Plain Talk: The NRA radicalized a generation of armed extremists

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson apparently has never read this, but the gun control advocacy group funded mostly by former New York mayor and one-time presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg found that nine supporters of former president Donald Trump, all arrested on weapons charges in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, had enough ammunition to shoot every member of the House and Senate five times.

According to a report by the organization Everytown for Gun Safety, which was compiled after a review of police documents chronicling the Capitol riots, cops seized at least 3,071 rounds of ammunition during the course of those nine arrests.

Along with other bizarre comments, Johnson famously has insisted that he's not sure you could call the storming of the Capitol an "armed insurrection."

The report by the Bloomberg-supported group, which boasts 6 million members including teachers, students, many of the nation's mayors and thousands of gun owners, basically places the blame on the attempt to overthrow a presidential election at the feet of the National Rifle Association.

"We believe the NRA, like former President Trump, like some members of Congress, deserves blame for what led to Jan. 6," Nick Suplina, the managing director of law and policy for the organization, told HuffPost in late January. "You don't get to Trump inciting an insurrection without an NRA laying the groundwork for all these years."

It's an interesting accusation and one that shouldn't be dismissed. In my lifetime I've watched the NRA evolve from an organization that promoted gun safety and education, especially for young people wanting to learn the art of hunting so they could join their fathers, into a super-charged bullying lobby that threatens anyone who has the audacity to suggest we need to get a handle on our nation's overwhelming gun problems. Indeed, it's more than a problem, it's a full-blown crisis.

The Everytown for Gun Safety report argues that for the last several decades, the NRA has shamelessly deployed over-the-top rhetoric and conspiracy theories about "mass civilian disarmament and looming authoritarianism" to get people to turn against even the most modest of gun safety proposals. That, in turn, has helped radicalize a generation of American armed extremists.

The NRA's vitriol really took off in the 1980s and grew in the 1990s when Bill Clinton was elected president and succeeded in getting an assault weapon ban passed in 1994. That's when the gun lobby began its bogus claim that the government was coming for your guns, and thousands of American citizens bought that claim and began buying and hoarding guns to stave off government "thugs."

The assault rifle ban was allowed to expire, and then in 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court — by one vote — opened the floodgates with its ruling that many gun control laws violated the Second Amendment's "right to bear arms."

As the proliferation of firearms proceeded uninhibited, the country experienced more and more mass shootings, a huge increase in shooting deaths and an alarming rise in the number of suicides.

Meanwhile, we've watched protests that once drew crowds with placards and bullhorns turn into dangerous confrontations led by people carrying assault rifles and other firearms, marching onto state capital grounds and government offices. We can thank the NRA and their purchased politicians for open carry, concealed carry and all the other laws that have served to make it okay to make your argument at the point of a gun.

As the Everytown report said, we did not get here by accident. It added: "For decades, the gun lobby has not only enabled access to guns by anti-government and white supremacist extremists through its advocacy against common-sense gun laws, but has also worked to harness their fixation on guns to shore up its own political power; in doing so, the gun lobby has amplified extreme-right politics to new and broader audiences. The gun lobby’s rhetorical, political, and sometimes organizational overlap with the extreme right — from the militia movement of the 1990s to the 'boogaloo bois' of today — has yielded dangerous and, at times, catastrophic results.

"Activists and groups on the far right utilize extremist strategies and rhetoric to secure and amplify their power, to the exclusion of others in American society. Fundamentally, a worldview constructed around conspiracy theories has led them to view their opponents as illegitimate political actors who pose an existential threat.

"In the case of white supremacists, those opponents are non-white and Jewish people whom they believe are carrying out a genocidal plan against white people. For anti-government extremists, those opponents are agents and institutions of government and those on the political left, whom they believe are subverting democracy to enslave the American people."

What's so disconcerting is that many law enforcement people believe that Jan. 6 isn't the end of attempts to somehow overthrow the government. In fact, many fear it is just the beginning. Several right-wing militias have made it known that the only way to save America for themselves is to start a civil war.

The NRA has proclaimed itself a guardian of American liberties and those who fight gun control measures the nation's true patriots. Here's praying we still have a country by the time those patriots are through.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.

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