Bob Barker, the retired game-show host, has no idea why he ended up on the National Rifle Association’s enemies list. I know exactly why the NRA cited me.
I’ve spent years pushing for sensible gun-safety laws, including universal background checks, a ban on assault-type weapons and a waiting period before firearms purchases. I wasn’t surprised to learn that my name was among those on a surprisingly long and eclectic list of corporations, Hollywood celebrities, medical groups and even sports teams that the NRA has declared “anti-gun.”
By contrast, the 89-year-old Barker keeps a handgun on his bedside table and has never demanded more stringent gun laws, he told Time magazine. He has, however, protested a live pigeon-shoot in Pennsylvania and doesn’t think civilians need assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.
Of course, if you know anything about the NRA, you know that’s enough. Its extremism is dangerous, absurd and viciously dogmatic — dismissing anyone who doesn’t think civilians should own their own shoulder-fired rocket launchers as an “enemy.” It is a radical organization of paranoid conspiracy theorists who believe they might have to fight off their government with their assault rifles. Think of that goofy 1984 movie, “Red Dawn,” wherein a group of high school kids fights off a Soviet invasion, and you’ll get some idea of its mindset.
It’s easy enough to mock the NRA; its representatives are parodies in motion. But a look across the political and civic landscape suggests that much of the gun lobby’s extremism has invaded the broader culture, creating a deeply polarized view of firearms use that relies on stock stereotypes, not reality.
Take the silly kerfuffle that followed President Obama’s recent disclosure that he enjoys skeet-shooting at Camp David. While it struck me as revealing of next-to-nothing, it set off rounds of debate, derision and ridicule on the political left as well as the right. “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart blasted Obama for pandering to gun owners, saying, “It’s not going to work.”
The Washington Post’s vaunted fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, even weighed in with this opinionated and oddly non-salient observation about Obama’s first campaign: “He certainly did not speak like a politician who had once used a firearm.” What kind of speaking would that have been?
Allow me to disclose that I have never shot skeet. I have, however, shot squirrels. Growing up in a small town in Alabama with a dad who loved hunting, I occasionally accompanied him into the woods. I don’t disclose that to appease gun owners, but rather to remind you that advocacy for sensible gun laws is no indication of a visceral anti-gun mindset.
When did the nation forget that? How did we come to separate ourselves into pro- and anti-gun? If we set strict requirements for the operation of automobiles, does that make our state governments anti-car?
It is quite possible to own firearms, to enjoy hunting and to brag about bagging an 11-point buck while still endorsing stricter gun control measures. My father was stringent about safety, only hunting with others who were similarly cautious. A combat veteran, he also knew the dangers of arming people who had little practice using firearms under pressure.
It turns out, moreover, that there are many gun owners who don’t fall into the false pro/anti-gun categories. According to the Pew Center, half of those with a gun in the household believe that allowing citizens to own assault weapons makes the country more dangerous. So there are plenty of gun owners in American who would support sensible gun-control measures.
Their voices, however, are missing from this vital debate. The NRA certainly doesn’t represent them. Wayne LaPierre insists that any reasonable form of gun control will open the gates to government confiscation of all firearms and re-education camps for red-blooded, freedom-loving Americans. Really. That’s what he wants his members to believe.
Reasonable gun owners should form their own group: Hunters for Gun Control, or Target Shooters Against Assault Weapons, or Bob Barker’s Anti-Absolutist Brigade. They need to take back the public square from the gun nuts who give them a bad name.
Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at email@example.com.