I’ve been thinking a lot about the NRA lately. For most nonprofits, a catastrophic event that puts them in a critical conversation would be a public relations nightmare. The board of directors would be called into question; the CEO would be raked over the coals. Changes would be made.
Wayne LaPierre is the most highly paid CEO of any charity in the USA: $4,645,251 in the last reported year of 2015, according to Charity Watch.
The staggering frequency of mass shootings simply turns up the NRA marketing machine. The talking points are deployed, the media march in lockstep. The questions of “motive” are raised. The drumbeat of sensible gun ownership is walked around the block. But the NRA’s powerful message of freedom and safety remains unscathed, in fact almost emboldened by the relentless regularity of the emotionally exhausting events.
I’m not suggesting anything revolutionary here. I’m not saying we should ban guns. But I do think that the NRA has used its marketing and lobbying muscle to shut down a reasonable conversation that average Americans are ready to have.
As just one example, let me share a recent example: My subway car conversation.
When I got on the #1 subway a week ago, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in years. We recognized each other, exchanged pleasantries — and then he informed me with some obvious glee that he and his companion, a colleague from his law firm, had just come from a Police Benevolent Association fundraiser where they’d gotten to shoot guns. Big guns. Automatic weapons. He’d written a check, supported the cops, and gotten to shoot some serious weaponry.
I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to get into a political conversation about gun control on a subway car with someone I hardly knew.
Sensing that I didn't agree with him, the pro-gun attorney dug in. “Steve, seriously, think about how much safer we’d all be if there had been a good guy with a gun in Las Vegas,” he said. His buddy nodded in agreement. It was just a few weeks after the terrible mass shooting in Las Vegas, and no doubt it was on the minds of a number of the subway riders who were overhearing our conversation.
I waded in carefully. “Well, I’m not sure that more guns are the answer to indiscriminate gun violence,” I noted, my voice neutral.
Somehow, that seemed to push him into a corner. “Seriously, all these shootings — like the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado — all it would have taken was one shot, and lives would have been saved. How can you disagree with that?”
I’d heard the "good guy with a gun” theory before, but honestly, I’d never had to think about how it would work in a real-world situation. Now I was being challenged to explain why a citizen with a gun wouldn’t stop an active shooter.
I responded, “OK, so I’m the good guy, and I’m in the theater, and I hear shots. I stand up, and there’s a guy in body armor. Do I shoot him?”
My pro-gun lawyer friend didn’t miss a beat. “YES! You SHOOT HIM.”
But he’d fallen into my verbal trap. “OK, but he has body armor — what if he’s the cop who’s just entered to take down the shooter? What if I killed a cop?”
Now I was on a roll. “And what if there are two good guys in the theater? What if we see civilians with guns drawn? What if we shoot each other? What if there are three of us, or four, or five? All armed, all pointing guns in a dark theater? Without training, without situational awareness of who’s shooting at civilians, and who’s shooting to defend civilians?
“How does a good guy in Las Vegas decide which window to aim at in the Mandalay Bay hotel? Does a pistol aiming at a building of mirrored windows have any chance of taking out the shooter, or is it more likely to shoot an innocent hotel guest in another room?”
I paused. The train had gone silent. We pulled into the station.
“This is my stop,” the pro-gun lawyer said. “Nice talking with you.”
He got off. I was pretty sure it wasn’t his stop. But faced with logic, and the grim prospect of a good-guy-with-a-gun massacre, he decided to wait for the next train.
Around the car, knowing looks. No words. A few nods. Everyone went back to their iPhone screens.