The National Rifle Association’s annual convention was quite the event this year. The NRA, which has been in the spotlight since the brutal murders in Newtown, Connecticut, seems to be redoubling efforts to resist any legislation regulating the use or sale of firearms. Reportedly having grown in membership since the tragedy, the NRA, which was once a bipartisan organization, has become increasingly partisan and radical in its outlook.
NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre has courted controversy since Newtown. Rather than seeking compromise in the wake of the tragedy, LaPierre has described the moderate legislation put forward in the Congress as the beginnings of “a once-in-a-generation fight” and has called on his membership to prevent “a massive Obama conspiracy” to seize guns.
When LaPierre began his post-Newtown political assault with a horrifying ad that used President Obama’s school-age daughters as a political talking point, I knew things weren’t going in the direction of compromise. La Pierre’s NRA has insisted that background checks would lead to a national registry of guns, even though the bipartisan bill explicitly forbade any such action.
This week’s convention speakers, who read like a who’s who among leading Tea Party Republicans, touted the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey background check bill as a “victory for liberty.”
Although the NRA convention is peppered with hyperbolic language, two figures making the news caught my attention.
First, the NRA’s new president Jim Porter seems to be bringing a touch of neo-confederate flavor to this week’s festivities. In a 2012 speech to the New York Rifle and Pistol Association, he described his audience as “Yankees” and explained that “southerners” call the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression.”
I, for one, hope this was just some colorful talk. After all, the NRA and more broadly speaking, its Republican advocates, can’t hope to “rebrand” by pushing secession talk. Mourning the loss of slavery surely isn’t the best way to attract young folks and people of color to the party. If “liberty” is your brand, looking back fondly on enslavement is pretty counter-intuitive.
But even more remarkable was Glenn Beck’s hour-and-a-half long speech to the convention. In it, Beck portrayed the NRA as freedom fighters and insisted that its members would need to use “passive resistance” to overcome gun control legislation.
Citing a list of heroes that began with Jesus Christ and included Frederick Douglass, Margaret Thatcher, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Beck called on the NRA to adopt the signature slogan of the American civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”
King’s movement was no arms race
Beck’s speech reminded me of his 2010 event in Washington on the anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington. Beck’s rally was turned into an odd “civil rights” revival, featuring snippets of King’s speeches and capped off by a speech from King’s niece.
Devoid of any understanding that the civil rights movement was a long struggle to contest disfranchisement, racial violence, and Jim Crow segregation through the passage of laws that would protect the citizenship rights of African-Americans, Beck’s “colorblind” call for a revival of a civil rights movement was an ahistorical attack on the real meaning of the movement.
Beck’s renewed call for passive resistance in the effort to support the growth of the gun industry is a result of the watered-down memory of the movement in popular culture. In this toothless version of the civil rights movement that has been adopted by the American right, the only thing of significance King said was the word “colorblind.” However, colorblindness is a condition, not a cure. In this formulation, everyone must try to ignore that anyone has a race at all, even when race colors the political debate.
In this strange formulation, everyone must pretend that they don’t notice race or the continuing effects of racial discrimination. This kind of movement doesn’t recognize the ways that an unchecked gun trade is ravaging black neighborhoods in cities like Chicago. Anyone can claim that they are supporters of civil rights, as long as they support the catch–phrases of “freedom and liberty.” This twisted vision of civil rights allows Beck to claim that the gun-industry-funded NRA is carrying out the dream of an activist who was assassinated by a gunman firing a high-powered rifle.
Martin Luther King’s seminal call to have his children judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” was and is an admirable idea. No one wants perceptions of racial inferiority to shape our country.
But King must be remembered first and foremost as a tireless advocate of non-violence. He gave his life serving a non-violent movement, pushing for fair pay and an end to segregation, not advocating an unchecked arms race on America’s streets.
It is my hope that we do overcome any attempts to bastardize King’s legacy in the service of the NRA. King believed fervently that non-violence could be employed to resolve any crisis, from personal relationships to geo-political conflicts.
In a world rocked by war, and acts of terror both great and small, we should all strive to be more like King. But a first step to modeling King would require us to put our guns down.
Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley