The first sign that he was coming was the squeal from a middle-aged woman sitting across the aisle in skintight red, white and blue pants and “U.S.A.” earrings.
Like thousands of others who had waited hours in line for a seat at the National Rifle Assn.’s annual Leadership Forum on Friday, she was craning her neck toward the stage as the syrupy lyrics of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” blared through speakers.
Then he appeared and told them exactly what they wanted to hear.
“With me at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, no one will lay a finger on your firearms,” former President Trump blathered to rapturous applause. “They want to take away your guns while throwing open the jailhouse doors and releasing bloodthirsty criminals into your communities.”
To listen to Trump — as I forced myself to do in Indianapolis, sitting among the Venn diagram of his supporters and NRA members — is to listen to a man who seems wholly detached from reality.
Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans, particularly those of us who reserve our patriotic outfits for the Fourth of July, support some form of additional gun control. In fact, a recent poll from Gallup found that dissatisfaction with the lax status quo is the highest its been in more than 20 years — and that was before a pair of mass shootings in Tennessee and Kentucky.
So one would think supporting policies that let Americans carry any type of gun, anywhere, at anytime would be a losing proposition for any politician, much less one who wants to be president.
And yet as I listened to Trump — and the parade of equally craven Oval Office hopefuls who preceded him onstage — I began to realize that he just might be right in his political calculation. Because, far from losing, the NRA seems to be winning. In fact, it might already have won, polls be damned.
Why would I believe such a thing?
It’s not because of the nonsense I heard longtime NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre spout last week, including that the Founding Fathers created the 2nd Amendment so that, from “the day you’re born,” Americans have the “God-given right” to carry a gun for self-defense that cannot be infringed upon.
Nor is it because, as former Vice President Mike Pence told the NRA faithful, “freedom is under attack,” and Americans are determined to not let the government take their guns. I’ll spare you the stories of people I know who believe this so fervently that they’ve buried boxes of semiautomatic rifles and ammunition in their backyards.
I believe it because of what I’ve seen and heard in liberal California over the past few years — and how similar it is to what I saw and heard at the NRA convention in the conservative state of Indiana last week.
Consider that the past three years have been the most profitable in modern history for gun manufacturers, even as the country has been plagued by mass shooting after mass shooting.
In 2020, with widespread unease over the pandemic, sales to new owners hit an all-time high of 21 million, according to the trade group National Shooting Sports Foundation, which tracks applications for background checks. In 2021, the industry recorded its second-biggest year with sales of 18.5 million. Last year, sales fell to 16.4 million, but that’s still more than the 13 million sold in 2019.
California, with our progressive politics and our stringent gun laws, was not exempt from this trend. Remember that line outside the Martin B. Retting gunshop in Culver City that snaked around the block in 2020? According to researchers at UC Davis, 110,000 people in the state bought a gun in response to the pandemic that year — roughly 47,000 of whom were first-time owners.
We now have more guns than people in this country. And we’re still buying more.
Despite what the NRA insists about needing guns to fend off a tyrannical government, living in a heavily armed society isn’t safe for anyone. As multiple studies have shown and old-fashioned common sense will tell you, more guns just means more guns are likely to get stolen and more people are likely to get shot, both deliberately and accidentally.
So it’s not at all surprising that deaths from firearms, both by homicide and, more often, by suicide, reached a record high in 2021, up 23% from 2019, before the pandemic and before we had so many guns floating around.
But there’s data and then there are feelings. And feeling like the only one without a gun in a heavily armed society doesn’t exactly seem safe either.
And so, 29% of Americans have purchased a gun to protect themselves or their families from gun violence, according to a recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Another 40% of Americans have taken a gun safety course or practiced shooting.
I’m in the latter group, and I’ve met plenty of people in the former group in Los Angeles and Indianapolis.
Patrice Johnson, one of the few Black people I spotted checking out the rifles and bins of bullets in the exhibit hall of the NRA convention, told me she carries a gun for self-defense. As founder of a motorcycle club, she has seen an uptick in men in cars and on motorcycles trying to assault female riders, sometimes by attempting to run them off the road.
“I carry it on my person,” she told me, tapping her hip.
A middle-aged woman named Lynne told me she keeps a double-pump shotgun with an extended clip behind her front door for home defense. She also bought one for her 92-year-old mother.
One of my Uber drivers told me that she carries a gun in her car when she drives at night. Her husband bought her pepper spray and a taser, but she didn’t feel that was enough.
Charles Harrison, a pastor at Barnes United Methodist Church, has been doing crime intervention work for almost 25 years as president of the Indianapolis Ten Point Coalition. When I lived here, I used to travel with him as he went from neighborhood to neighborhood, trying to prevent teenagers from carrying out retaliatory gang shootings.
These days, most of the 10-year-olds he encounters have guns, not just the teens. Adults are so scared that some in his congregation have started carrying guns in their purses and under their suit jackets to church on Sundays.
“They say, ‘Pastor, we know that you are for this nonviolence and that you are out there in the streets, trying to keep the peace,’” Harrison said. “‘But Pastor, I gotta protect myself.’”
I should note that Indiana’s governor, Eric Holcomb, signed a bill last year that eliminated the licensing requirement for a handgun, meaning most Hoosiers 18 and older can carry one in public without ever having received a background check. This horrifying idea, called “constitutional carry,” is now the law in about 25 states, thanks in large part to the NRA.
Not that the ability to carry a gun has resulted in less fear of being the victim of gun violence. It’s as real here as anywhere in the country, even if the data, again, don’t always justify people’s feelings.
Pence tapped into this with some old-fashioned fearmongering during the Leadership Forum: “All across the country, a crime wave is wreaking havoc in our largest Democrat-run cities. Left-wing district attorneys are refusing to prosecute criminals.”
It’s a sentence that could’ve been uttered just as easily by a resident of San Francisco after the killing of tech executive Bob Lee. Even liberals aren’t immune to this rhetoric about crime.
Of course, this was the NRA’s grand plan all along, this having America armed to the teeth. It’s a lobbying organization for gun manufacturers, after all. Under the veneer of patriotism is just naked greed.
Aside from the true believers, like the woman in the red, white and blue pants, I have to think most Americans know this by now. We were under no obligation to follow the NRA’s grand plan. LaPierre didn’t force us to buy more guns. Republicans didn’t make people start carrying sidearms to the mall like we’re sidling up to a bar in an old western.
Sure, the NRA has made it easier to do all of this. But I don’t think we can blame the gun lobby for the number of people in coastal California who, as CalMatters reported, are rushing to capitalize on last year’s Supreme Court ruling that made it easier to get a concealed carry license before state lawmakers can close the loophole.
We made these choices. And now it appears we’re stuck in a San Francisco-style “doom loop,” when the sheer number of guns owned by Americans, and the violence and death they cause, is prompting still more Americans to buy more guns, leading to more violence and death, and so on.
So as much as I applaud Gov. Gavin Newsom for taking on the NRA and its political lackeys in his so-called Campaign for Democracy, we’re going to have to fix a lot of this ourselves. Somehow we’re going to have to break our addiction to guns.
We can’t just focus on the proliferation of “weapons of war” assault-style rifles either, though those do need to go.
Mass shootings, as horrible and as frequent as they are, still only account for a small fraction of all gun violence that occurs each year. Far more people die from handguns — exactly what Americans have been stockpiling for the last three years — and the victims are usually Black and brown, people who are increasingly getting lost in the partisan battle over firearms.
Indeed, while Trump was ranting and convention attendees were perusing booths of AR-15s downtown, at least three people were shot to death and two were injured in two predominantly Black neighborhoods of Indianapolis.
“We’re beyond trying to get guns off the street. There are too many of them out there,” Johnson told me, matter-of-factly. “All you can do is be prepared to protect yourself and be aware of your surroundings.”
God bless the U.S.A.
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