What Exactly Is the Gun-Rights Movement So Freaked Out About?

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

Chicago just got pistol-whipped. Again. A federal judge ruled this week that the city's ban on gun sales is unconstitutional. That decision followed a previous ruling that the city had to scrap its ban on handguns. Oh, and there was also the state's recent forced capitulation on concealed-carry laws: Illinois, the last state to legalize it, will be issuing permits this year.

With some notable exceptions in very blue states such as New York and Connecticut, which adopted some restrictions after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the gun-rights movement has been surfing a Banzai Pipeline-size political wave.

Gun-rights activists won the sanction of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, when an individual right to possess firearms was established for the first time (something the National Rifle Association had long feared testing in court). Gun sales have reached record levels during President Barack Obama's presidency, with 2013 proving to be another banner year. A modest effort to expand background checks to prevent felons and the certified mentally ill from purchasing guns -- a policy once supported by the NRA -- was defeated in Congress and appears to have little chance of revival. In the absence of viable legislation, Obama has been relegated to minimalist tweaks of the executive-order variety.

Yet there is no triumphalism in gunland, no raising of rifles to the sky for a victory volley. The New York Times published this week an excellent interview with Dick Metcalf, the former Guns & Ammo columnist who was fired, reviled and ostracized for stating the obvious: that Second Amendment rights, like all constitutional rights, are subject to some degree of regulation. Here is how one aggrieved member of the gun club explained the nuclear reaction to Metcalf's perfidy:

"'We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment,' said Richard Venola, a former editor of Guns & Ammo. 'The time for ceding some rational points is gone.'"

It goes without saying that extremists in any endeavor are not big on ceding "rational points." But it's Venola's sense of being under siege by "powerful forces" that is most striking here. Among extreme gun-rights supporters, the movement's winning streak is perceived to be either so fragile or somehow fraudulent that it leaves no margin for dissent within the ranks.

In a characteristically unhinged 2012 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre sketched the dark fate awaiting the gun movement if the tyrant Obama were to be re-elected.

The president's "lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term," LaPierre said. "We see the president's strategy crystal clear: Get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms' freedom, erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution."

LaPierre is a professional propagandist, of course. Even so, his paranoia is consistent. And it's consistent with Venola's. It explains the ferocity that greeted Metcalf's column, the assertions of which appear utterly unremarkable to those outside the tribe.

If a landmark, and longed for, constitutional guarantee of gun possession from the Supreme Court, a record-breaking retail gun market, a series of political victories (and, yes, a few defeats) at the state level, and the proliferation of "Stand Your Ground" laws produce such a frenzy of fright and loathing, it does make one wonder if the ever-escalating fears of gun-rights extremists have anything to do with, you know, gun rights. Just asking.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net