Last year, during a party, a friend of mine said, “Compulsory voting is Australia’s gun laws,” meaning we see it as something right and natural, when the rest of the world looks on baffled. It’s probably the best analogy I’ve encountered when trying to get my head around why America can’t get their fingers off the trigger.
In Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA (airing at 10:40pm Sunday 11 March on SBS), you’ll spend a lot of time shaking your head in bewilderment. Even if you’re a gun owner yourself, there’s a deep level of obsession on display in the documentary that goes beyond reasonable debate. We can sit smugly on our post-Port Arthur record, sharing meme after meme about relative gun ownership vs gun violence stats, and still never change their minds.
Because, as we hear former NRA spokesperson John Aquilino say in the opening seconds of this doco: “It really has nothing to do with guns, it has to do with freedom.”
There, in 13 words, is the core of the disconnect between the activists who want Americans’ arsenals reduced and the Cold Dead Hands Brigade. You can argue all you want about the number of kids’ lives that could have been saved after Sandy Hook, you can have Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ husband talk about how many bullets were fired in 15 seconds and never get through to an opponent who views everything you’re saying as an underhanded tactic to curtail his or her freedom.
(Again: if someone tries to tell me voting should be voluntary because the disengaged middle only ever do donkey votes and we should be electing representatives on the basis of the informed citizenry’s views, my eyes narrow in suspicion.)
And so, the National Rifle Association
As Gunned Down shows, the NRA was once a more lighthearted group, focused on safety issues and seeing their core membership as hunters rather than a militia-in-waiting. They first became politicised in the wake of the 1960s assassinations and governmental restrictions on gun purchases. Through the 1970s and '80s, they shifted further to the right, becoming more and more conservative and invested in the personal liberties they felt were under threat.
But how did this special interest group become so powerful, so influential that almost the entirety of the United States political class is terrified to go up against them? There are decades of internal politics, fractious factionalisms and Wayne LaPierres to unpack in answer to that question, but one event stands out as a lightning rod for the NRA: the Columbine High School mass shooting.
This, the archetypal event of its kind, was so shocking in 1999 – even inspiring the film Elephant as a way to explain the inexplicable – but seems run-of-the-mill two decades later.
That’s where Charlton Heston’s “cold, dead hands” speech came from. It’s also where the “isolated incident” reaction solidified, framing every subsequent debate over gun violence as the Second Amendment versus a tyrannical government looking for any excuse to disarm its patriots.
It was the first time they went up against gun control legislation in the Senate and won. That’s why NRA membership and gun purchases went up after Columbine, and why they still do after every shooting to this day.
Because it really does have nothing to do with guns, and everything to do with freedom – the only thing Americans prize above the lives of their children.
Watch Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA on Sunday 11 March at 10:40pm on SBS.