It’s been more than a week since Ismaayl Brinsley, a deranged man with a long criminal record, murdered two New York City police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, in cold blood, but so far we haven’t heard a word from the National Rifle Association.
It was Brinsley who pulled the trigger on the silver Taurus semiautomatic handgun that he used to kill the two officers, but the NRA and its Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre also have blood on their hands. LaPierre, who has worked for the NRA since 1978 and served as its top official since 1991, is the organization’s hit man when it comes to intimidating elected officials to oppose any kind of sensible gun control laws, including a federal law requiring background checks on would-be gun buyers and a national registry of guns. LaPierre likes to fulminate about gun owners’ rights. But he’s been silent on the ambush of the two New York cops.
In an interview Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani urged current mayor Bill de Blasio to apologize to the New York Police Department for “[giving] the police the impression that he’s on the other side”—in other words, that he’s siding with the protesters over law enforcement during recent protests over the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers. Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, has been grabbing headlines by blaming de Blasio for creating an anti-police atmosphere that may have encouraged Brinsley to target the two police officers, gunned down while they sat in their squad car outside a Brooklyn housing project. Some NYPD officers even turned their backs on de Blasio during Ramos’ funeral on Saturday.
These comments and actions are absurd and outrageous. Giuliani and Lynch don’t seem to understand that de Blasio can be a strong defender of New York’s police department while also criticizing police abuses and supporting people’s right to protest nonviolently. Equally important, Giuliani and Lynch must know that Brinsley was not making a political statement when he shot the two officers. Brinsley’s sister told the media that her brother was “emotionally troubled” and suicidal. “He needed help,” she said. “He didn’t get it.” He killed himself after murdering Ramos and Liu.
If Giuliani and Lynch want to point the finger of blame for policies that put police in harm’s way, they should focus on the NRA, not de Blasio. For decades, the NRA has fought every effort to get Congress and states to adopt reasonable laws that would make it much less likely that people like Brinsley would be able to obtain a gun. The NRA even defends the right of Americans to carry concealed weapons in bars, churches, schools, universities, and elsewhere. This poses a huge threat to police and civilians alike.
Brinsley had a history of criminal activity as well as mental instability. In 2008, he was convicted of felony shoplifting, which made it illegal for him to buy or carry a gun under federal law. Three years later, after he shot a woman’s car with a stolen handgun, he admitted to other crimes. According to police records, he was arrested 19 times in Ohio and Georgia.
Investigators have traced the gun Brinsley used to kill Ramos and Liu to the Arrowhead Pawn Shop in Jonesboro, Georgia, south of Atlanta. The gun was purchased there in 1996. The buyer told police that he gave the gun to a cousin, according to the New York Times. Federal investigators are trying to figure out what happened to the gun since then, but the lack of a legal paper trail makes doing so difficult. There have been no traceable purchases since then, so law enforcement officials don’t know if Brinsley purchased the gun from an individual, a website, or a gun show—or whether he stole it.
As of 2010, Georgia was the fifth-largest source of guns used in crimes nationally and the largest source of out-of-state guns seized by the New York Police Department, the Times reported. Of the 2,433 guns used in crimes in New York City whose point of sale can be traced, 90 percent come from out of state, most of them from states with few restrictions on selling or buying guns. New York State’s tough gun laws can’t stifle the gun trail between Southern states and New York that officials call the “iron pipeline.” Although licensed gun sellers are required to conduct background checks, in many states, including Georgia, there’s no similar requirement for unlicensed secondary market sellers.
According to a New Republic article by Rebecca Leber:
New York requires all gun sales, including private ones, to pass a background check. Georgia does not. It also has no penalties for straw purchasers who buy firearms legally for someone who can’t. It also doesn’t mandate that gun owners file a police report when their gun goes missing. In 2014, Georgia’s weakened its laws even further, and now gun owners can carry firearms into bars, classrooms, government buildings, and even TSA airport checkpoints. Felons are allowed to invoke the controversial Stand Your Ground defense, meaning they don’t have the obligation to retreat if they feel their life is threatened. Georgia’s own murder rate is 27 percent above the national average, and has the 13th most permissible gun laws in the nation, according to a Daily Beast analysis.
In 2012, there were 32,288 deaths from firearm violence in the United States, including 11,622 homicides (an average of 32 a day) and 20,666 suicides. Firearms were used in 69.6 percent of all homicides that year. Of course, many more people are injured—some seriously and permanently—by gun violence.
The NRA has two kneejerk responses to this. The first is that the Second Amendment gives all Americans the right to possess guns of all kinds—not just hunting rifles, but machine guns and semi-automatics. Efforts to restrict gun sales and ownership is, according to the NRA, an assault on our constitutional freedoms.
The second is the cliché that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” To the NRA, gun laws have nothing to do with the epidemic of gun-related killings.
Both of these arguments are bogus, but the NRA has the money, and a small but committed hard core of members, to translate these idiot ideas into political clout to thwart even reasonable gun-control laws.
Most gun-related deaths are committed by people who purchase their weapons legally. Others purchase or steal them illegally, but their ability to get access to guns is due to our lax laws on gun ownership. The NRA’s job is to make it easier for people to buy and use guns. And so far it has been very successful. Since the 1994 assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn’t enacted any major gun regulations.
After 20 children and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in December 2012 by a single killer, gun control advocates thought that they could persuade Congress to pass a new assault weapons ban or at least expanded background checks. But the NRA led a campaign to thwart them and both proposals went down to defeat . In fact, since the Newtown massacre, most new state laws have loosened, rather than tightened, gun restrictions, according to the Pew Research Center.
The NRA backed a bill sponsored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, that makes it more difficult for public safety officials to shut down the illegal market in gun sales. Tiahrt’s amendment, which was passed in 2003, prevents the FBI from sharing some of its records on background checks with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (now called the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives) or local law enforcement agencies. The NRA and its Republican allies in Congress have even managed to block the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting any research on the connection between guns and violence as a public health issue.
Thanks to the NRA, it is no accident that the United States ranks first in the world—by a wide margin—in gun-related civilian deaths and injuries. Compared with every other democracy, we have the most guns per capita and the weakest gun laws. But the danger isn’t simply the number of guns; it is the type of guns we allow people to legally purchase. Other countries permit hunting rifles. But the NRA believes that Americans have a right to own an assault weapon.
Even in countries with strong gun-control laws, some people will get their hands on a weapon and destroy others’ lives. The tragic killing in Norway in 2011 is a testament to this reality. (Although let’s recall that Anders Breivik bought $550 worth of 30-round ammunition clips from an American gun supplier for the rifle he used to kill 69 Norwegian kids at a summer camp. Thanks to American laws, it was a legal online purchase). But the shooting in Norway was an infrequent occurrence. In contrast, the U.S. is off the charts in terms of murder rates. The homicide rate in the U.S. in 2012 was 4.67 per 100,000 population compared with 0.35 in Japan, 0.81 in Germany, 0.86 in Sweden, 1.18 in France, 1.60 in Canada, and 2.25 in Norway.
The media will spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to figure out what was in Brinsley’s head before he shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend at an Owings Mills, Md., apartment complex, posted anti-police messages on social media, then traveled to Brooklyn, where he fired his gun several times through the window of a parked police car, killing the two police officers. Although the psychology and motives of the murderer may be fascinating, it should not be the major focus. There are plenty of deranged people in the world, but in most well-off countries, they can’t easily get their hands on a firearm.
Here’s where the NRA comes in. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, the gun lobby, led by the NRA, has contributed over $33 million to candidates for Congress and the White House, 88% of it to Republicans. It has also invested, since 1998, more than $100 million in lobbying federal government officials.
Under LaPierre’s leadership, the NRA has not only dramatically expanded the its ties to the gun manufacturers, but has also linked the NRA to the far right, including the Tea Party. LaPierre is a regular presence at gatherings of extreme right-wing groups, whose paranoid warnings about the threat of tyranny and Obama’s secret plan to confiscate all guns are meant to scare Americans into buying more guns and joining the NRA. For example, in a speech at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, LaPierre said that President Barack Obama was part of a “conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep.” Obama’s plan, he said, was to “erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution.”
“We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It’s black and white, all or nothing,” LaPierre said at an NRA meeting. “You’re with us or against us.”
Although the NRA likes to portray itself as representing grassroots gun owners, the bulk of its money comes from gun manufacturers. LaPierre, who makes $974,867 a year, is really a corporate lobbyist.
Only a tiny proportion of the nation’s gun owners are NRA members. The NRA claims to have about four million members. That is less than five percent of the approximately 90 million Americans who own guns. Moreover, the NRA’s extreme positions are at odds with those of most Americans, most gun owners, and even many NRA members.
Gun ownership is highly concentrated. Twenty percent of gun owners possess about 65 percent of the nation’s guns. The NRA is able to mobilize a small but very rabid and vocal group of gun owners—as well as owners of gun shops—to attend rallies, write letters to newspapers and comments on blog sites, and contact elected officials.
Josh Sugarman, executive director of the nonprofit Violence Policy Center, who has written extensively about the NRA, says that the organization’s most vocal members are a small proportion of its members for whom “guns are their life.” They represent perhaps a few hundred thousand members. Yes, they can make lots of noise, but they don’t represent the general public or even most NRA members who don’t fall for LaPierre’s extremism.
A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 66% of Americans supported the creation of a federal database to track gun sales and 54% supported a ban on sale of assault-style weapons. A Pew poll earlier this year discovered that 81% of all Americans, and 74% of households with NRA members, support background checks for private gun sales.
Every American grieves for the families and friends of the two police officers killed in New York City on December 20. But until we tame the power of the NRA, we can expect more killings like this – a part of the deadly daily diet of murders throughout America committed by angry gun-toting people whose “freedom” to own weapons of mass destruction the NRA defends.
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).