To the NRA, and to Legislatures that Submit to the NRA’s Will

rifle-used-as-a-bugle-darwin-awardI get the pleasure of guns; I really do. For a few summers in the 1970s and early 1980s I taught riflery at a summer camp. I was a pretty good shot myself, and I quite enjoyed target shooting. So much of the rest of summer camp involves running, yelling, team sports, kicking a ball, swinging a bat. Those things are fun, but the rifle range was a pleasurably different world, characterized by calm, control, patience, quiet. And, interestingly, it was not the all-male world one might expect. Girls were often better at target shooting than boys, perhaps because they didn’t tend to link the sport with the Dirty Harry and Rambo movies that were running through many boys’ heads. I liked my job.

At the time, the State of Connecticut essentially turned gun safety, at least at summer camps, over to your organization. So, before starting my first summer as the director of the camp’s archery and riflery program, I traveled to a day-long session to learn what I’d need to know to run a safe rifle range. Not many of my friends these days know that I was once an NRA-certified “rifle, handgun, and shotgun instructor”  (or perhaps I still am; the certificate had no expiration date). But it’s fun to mention it in passing, because it’s a detail of my past that seems to contradict my current identity as a college professor.

Before getting that certificate, I didn’t know much about the NRA. But that day didn’t leave me with a good first impression. It wasn’t just that a one-day session was all you deemed sufficient, in contrast with the three rigorous days that I’d spent getting the archery instructor’s certificate (which expired after three years). Nor was it just that the instructor spent most of the time telling openly racist stories of his time in Vietnam, visibly relishing the memory of “blowing the heads off gooks.” Nor was it that I got the title without ever touching a handgun or a shotgun–-doing so just didn’t seem necessary to teaching kids target shooting with .22 caliber rifles. No, the clincher was the hour-long written exam—or rather, the instructor’s way of administering it, which consisted of going over each question as we took the test, and quietly reading aloud the right answers. Needless to say, we all got perfect scores.

Back when I took that one-day course, the experience almost seemed amusing. Yes, you took me and my employer for a ride by making us pay for a useless session, and you failed in your mission to promote gun safety. Fortunately for the hundreds of children I taught to shoot, there was someone at the camp who could teach me how to run a range, and nothing went awry at the camp. But now—after Columbine, after Aurora, after Sandy Hook, and after the daily shootings on the streets of Chicago and elsewhere—this one encounter seems more and more characteristic of your organization. To be sure, in the years since I’ve met members who are sincerely and seriously concerned with preserving the principles behind the Second Amendment. But it has to be clear to anyone paying attention that your sole mission is now protecting the profits of weapons manufacturers, and that you do so by sowing fear and paranoia amongst your members and by using money, power, and pressure to buy legislators at every level. There’s a reason I don’t tell many of my friends about that certificate.

Now I’m not amused any more. I’m angry that we paid you money for worse than nothing, that we contributed, in even a small way, to building up an organization that has again “willfully lied”—to use President Obama’s phrase—in its efforts to block even the minimal legislation that was on the table this week. You portray yourself as a beleaguered group defending a fundamental right that is under threat from overly emotional liberals who irrationally believe that the availability of guns is what makes the U.S. the site of so much more gun violence than any comparable country. That’s what you look like to yourselves, and you’ve convinced many others to see you that way. But I’d like you to know what you—and the legislators who either caved to your pressure this week or really believe your propaganda–look like from the perspective of someone you trained—badly–years ago.

  • When I look into the face of an NRA executive or lobbyist, I see someone letting people die, over and over, in order to maximize a corporation’s profits.
  • When I look into the face of a Senator who has voted against background checks, I see someone standing against the democratic will of 90% of Americans not to protect a principle, but to protect the flow of campaign contributions.
  • When I look into the face of anyone opposed to laws penalizing straw purchasing and trafficking, I see someone handing out guns to street gangs, murderous militias, and organized crime.
  • When I look into the face of a Senator who has voted against restricting the size of magazines, or a ban on assault weapons, I see someone standing next to Adam Lanza, feeding ammunition into his gun, while he is firing your bullets into elementary school children and their teachers.

Look at yourselves. That is what you look like to millions of Americans and billions of people around the world. At some level, despite all the lies you tell us, and the lies you probably tell yourselves, you must know this is true.  But it must be very hard to live with that knowledge.

Glenn Hendler’s aim is true.