Pando

A brief history of American gun nuts

By Mark Ames , written on June 26, 2015

From The Second Amendment Desk

Of all the remarkable reactions to last week’s race massacre of nine blacks in a Charleston church, perhaps the most shocking is the grim resignation about the impossibility of passing any sort of gun restriction laws.

What a difference two and a half years makes.

Back then, after 20 children and six teachers were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama dropped everything to push hard for new gun control laws. It failed, of course—the best thing that can be said is that it distracted his post-election agenda of privatizing (“reforming”) Social Security and Medicare.

But after this latest massacre, Obama didn’t even pretend to put up a fight for new gun laws, instead he preemptively offered his surrender:

The grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong. I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress and I don’t foresee any real action being taken until the American public feels a sufficient sense of urgency and they say to themselves, ‘This is not normal, this is something that we can change, and we’re going to change it.’

But it’s this expectation of “normal” that’s Problem Number One, showing that even after all these years and failures, neither Obama nor any other advocates for guns restrictions grasp what they’re really dealing with. The faulty assumption here is that “normal” is some kind of asset in a political fight like the one over guns. Another way of looking at the “normal” argument is to say, “The guy whining about wanting ‘normal’ in a political fight clearly doesn’t want it as badly as the other side, who’s willing to risk it all.”

If there’s one thing that the power of the NRA and the gun-nut cultists shows, it’s that irrational faith, kept on a hot flame, is its own political power. Align the values and politics of that sect with larger powerful interests, i.e. Big Business interests, and you have an entrenched force, a kingmaker.

After the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, I wrote a brief political history of the gun-nut cult for NSFWCORP. I’ve also written a book (which became the basis of a fantastic BBC4 film) and a lot of articles about a peculiar kind of rampage massacre that appeared in the post-Reagan Era: “Going Postal” shootings in workplaces and schools. Employees shooting up their fellow employees; middle-American school kids shooting up their schoolyard classmates; a new type of American Mass Murder that coincided with the explosion in inequality and all the sicknesses that inequality produces.

Sandy Hook wasn’t the type of massacre I’d studied for my book—this was not a student shooting up his own school and fellow students, but a fucked up 20-year-old rich boy who cruelly massacred children and teachers with whom he had no connection. Sadly, massacres like Sandy Hook have a history here, no matter what period or phase our political economy was in.

For example, in 1927, a Michigan farmer angry over his farm’s impending foreclosure and his election defeat for township clerk killed 38 elementary school children by setting off dynamite beneath the school during early morning class. In California, there was the nerdy teenaged girl in San Diego who shot a bunch of school children from her father’s apartment window, out of sheer Carter-era ennui (“I Don’t Like Mondays”). And in 1989, 25-year-old Patrick Purdy took his Chinese AK-47 to a Stockton elementary school, targeting and killing five Cambodian children refugees who’d survived Pol Pot’s killing fields.

Purdy was like a grab-bag of ills: Broken family, low IQ (but self aware, scrawling notes to himself like, “I’m so dumb, I’m dumber than a sixth grader”), he was awhite supremacist who scrawled “PLO,” “Libya” and “death to the Great Satin” [sic] on his combat jacket. Purdy’s schoolyard massacre led to a handful of assault weapons bans, both in California and by executive order of President Bush Sr., who in retrospect probably first lost the hardcore Reagan/Buchanan base with that 1989 decree banning the importation of assault weapons.

I remember Bush’s assault weapons ban because an old friend of mine from Austin somehow managed to beat Bush’s deadline and buy himself a Chinese-made AK that he said was taken off an NVA soldier, complete with chicken scratches on the barrel representing the number of kills the soldier logged for Uncle Ho. I never got to fire that gun, but years later I did take his Heckler & Koch 416 to a shooting range near Gilroy a couple of times, despite how much our politics had diverged (apparently I’d become a “commie hippie fag” in Russia).

After last week’s Charleston massacre, an NRA board member blamed the murdered pastor for his and his parish’s deaths, because as a state senator he’d voted against conceal and carry.

I liked guns — for part of my childhood, I grew up with guns. My first stepfather, an ex-Marines frogman, kept a collection of 17 firearms in our house — hunting rifles, shotguns, and pistols that we’d use to go hunting or clay-pigeon shooting. Which is part of the reason I stayed away from the tiresome gun control debate. That, and because it smelled of Clinton Era trolling, of avoiding the underlying class and inequality conditions that accompanied these new types of rampage killings in workplaces and schools.

It should be noted that my gun-happy stepfather episode ended badly. He was a raging drunk, and my mother finally kicked him out and divorced him, sending him away along with his giant gun collection. One night when I was alone with my grandmother, my stepfather called us from a bar at the bottom of the hill near our home, slurring threats that he was going to drive up the hill to kill us all. My first thought was, I could’ve really used one of those guns. All we had in the house was my brother’s old Crossman .766 pellet rifle, which could kill small critters like birds or squirrels, but at best could “take an eye out” on a drunk human.

I hid at the bottom of the stairwell—our hill house entrance was onto the top floor, and the bedrooms were on the bottom floor—and aimed the pellet rifle at the front door. My grandmother hid in the bathroom, she refused to hide out in the dark woods, so we both had to stay in the house and wait. Then someone started jiggling the front door handle and lock. When the door opened, I lost my nerve, and froze — which was a good thing, because it was my older brother returning from a night out partying.

My stepfather never made it up the hill that night. He was too drunk. You’d think I’d spend the rest of my life hating guns after that, but actually it was alcohol that I developed a kind of lifelong phobia of, not guns — and not other drugs.

So when Sandy Hook happened, and all those murdered six year olds and teachers got to me in a way that was really unlike all the rage massacres I’d studied and written up, I realized that I was missing a big part of the story by avoiding or dismissing gun politics as mere culture war guff. Leaving aside what exactly was to blame for Sandy Hook or Charleston, the gun-nut cult is its own unique political force that needs to be understood for what it is.

After last week’s Charleston massacre, an NRA board member blamed the murdered pastor for his and his parish’s deaths, because as state senator he’d voted against conceal and carry. That brought the usual grunts and groans from all the feckless “normal” people. Just like NRA man Wayne LaPierre’s little speech after Sandy Hook made them groan, when he called on Congress to militarize America’s schools with armed guards, because “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Rand Paul, the one pol everyone agrees cares most about our unfair criminal justice and militarized police state, proposed solving Sandy Hook by arming every school teacher in America. It’s a good thing the Left is so enamored with Sen. Paul. (Rand is also a celebrity endorser for Larry Pratt’s extreme-right Gun Owners of America, which features a Rand Paul blurb on their home page, and issues regular dispatches on Rand’s heroic efforts to fill in every last nook and cranny of America with firearms).

But it’s not enough to call them irrational, un-normal, or gun-nuts—the real question is why, from a Darwinism-of-politics standpoint, the gun-nut cult has proved to be so successful? What is it about the gun cultists’ fanaticism and paranoia that has made them thrive as a force in the post-New Deal ecosystem, as opposed to so many other sects here fueled by fanaticism, paranoia, and petty malice?

The key to understanding why gun-nut politics thrives is that it’s a natural fit with a much more serious and powerful agenda — big business and the wealthiest upper crust. If all you do when you think of guns is think of an instrument that is dangerous, can kill, and is usually seen being waved around by dangerous criminals or pot-bellied white jerks in pickups, then you don’t see the angles. First, you need to disabuse yourself of the silly notion that the very rich and powerful in this country fear an armed citizenry, or an armed rebellion by “the people” — or anyone with guns, period. Government antitrust laws and taxes—that’s what keeps them up at night. Further down the line are labor and other government regulations, depending on the business. But for tech titans especially, the threats are antitrust and taxes—with labor a distant third. Few things are less threatening than the “revolution” threat by citizens clutching their guns and their Bill of Rights, or their Guy Fawkes masks, or their marked up copies of Kropotkin.

So why does the Big Business lobby align so seamlessly with the gun cultists?

Second Amendment cultists truly believe that guns are political power. That guns in fact are the only source of political power. That’s why, despite loving guns, and despite being so right-wing, they betray such a paranoid fear and hatred of armed agents of the government (minus Border Guards, they all tend to love our Border Guards). If you think guns, rather than concentrated wealth, equals political power, then you’d resent government power far more than you’d resent billionaires’ power or corporations’ hyper-concentrated wealth/power, because government will always have more and bigger guns. In fact you’d see pro-gun, anti-government billionaires like the Kochs as your natural political allies in your gun-centric notion of political struggle against the concentrated gun power of government.

How very convenient that works out to be.

Merwin K. Hart: The Zelig of reactionary American politics

From the standpoint of big business, a culture that views political power as something you can count in your gun collection means an atomized population fueled by radical individualism and suspicion, and therefore inherently hostile to government and collectivist politics. When you consider the fact that big business and wealthy conservatives see government as their main obstacle to acquiring more and more power, then you can see why they’d be happy to align with and cultivate a nation of atomized gun-nut individualists. (True, government also acts as big corporations’ greatest enablers in acquiring power and assets, but it’s not as paradoxical as it sounds. Just remember that all the benefits that government brings to the rich and corporate are expected of them; all the impediments thrown up as a sop to the greater good —like antitrust, tax, labor codes, environmental laws — are viscerally unforgivable). Politics through guns is far less threatening for them than a collectivist-minded population deeply aligned with government:

Sure, yeah, you’re powerful alright, whatcha got there a Glock? Two Glocks? Wow! And a double-clip extension—hoo-wee, you’re like the Rockefeller of political power with them guns, ain’tcha? One more gun, and I’ll have to call you ‘King George’! Being scared of your power and all, I’m just gonna skedaddle back to my gated community in this here fleet of Suburbans, gotta catch my private plane to the yacht club in the Cape. You understand why you can’t come to my yacht club, right? Or the gated community, or my 20,000 acre ranch in Montana, or anywhere else I own property? It’s because if you do come onto my property, why, then what’s to stop guvmint from coming onto your property? You see what I mean Bubba? We gotta watch out for guvmint, you and me. You’ve got ‘em scared with your guns, all I’ve got is my lawyers and my lobbyists and yacht with the communications gear and satellite and all. It’s like I’m a slave in some Orwellian nightmare, but for the grace of your Glocks.

And that brings me to Merwin K. Hart, the Zelig of reactionary American politics. Hart was one of the most effective political operators of the post-New Deal era. Hart is one of the first political operators to see the angles on gun-nut politics, and how a gun-obsessed citizenry could be weaponized on behalf of Big Business reactionaries battling back against the “collectivist” quasi-socialistic politics that FDR brought mainstream. Merwin Hart was one of the founders of libertarianism, and one of the first figures to call himself “libertarian” in the early post-war years.

Hart’s name is largely scrubbed from the libertarian house record, because he was also an unrepentant fascist, anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. The founder of the ACLU, Roger Baldwin, called Hart “an outspoken opponent of democracy and a supporter of fascism”; while Robert Jackson, the Nuremberg Trials chief prosecutor and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, gave a speech in 1940 in which he said “Merwin Hart is well known for pro-fascist leanings” as well as “contempt for democracy.”

Hart proposed stripping voting rights from all Americans receiving government assistance and described democracy as a Communist trick. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Manhattan society elitist, and founder of the New York Economic Council, Hart became radicalized by FDR’s political mini-revolution—empowering labor unions, welfare programs, tax hikes, the SEC—all of which redistributed power away from Hart’s wealthy elite class of industrialists, bankers and blue-bloods, power they believed was rightfully theirs. Hart was the brains and organizing force behind the American Liberty League — the early model for all the libertarian rightwing front groups we have today.

He was also a fascist. After the American Liberty League project failed and FDR won a second term in 1936, Hart turned against democracy, and allied himself with fascists at home and in Europe. He became the chief spokesman and lobbyist for Spain’s fascist dictator Generalissimo Franco, overlooking the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards that the fascist dictator massacred, jailed, and tortured with the help of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s forces.

In 1938, as Franco was mopping up the Republican forces, Merwin Hart broadcast from behind Fascist lines, warning that, “unless the communistic trend in the United States is stopped then as surely as the sun will rise, the agony that has taken place in Spain will be repeated in the next few years in the United States.”

Hart returned to the US, published a hagiography on Franco called “America, Look at Spain,” aligned himself with Father Coughlin’s fascist Christian Front, and helped organize the America First Committee, which brought together isolationists, anti-Semites and Axis sympathizers, whose goal was to prevent the US from helping the anti-Axis forces, in the belief that if the US fought against the Fascists, then it would result in a victory for socialism, collectivism, and communism.

World War Two didn’t slow down Hart’s reactionary politics one iota. In 1946, he organized a business-backed pressure group that helped Joseph McCarthy win his first election to the Senate, and later helped launch the libertarian John Birch Society, which is where both Charles Koch and his dad Fred Koch got their political start. He called for impeaching the Supreme Court justices for being “socialistic” and collectivist, and called for jailing all public officials caught exhibiting “progressive conduct.”

In place of democracy and "collectivism" and community activism, Merwin K. Hart promoted "individualism" and fear.

And that naturally led Merwin K Hart into promoting the sort of fanatical gun-politics that shocked the public in his time, but today is accepted as part of the mainstream discourse, as if NRA gun-fanaticism was what it is now. Hart’s newsletter, funded by some of the wealthiest industrialists in the country led by the DuPont brothers, called for arming every home in America to prepare to fight the communists and “collectivists” that threatened America’s “liberties.” In one newsletter published in January 1948, Hart offered “Concrete Suggestions” on how to fight “left-wingers and Jews” including:

[T]o possess himself of one or more guns, making sure they are in good condition, that he and other members of his family know how to use them, and that he has a reasonable supply of ammunition.

Hart was subpoenaed before Congress in 1950, and asked to read his newsletter calling for arming every home in America. As described in the NY Times

The suggestion was that heads of homes everywhere in this country take legal steps to have pistols, rifles and adequate ammunition on hand in case Communists should start trouble.

Hart further testified “that the word ‘democracy’ should be erased from the nation’s political vocabulary because it smacked too much of communism.” According to Hart’s history, the word “democracy” was first introduced into popular discourse by the Soviets at the 1935 Communist International meeting in Moscow. The House drudged up a notorious speech Hart gave in 1940, on the eve of World War Two, in which he told an elite New York club:

I wonder sometimes if one of the causes of our troubles today does not arise from the fact that we have been overdrilled into believing we are a democracy. This too, may be one of the latest insidious wiles of foreign influence. It is time to brush aside this word with its connotations.

In the last years of his life, while Hart served as head of the John Birch Society New York division, he devoted himself to two causes: Holocaust denial and fighting gun registration laws. In 1961, in the wake of the Eichmann Trial, Hart wrote,

If there were 6,000,000 Jews within reach of Hitler, which number is widely questioned, and if they have all disappeared, where are they? …Is it not likely that many of these 6,000,000 claimed to have been killed by Hitler and Eichmann are right here in the United States and are now joining in the agitation for more and more support for the state of Israel—even if the American Republic goes down.

The next year, in one of his last political acts, Hart joined up with the armed white militia group, the Minutemen—notorious for showing up fully armed at Kennedy rallies and speeches denouncing him as a Communist traitor—to kill a gun registration law, the Anfuso Bill. Hart wrote in 1962,

Any congressman or senator who votes for the Anfuso [gun] bill knowing its real purpose would disqualify himself from ever again expecting to be called an American.

The next year, after JFK was assassinated, the most famous muckraking journalist in the country, Drew Pearson, blamed Merwin Hart and the anti-Anfuso bill “hate groups” who killed the legislation. Pearson, who nurtured Jack Anderson’s career (as well as young Brit Hume’s), wrote,

If hate groups had not pressured Congress against passage of an Arms Registration Act, President Kennedy might still be alive today.

When Anfuso introduced his Arms Registration Bill there was a storm of criticism from the right wing and a flood of letters to Congress. Another opponent was Merwin K. Hart, president of the so-called "National Economic Council" and once described by Justice Robert Jackson as well known for his pro-Fascist leanings. What motive, ulterior or otherwise, the pro-Fascists had in opposing the registering of firearms with the FBI is not known. At any rate, the pressure on Congress was so great that the Anfuso Bill did not pass.

Back then, Merwin K Hart’s gun fanaticism was an ugly freakshow popping out of the political margins, but today it part of the landscape, and the only question is how we can we get rid of it, rather than what’s it doing there in the first place.

But Merwin Hart was merely the brain bug, the libertarian political animal who saw the angles on gun fanaticism and how it could be used to divide, atomize, and individualize people politically, thereby weakening their links to each other (“collectivism”) and to the power of government to counter the power of private government (i.e., corporations).

Hart operated in a hostile political environment for someone trying to subvert collectivism in favor of individualism. The Great Depression left Americans suspicious if not hostile to business interests; World War II was a triumph of collectivist action.

But by the mid-1970s, in the middle of the Big Bummer years—when war divided everyone and was lost, and when government proved to be a disastrous failure under Nixon—opportunity reared its ugly hick fascism head, and its name was Harlan Carter, leader of the so-called “coup” at the NRA in 1977 that turned the organization into the fanatical cult we’ve known ever since.

Harlon Carter was a US Border Guards chief who as a teenager was convicted of murdering a 15-year-old Mexican American boy and sentenced to three years in prison. Somehow Carter’s murder conviction wound up getting overturned and he was acquitted. That “somehow” is probably as simple as “because Harlon was white, his daddy was a US Border Guards official, and his murder victim a Latino.”

Whatever the case, Harlon Carter, nicknamed “Bullethead” because of the shape of his head, wound up riding on his daddy’s government coattails to a top post in the US Border Guards, from which he oversaw a program called “Operation Wetback”—a massive crackdown on undocumented Mexican migrant workers along the Texas border region.

Actually it was worse than a crackdown, it was also a shakedown, the sort of thing you expect to see Russian cops doing to immigrants from Central Asia. Using his authority to crack down on Mexicans illegally crossing the border, Harlon devised a way to extract their meager earnings working the Texas farms before shipping them hundreds of miles away from where they crossed the border, making sure they were ruined. It was literally highway robbery.

According to a New York Times article from July 1954,

McCALLEN, Tex., July 18—The Border Patrol confirmed today that Mexican aliens arrested in the “wetback” round-up in South Texas were forced to pay their fares to El Paso, Tex., 600 miles away.

Harlon Carter, Border Patrol chief, said that the money had been deducted from pay the illegal entrants had received for working on United States farms. More than 11,000 have been rounded-up for deportation since the drive began in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

The Mexicans are being taken to El Paso, border twin of Juarez, Mex., despite the fact that many live just across the Rio Grande from where they were arrested. They are called “wetbacks” because many swim the Rio Grande to enter this country.

Newspapers in the valley reported they had received “literally dozens” of telephone calls from farmers who said that they had seen the patrol taking money from wetbacks.

During the McCarthy years, “Bullethead” Carter boasted that he’d doubled his haul of “illegal aliens” that he deported back across the border to half a million deportees. He also got funds to massively expand his Border Patrol force, under the guise of fighting Communism, or what he called “subversives” and “undesirables . . . ‘inimicable’ [sic] to the best interests of the country,” singling out “Southern Europeans” as examples of the sorts of Commie subversives he was protecting America from.

The seemingly strange amalgam that Harlon represents—pro-gun, pro-border guard, violent fear of dark southern immigrants, combined with a fear and hatred of the federal government—is still around today, the basic material of Ron and Rand Paul, both of whom have some crazy extreme ideas about massively militarizing the southern border and making citizenship harder to achieve, while at the same time railing against the federal government, and pushing for a culture in which every home is packed full of firearms...

When Harlon Carter seized control of the NRA in 1977 from the more moderate leader, a Mormon named Maxwell Rich, it wasn’t so obvious that these weird throwbacks to the old pre-hippie world—the world of mean fascist hicks sent off to the dustbin of history in films like Easy Rider and Cool Hand Luke—were coming back for real. But they were, and Harlon Carter was one of the leaders of the walking reactionary dead.

An article I found by Watergate investigative reporter Jack Anderson in 1978 gives a sense of the weirdness and dark foreboding right after Harlon Carter took control of the NRA. It’s about the takeover by Harlon’s "extremists" after the NRA split over whether or not to support a widely popular bill banning the "Saturday Night Special" handgun used in so many violent crimes.

The NRA chief whom Harlon Carter overthrew publicly supported the Saturday Night Special handgun ban, telling the Senate in 1972, "On the Saturday Night Special, we are for it [banning] 100 percent. We would like to get rid of these guns."

The NRA nearly imploded in civil war over the leadership’s support for the handgun ban. Harlon’s fanatics saw it as treason; today’s restrictions on Saturday Night Special handguns were tomorrow’s Stalinist GULAG camps and the genocide of all gun-owning American patriots.

What the establishment didn’t get about Harlon’s new souped-up NRA gun-cult until too late — in fact what most still don’t get — is that the more batshit disconnected from demonstrable reality your message is, the more fanatical and organized-for-war your organization will be. If you can get people to make that leap of faith —well, then you’ve got real power. Reagan understood that sort of power well: Pandering to the far-right John Birch Society cult won him California’s governor’s seat in 1966, and in 1980, he promised to implement Harlon Carter’s radical pro-gun agenda as soon as he took office.

Unfortunately that pro-gun push hit a bit of a bump when a fat dweeb named John Hinckley unloaded a .22 on Reagan’s retinue, one bullet ricocheting into Reagan’s lung and causing him to nearly bleed to death. So-called “normal” people, as Obama would put it, would assume that NRA chief Harlon “Bullethead” Carter would take a respectful break in April-May 1981 from strong-arming Reagan into passing the NRA agenda, at least until Reagan’s bullet wound healed. But we’re talking about a real political force here, for whom everything was on the line, something much bigger and more important than a mere half-dead president with a bullet wound in his lungs...

A speech Harlon Carter gave to the NRA in 1981, as Reagan lay wounded, captures strange fanatical power of the gun cultists early:

You know, sadly, why President Reagan isn't here. But you heard President Reagan himself advocate no restriction on those who commit no crimes... [He] rejected the maudlin enticements of the press to say something in favor of gun control while he lay wounded by one little man's bullet.

As soon as Reagan could get out of bed and breathe on his own, he knew what he had to do—and he pushed forward the NRA’s list of demands, first by abolishing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency that enforces federal gun laws. But no sooner was Reagan about to abolish the ATF like the NRA demanded, than Harlon Carter got word that gun oversight would be transferred to the Secret Service.

You’d think the gun nuts would’ve welcomed being regulated by the Chicago Cubs of the assassination prevention league—but the NRA doesn’t like surprises and probably figured that the name alone, Secret Service, represented some sort of Communist plot to disarm freedom-loving loons. So the ATF was saved from extinction, and Reagan was given another task to the keep the crazies happy: signing a 1986 law undoing gun controls passed after JFK’s assassination, restoring the rights of all the budding Lee Harvey Oswalds to mail-order whatever sniper rifle they wanted to (LHO had purchased his sniper rifle through a mail order ad in the NRA’s in-house magazine, “American Rifleman”). Thus the gun-nut cult strong-armed one nearly-assassinated president to overturn laws enacted after another president was successfully murdered.

That’s not normal; but the craziness of it all, and the outrage it provoked from squishy normal types, worked like magic: Membership soared into the millions, and the NRA’s budget swelled to one of the largest budgets in DC outside of the federal government.

That naturally led Merwin K Hart into promoting the sort of fanatical gun-politics that shocked the public in his time, but today is accepted as part of the mainstream discourse

But the downside to starting a fanatical cult is the risk that you’ll be eaten by your own—or in Bullethead Carter’s case, you’ll be denounced as a sellout by loonie cultists who take the crazy much more seriously than their cynical leaders do. Harlon Carter had made the mistake of suggesting that maybe, just maybe, under certain circumstances, it might make sense to take a somewhat reasonable position on guns. Next thing Harlon knew, he was forced into early retirement, and while the real Harlon Carter was yanked off stage and out of mind, the cultists replaced him in their mythology and in their minds with a purer, crazy-to-the-end Harlon Carter for the fanatics to worship, a Harlon Carter who never wavered.

The formula is simple: The more batshit malevolent the gun cult gets, the more power they exert. Just ignore the periodic squeals from the rest of the country, and keep pushing the batshit envelope. There is power in acting like the crazy one who needs to be talked down, so long as you convincingly mean it

Nothing proved this awesome power of gun cult batshittery more than the controversy in the mid-90s, when ex-President George H. W. Bush resigned from the NRA and published a letter attacking the NRA. The language in Bush Sr.’s letter may seem mild to us today, but back then, this is about as close to raw outrage as a blue-blooded elder statesman gets:

May 3, 1995

Dear Mr. Washington,

I was outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of N.R.A., defended his attack on federal agents as "jack-booted thugs."

To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as "wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms" wanting to "attack law abiding citizens" is a vicious slander on good people. Al Whicher, who served on my [ United States Secret Service ] detail when I was Vice President and President, was killed in Oklahoma City. He was no Nazi. He was a kind man, a loving parent, a man dedicated to serving his country -- and serve it well he did.

In 1993, I attended the wake for A.T.F. agent Steve Willis, another dedicated officer who did his duty. I can assure you that this honorable man, killed by weird cultists, was no Nazi.

John Magaw, who used to head the U.S.S.S. and now heads A.T.F., is one of the most principled, decent men I have ever known. He would be the last to condone the kind of illegal behavior your ugly letter charges. The same is true for the F.B.I.'s able Director Louis Freeh. I appointed Mr. Freeh to the Federal Bench. His integrity and honor are beyond question.

Both John Magaw and Judge Freeh were in office when I was President. They both now serve in the current administration. They both have badges. Neither of them would ever give the government's "go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens." (Your words)

I am a gun owner and an avid hunter. Over the years I have agreed with most of N.R.A.'s objectives, particularly your educational and training efforts, and your fundamental stance in favor of owning guns. However, your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us. You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre's unwarranted attack.

Therefore, I resign as a Life Member of N.R.A., said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list.

Sincerely,

[ signed ] George Bush

Scathing or not, even a letter from a Republican ex-president didn’t work. Quite the contrary: a few years later, the NRA was openly boasting about how it owned George’s son Dubya, "a president where we work out of their office." And George Sr.’s nemesis, Wayne LaPierre, is still running the NRA.

And we’re still stuck hand-wringing, still promising to do something "this time" because "this time it’s different" — and still asking ourselves, "How many times will we be asking ourselves ‘When will this stop?’" So many times, in fact, that we’ve now reached the point where we’ve given up hand-wringing, and decided to sulk about how not-normal we are. Rather than summoning up some of the irrational, volatile, disturbing, frightening rage that should be felt when you’re on the side getting killed rather than on the side with the guns—irrational, unpredictable rage that one would expect as the only sane and “normal” response to massacre after massacre. The rage you need to fuel political change in a fight this fanatical.

It’s not that new gun restriction laws would necessarily change much in the short or medium term—and if enacted by the law-and-order liberals who still dominate, gun control laws can actually be another way of terrorizing minorities and locking up more people.

But a politics of gun control laws that targets the hyper individualism and atomized politics of gun-nut politics, the heart of the whole project, could actually change things for the better—which is exactly what some very wealthy and powerful interests don’t want to happen, and why it won’t happen without a serious fight. And you have to be crazy to get into a fight like that—with crazies.