The NRA's Vigilante Approach to Justice

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”

Wayne LaPierre

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This is the NRA’s primary slogan. It is pithy, easy to remember, catchy.

And it’s deeply flawed.

Let’s take a closer look at the logic of the statement: first of all, the basic claim that an armed guy is the “only thing” that can stop another armed guy is obviously untrue. Just last week, an unarmed man in a Waffle House disarmed a naked shooter, and then proceeded to raise over $200,000 for the families of the victims. 

Besides anecdotes like these, there are the larger cases where entire movements changed the course of history without firing a shot or carrying their own weapons into war. Gandhi led India to independence without guns; Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement faced down hundreds of armed guys, most of whom were supposed to be the “good guys,” by the way; and don’t forget the fall of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, or the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. 

Perhaps it would be more accurate if LaPierre and the NRA claimed that “the best way” or “the quickest way” to stop a bad guy with a gun, etc.

But this is also an extremely problematic statement. How does one know the difference between a good guy and a bad guy? Is it that easy to spot?

I suppose LaPierre would answer that a bad guy is the person who is doing something illegal or harmful. But notice how easily the term “bad guy” can be expanded … what about the person who potentially might do something illegal or harmful? Are they bad, too? Should they be stopped with a gun?

What about someone with a criminal past? Is he “once bad, always bad” or do we hold out the possibility that he has reformed and become a law-abiding citizen? 

What about someone who fits in a particular ethnic or racial group which has been stereotyped as a group more prone to criminal activity? 

And what about white-collar crime — are “good guys with guns” the best way to stop tax evaders? Funny how the NRA doesn’t really seem to be all that concerned about the bad guys who are so wealthy that they don’t need guns or weapons to commit their crimes.

As a pastor, I cringe when somebody refers to good guys and bad guys. Because one of the major tenets of Christianity is the persistence and ubiquity of sin. Every single one of us has sinned; we regularly fall short of the glory of humanity. We often fail to live up to the image of God in which we are created. 

At the same time, we do sometimes live up to the image of God! Sometimes we are crazy beautiful and creative people; we love spectacularly and commit great acts of mercy and compassion. 

Throughout our lives, we stumble between the two poles of sin and glory. As the Apostle Paul lamented, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Martin Luther summed it all up with his dictum that we are “simultaneously saints and sinners.” 

Unfortunately, in the mind of LaPierre, there are essentially two kinds of people in the world — the good guys and the bad guys. You’re either one or the other. I simply can’t accept that dualism, that simplistic black-and-white thinking, especially when it directly impacts the safety and wellbeing of ordinary people.

There’s one more reason why this oft-quoted statement is problematic: LaPierre and the NRA support the idea that armed citizens have the ability and the right to be the judge and jury of another person’s actions. Never mind due process — the appropriate punishment of any crime committed with a gun is the death penalty.

Yesterday, security camera footage was released of an incident in a convenience store in which an undercover cop pulled a gun on someone he thought was stealing a package of Mentos. Only it turns out that the man was not stealing the mints; he’d already paid his $1.19. What is truly frightening is that the “good guy with a gun” was ready and willing to use his firearm to stop a bad guy with Mentos. 

We have another word for this behavior: vigilantism. That’s what the NRA supports. That’s what a pack of law-abiding, arms-packing citizens who are watching out for bad guys with guns ultimately become — vigilantes. 

The NRA talks a lot about the rule of law, but when it comes down to it, the only rule that matters to them is the one that comes down a barrel.

So who’s the bad guys?

The NRA is Fighting a War It Will Lose

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Walking down the long, broad hallways of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center today, where the NRA Convention is being held, I felt extremely out of place.

For one, I was wearing my clergy collar, which is unusual for me. I don’t normally wear it in my daily work.

Often, I get mistaken for a “priest” or “father” while wearing my collar, and this crowd was decidedly not Catholic, and likely not Episcopalian either. I can only imagine what they thought I was doing there.

And, of course, I don’t connect with these people politically. I find some of their positions downright dangerous and wacky. So it felt strange to be wandering among them, listening in to their conversations and showing interest at their booths. 

However, there is an even deeper dissonance, which finally dawned on me while I was sitting through the long speeches of Vice President Pence and President Trump, and the NRA’s own Chris Cox and Wayne LaPierre.

The NRA is successfully and unashamedly waging a culture war.

This war is the same one that was fought between “true patriots” and “dirty Irish Catholics,” Negroes, Jews, “Chinamen,” Japanese-Americans, anarchists, Communists, “illegal immigrants,” and Muslims. The war is always portrayed as a fight between good, Protestant Christian, freedom-loving Americans and those who aren’t. 

Pence plays along magnificently by talking openly about his evangelical Christian faith. When I say “evangelical Christian,” I mean that it is quite implicitly anti-Catholic (except when it comes to abortion), anti-mainline denomination, and anti-any-other-religion. In fact, not one speaker referenced the existence of any other religion.

LaPierre plainly addressed the membership of the NRA as inhabitants of the country’s “heartland,” people who are decent, hard-working, honest, “law-abiding citizens.” And he contrasted these patriots with their enemies, and there are many enemies: the mainstream media elites, the political class, university professors, and the cities of Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and Hollywood. These are broad-brushed stereotypes, but they are resonate deeply with the people who make up the bulk of NRA membership.

The crowd booed and hissed at any and every mention of these “enemies.” But I could understand why. Because most of them can’t possibly relate to what it’s like to live in a big, urban, multicultural city, and most have likely never met a Muslim, much less a Sikh, Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, or Buddhist. These are folks who have had much of their impressions of life elsewhere framed by television or Facebook. And yes, these are the people who get their news from Fox. 

Not once did I hear the words “tolerance” or “diversity” mentioned. That’s because these are dirty words in the culture wars. There is right and wrong, law and order, borders and boundaries. They must be respected, no matter who you are and where you’re from. You shouldn’t “tolerate” what is wrong, and nobody needs “diversity” when it’s so crystal clear what is best and right.

Seen from that simple perspective, NRA members make sense. America is for Americans first — naturally. The only threat to good Americans are bad folks with guns, and the only way to stop them is with your own guns. 

But the world is so much more complex than that. This planet is full of diversity, beautiful in its variety, but also confusing in its chaos. There are real problems that we have to solve together, and we cannot simply retreat into a “what’s-best-for-us” mentality.

NRA members represent a certain way of life, which they understandably want to preserve. However, times have changed — and are changing.

The crowd was largely, overwhelmingly, impossibly white. And it is aging.

I looked around the room and thought, “This isn’t what America looks like.” It never has, but it certainly won’t be in a few years when minorities will outnumber whites. There were no refugees present, no DACA young people, no Indians or Pakistanis. The people who are changing the future of America with their genius, their courage, their gun-transcending solutions, were not represented. 

The NRA can’t win this culture war because culture is a slippery matter, and can’t be contained by wishful thinking. Eventually, Americans will decide that the NRA is a vestige of white supremacy and will settle on more rational, common-sense gun policies.

Until then, there may be many more victims of this war.