The Gun Lobby Is Down to Its Last, Unconvincing Excuse

Las Vegas rips apart the "good guy with a gun" justification, leaving only a flawed constitutional take to justify the madness

Guns and ammo on the floor of the NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in May 2016. Credit: Mark Peterson/Redux

As of this writing, the death toll in Las Vegas is 59, with over 527 injured, making it easily the deadliest gun massacre in modern U.S. history. (Characteristically, there have been some deadlier ones in the distant past, including in St. Louis in 1917 and Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873, but they're often left out of coverage because the victims were all black.)

According to some sources, this is the 338th mass shooting in 273 days of 2017, meaning America is now a place where at least once a day, someone shoots four or more people. After incidents like this, electing Donald Trump looks like a relatively minor symptom of our clearly worsening national insanity.

This latest window into our blood-sick culture may mark the end of an era. Las Vegas should push the gun lobby down to its last excuse, when it comes to justifying the marketing of military-grade weapons.

We're still in the "NRA has yet to respond" period of the story, a dependable trope in the weirdly inflexible script of these massacre tales. This "deafening NRA silence" period usually coincides with news from Wall Street showing sharp upticks in the share prices of arms manufacturers. (We've already seen this this week.)

Gun stocks always bounce in advance of surges in gun sales, which are driven by fears in prepper country of hardcore gun control legislation that, of course, never actually comes.

Such fears similarly always inspire periods of intense fundraising for pro-gun politicians and groups like the NRA. After the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 children, for instance, donations for the NRA went up 350 percent over the previous year. We'll surely see a similar surge after Las Vegas.

So the more horrifying the gun disaster, the more gun companies and gun lobbyists profit. From here the logic of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs comes violently into play. Aggressive, well-funded lobbying by an industry that claims a $49 billion impact to the national economy always trumps the relatively disorganized horror and revulsion of ordinary voters.

The dirty little secret here is that while politicians in both parties can score points with voters through verbal support for gun control, anti-gun voters tend not to punish them for not following all the way through.

George W. Bush is a classic example of a politician who had it both ways. He claimed moderate status on the issue by pledging to sign an extension of Bill Clinton's assault weapons ban if it passed Congress. But surprise, surprise, that bill never made it to his desk, and the ban expired in 2004.

Politicians tend to be very lucky when it comes to having to take brave public stands on gun issues. There are almost always just enough pro-gun converts in Congress to prevent gun control votes from having real meaning. Harry Reid, for instance, is a name Nevadans should be recalling this week, as he repeatedly aided the NRA in efforts to scuttle that same assault weapons ban.

Within the Beltway, everyone knows this game is mostly about money. The NRA, like the financial services industry or Big Pharma, is an easy source of campaign cash, and all politicians have to do to get it is master the art of selling purely commercial lobbying as heartfelt ideological advocacy.

This is relatively easy when we're talking about hunting rifles, gets dicier when the issue turns to concealed weapons, and then becomes an exercise in pure political whoring and pseudo-intellectualism once it comes to making up justifications for selling military-grade weapons to Internet shoppers.

Las Vegas is going to provide a major rhetorical challenge on that front. After all, the gun lobby's consistent response has been to argue that such killings would be avoided, or at least reduced, if more people were armed.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," NRA chief Wayne LaPierre infamously said after Newtown.

But the shooter in Las Vegas, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, was on the 32nd floor of a casino building, a quarter-mile away from the bulk of his victims down in a concert venue on the ground. Unless the NRA plans on advocating for carry licenses for F-16s or surface-to-surface missile systems, it's hard to see how the "good guy with a gun" argument is going to fly this time.

That leaves exactly one argument the industry can use, a pure intellectual gymnastics stunt that emphasizes fealty to the sacred text, i.e., the Constitution.

The NRA, which proudly sells "Because You Can't Fist Fight Tyranny" t-shirts, will eventually come around to arguing, even if only by implication, that massacres like Las Vegas are just the price we must pay to ensure that the individual is never left defenseless against government repression.

When the industry isn't letting its guard down and marketing AR-15s to morons gearing up for the coming zombie apocalypse (this is a real thing in the gun sales world), this is the narrative gun manufacturers use to sell to ardent collectors.

Just like cigarette companies told smokers they were hunky Marlboro Men, gun manufacturers sell a thrilling image to gun owners, telling them they're bulwarks against new-world-order tyranny. The NRA even once ran an ad using Tianamen Square images. Gun activists have even been sued for using stills from schlock resistance movies like The Patriot and Braveheart.

And why not? Absent some incipient end-of-democracy apocalypse scenario, assault weapons collectors would just be a bunch of yahoos wasting their disposable incomes on products that, like the Dinty Moore beef stew cans gathering dust in their bunkers, will never be used. Unless you're collecting all those guns for a reason, it's just weird.

As gun control advocates are quick to point out, the actual Second Amendment argument is probably a canard anyway, given that it protects the rights of citizens to bear arms within the context of a "well-regulated militia." Jurists for ages interpreted that term as pertaining to groups, not individuals.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative nominated by Nixon, was one of those jurists. He said Second Amendment arguments were a "fraud" and believed the "right to bear arms" belonged to the states, not individuals.

But relentless propaganda to the contrary has led to a series of legal decisions that define things differently, putting the law on industry's side. In the 2007 case District of Columbia v. Heller, Antonin Scalia – a humorless monster of a judge whose two great pleasures in life appeared to be killing birds and making unsubtly racist arguments against affirmative action – wrote the Second Amendment "protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia."

Still, Scalia was explicit in Heller that even he was in favor of certain limitations. "We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of 'dangerous and unusual weapons,'" he wrote.

He also described gun ownership as a right Americans exercised not for opposing tyranny but for "traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense." But most gun owners continue to understand their rights as primarily resting on the constitutional freedom-fighter argument. Polls consistently show that majorities of gun owners believe the purpose of the Second Amendment is "protection against tyranny."

So we're down to that – we need to put up with this, because it's gun enthusiasts who will come to the rescue if this ever happens in America.

Here's my question about that. Where were all these heroic tyrannophobe gun owners during the unprecedented expansion of police and surveillance powers that took place after 9/11?

Answer: nowhere. We didn't hear them shrieking about habeas corpus becoming a joke in the Bush years, or torture and extrajudicial assassination becoming standard practices. We didn't hear them protesting the vast expansion of the classification of government documents, or complaining about the widespread abuse of material witness statutes, the national security letter provision of the Patriot Act, or a hundred other problems.

Nor did they ever protest aggressive new domestic enforcement policies like stop-and-frisk and predictive policing, for the obvious reason that those programs were mostly directed against minorities in poor neighborhoods.

The NRA has at least shown occasional consistency on these issues, among other things joining with the ACLU in a lawsuit against the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA). That was one of George Bush's final gifts to the world, a law that allowed for the virtually unlimited collection of email, text and phone data.

But for the most part, conservative pols who sucked up NRA money and helped weapons makers avoid lawsuits and other restrictions – Devin Nunes is a great example – have been wholly unconcerned with the ramifications of such laws until, ironically, tools like FISA or the NSA's section 702 surveillance program were rumored to have been used against noted gun liberty enthusiast Donald Trump.

The tyranny argument, the gun lobby's last excuse, is a joke. People aren't buying up military-grade weapons in preparation for some new-world-order Anschluss into flyover country.

Americans are just bored and crazy and insecure and like to calm their nerves by shooting bottles, Kim Jong-un paper targets, and, pretty regularly now, crowds full of innocent human beings. It's madness, and there aren't enough highly paid pseudo-intellectual gun lobbyists in the world to justify it anymore. Can we finally at least drop the pretense that this is about anything but money?