida's NRA-backed "Stand Your Ground" legislation that expands the circumstances when people can claim self-defense, media outlets are questioning if the legislation effectively immunizes Zimmerman from prosecution.
While the NRA appears to have avoided discussing Martin's death, in 2005 the NRA's top leaders were breezily dismissing concerns about "Stand Your Ground" legislation.
Former NRA president and chief Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer went on Democracy Now to defend the legislation. Hammer boasted that she would debate Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence executive director Arthur Mayhoe again in 10 years after his concerns about the "Stand Your Ground" legislation were proven false.
HAMMER: Mr. Hayhoe, let's do this again in ten years where you will be proven wrong again, just as you are now proven wrong, when you said the same kinds of things when right to carry passed in 1987. It is nothing but emotional hysterics.
NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox did a victory lap after the passage of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" legislation in the NRA's American Hunter magazine. Touting the legislation as a "critical turning point in what has become our proactive approach to gun-rights activism" Cox dismissed concerns raised in a The Washington Post article on the legislation. Cox:
As NRA and its grassroots affiliates move forward with this initiative, no doubt you'll be hearing more about it-and not just from those of us committed to firearm freedom. The usual suspects among the anti-gun media are already suggesting what's become an all-too-familiar slant from them, that the law could give rise to a "Wild West revival, a return to the days of 'shoot first and ask questions later,'" (The Washington Post, April 26). [American Hunter 07/01/2005, retrieved via Nexis 3/20/2012]
Speaking to the Christian Science Monitor, NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre argued that these laws "make it very clear that the good guy has the advantage, not the bad guy." In the article referenced by Cox, LaPierre boasted that Florida's legislation was the "first step of a multi-state strategy."
National Rifle Association chief lobbyist, Townhall.com columnist, and Daily Caller contributor Chris Cox is currently pushing for Tennessee state legislation that would prevent employers from banning their employees from storing guns in their vehicles in company parking lots while opposing any compromise that would allow employer exemptions for special circumstances. Tennessee business leaders and law enforcement groups oppose the legislation.
National Rifle Association chief lobbyist Chris Cox claims in Guns & Ammo magazine that a proposed United Nations Arms Trade Treaty is "completely unnecessary" because the United States "operates what even Hillary Clinton admits is the 'gold standard' of export controls for arms transfers.'" But Clinton made that comment while expressing U.S. support for a treaty that would "promote the same high standards for the entire international community."