You don’t have to agree with the conservative views of Ben Carson, the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development. But he has one of the most impressive records among the candidates who ran in the Republican Party’s presidential primaries in 2016.
A highly regarded neurosurgeon and a son of parents who divorced when he was a child, he grew up in poverty in Michigan but made it to the medical school at Yale University. Later he stretched the limits of medicine when in 1987, he headed a team of dozens of surgeons who for the first time in history separated Siamese twins who had been conjoined at the head.
Yet in a 2015 interview with CNN, in the middle of the presidential race, Carson remarked, “I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” adding: “I’m telling you there is a reason these dictatorial people take the guns first.” The reaction to Carson’s comments were not long in coming. They included articles by historians and a strong response from the Anti-Defamation League.
One might have shrugged off Carson’s statement as gaffe or sheer ignorance if it hadn’t been a regular feature of the set of messages promoted by the National Rifle Association. The NRA is the most powerful lobby in the United States, with more than 5 million members and the support of hundreds of subserviant politicians who have been blocking gun-control legislation for decades, arguing that it would limit the constitutional right to buy and possess weapons in large quantities.
“Their entire ideological foundation is based on the assumption that weapons are important not just as protection against criminals or cases of social anarchy, but mostly as protection against an effort at social control on the part of a totalitarian regime like the Nazi party,” explains the investigative journalist Frank Smyth, who wrote the new book “The NRA: The Unauthorized History". "It’s because of this that the Holocaust is a such a central element in their argument. They say: Look what happened to the Jews. Hitler disarmed them and that’s why they were slaughtered,” Smyth added.
For decades Smyth has been a war correspondent for various news outlets, and in recent years he shifted his focus to the NRA. In his book, he describes the defense that lawyer David Kopel, an ardent NRA supporter, made in support of Carson’s comments: “Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe and the other mass murderers of the 20th century didn’t start their genocide before disarming those whom they wanted to annihilate,” wrote Kopel, who according to Smyth’s new book is also financed by the NRA through his Colorado-based Independence Institute. “It’s harder to kill an armed man rather than a defenseless man,” Kopel added, before coming to his punchline: “More guns, fewer genocides.”
Smyth also writes about Stephen Halbrook, an American researcher and lawyer who provided legal representation to the NRA and in 2013 published the book “Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and ‘Enemies of the State.’” Halbrook said in his book that “none of the many tomes on the Third Reich so much as looked at the role that Weimer-era legislation and decrees were used by the Hitler government to consolidate power by disarming political enemies, the Jews and other ‘enemies of the state.’”
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Unsurprisingly, the book got a rave review in the NRA’s official magazine, “American Firearm,” which called it “the first thorough examination of the laws restricting firearm ownership that rendered Hitler’s political opponents, as well as the Jews, defenseless.” In its conclusion, the article shifted from the Holocaust to the United States of today and stated that no one should “take for granted the safeguards built into [the U.S.] constitutional system to deter the rise of unchecked power.”
Smyth, who has been researching the NRA for years and has even attended closed meetings of the organization as a member, insisted: “Again and again, they return to their same standard argument that the Holocaust happened because of the arms legislation that Hitler passed.”
Why is it so important to them? “Because it strengthens their main argument that if citizens don’t have weapons, we will end up like the Jews who were slaughtered by Hitler,” Smyth explains. “It’s a statement that is not based on any historical foundation. The Jews in Germany had no tradition of possessing weapons, and also those who had weapons were relatively few, not enough to protect themselves from the Nazi regime. It’s one big baseless invention.”
Revolt in Cincinnati
The NRA, as Smyth shows throughout his book, wasn’t always the militant organization that it is today, and in the past cooperated with U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democratic. The group whose support is so crucial to many Republican candidates today got its start in 1871, six years after the Civil War ended, by Union veterans. Their goal was to promote better riflery in anticipation of future wars. After World War I, the U.S. army sold spare guns and rifles to members of the group at cost. About a decade and a half after World War I’s end, the NRA even supported oversight legislation of 1934 that banned the possession by civilians of automatic weapons. During War World II, the NRA collected weapons donated by its members for British troops fighting the Nazis. “It was the NRA’s finest hour,” Smyth writes.
Two decades later, after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and then that of Martin Luther King in 1968, the NRA supported the Johnson administration’s Gun Control Act of 1968, which was the second major regulation of the U.S. arms industry. But, as Smyth recounts, everything changed with what he calls the revolt in Cincinnati in 1977, during NRA’s organization’s annual convention, when Harlon Carter took over the group’s leadership.
Carter pursued new policies to expand the NRA’s political lobbying and adopted an aggressive ideological line, while cloaking the organization in secrecy, which has enabled the NRA to act with almost no oversight. It turned into an organization “where all of the information stays with the leadership,” as Smyth described it. “No non-profit organization is run with such secrecy.”
And thus the NRA grew its power. For example, over the years, the organization has funded the work of lawyers who, as purported independent experts, have been invited to testify in court and repeatedly helped advance rulings that favor the group’s gun rights ideology.
In 2017 alone, 39,773 Americans were killed by firearms, including 14,542 who were deliberately killed (the others died by accident or suicide). In 2019, there were 417 mass murders (involving four or more dead) in the United States, yet the NRA continues to scuttle reforms related to background checks in purchasing a weapon or the quantity or type of weapons that can be bought.
Smyth also describes how the NRA exploited some of the most lethal incidents of slaughter in American history. After the mass killing at a school in Columbine, Colorado in 1999, in which 12 students and a teacher died, the NRA organized a march in the streets of Denver. Come 2012, following the slaughter of 20 pupils and six adults at a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, the NRA launched a campaign calling for teachers to be armed. After the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida in 2018, which took the lives of 17 people, the group attacked the media for purportedly “loving mass shootings” because they boost media ratings.
“Every time there is a tragedy, they try to deflect the blame onto others,” Smyth told Haaretz. “From their standpoint, it’s never caused due to the availability of weapons, which are easier to obtain here than in any other advanced country. They blame the media. Or they point to the fact that the teachers and administrators are not armed. They claim that there is no need for even the slightest reform, due to what they call a ‘slippery slope,’ meaning that demands legislation requiring background checks of those seeking to buy weapons will lead to government registering weapons, and such that registration would invariably allegedly lead to the confiscation of the same registered weapons. And that this confiscation will lead to a totalitarian regime. And the only thing preventing a totalitarian regime of Hitler’s kind is, as they say, armed civilians.”
In his book, Smyth also analyzes the organization’s partisan positions. “For years, the NRA was politically cautious and was careful to support only select Democratic and Republican candidates who embraced its viewpoint,” he writes. But all of that changed in the last four years.
“The NRA never supported an American politician the way it has supported President Trump. In the 2016 election, for the first time in history, the organization supported a Republican candidate not just on the eve of the election but back in the spring, a number of months before the election,” Smyth wrote, adding that “in 2016, the NRA contributed more money to Republican candidates than ever – $54. 4 million.”
Trump reciprocated. He was the first Republican candidate to invite a representative of the NRA (Chris Cox) to speak at the Republican National Convention, in Cleveland. A year later, Trump became the second president, after Ronald Reagan in 1983, to attend and address the NRA’s annual convention.
So far, says Smyth, “the NRA has officially only supported five candidates for president and they did not include George H.W. Bush or his son, whose candidacies they declined to support. Now for the first time, we see them deeply entrenched in the political establishment.”
Why now, actually, and why Trump? After all, he has changed his political affiliation five times, contributed considerably to Democratic candidates, and unlike other conservative candidates has never gone hunting in the presence of the media.
“No one in the NRA counts too much on Trump,” Smyth answers. “They are aware that historically he hadn’t supported them and that he has on occasion changed his positions on the issue. But they do support the movement that he has managed to establish, what I call Trumpism, an aggressive, powerful, white movement that is hostile to the media and denies science. They also know that if Trump loses in the upcoming election, the Trumpism that arose after him, will continue to influence the Republican Party, most of whose people now are also ardent supporters of the NRA.”
Ironically, Smyth adds, the presidency of Barack Obama, who repeatedly expressed support for changing the law and restricting the weapons market, was actually good for the organization. “They presented Obama as someone who might take weapons from them, and who helped them attract contributions and supporters. They have benefited the most from a Democratic president who opposes their ideology.”
It is not by chance, as Smyth writes in his book, that in recent years, following Trump’s election, when it appeared that the political danger had passed, the organization sustained a major financial blow, with a drop of about $70 million in contributions and dues in 2017 alone.
In speaking to Smyth, it’s difficult to ignore very recent events, when masses of armed men with semi-automatic rifles have staged violent demonstrations demanding that the economy be opened up, following coronavirus lockdowns, and they received Trump’s backing. From North Carolina in the East to Michigan and Texas, semiautomatic rifles and in some cases even rocket launchers (there’s a photo trending in which a demonstrator with a rocket launcher orders food at Subway sandwich shop in North Carolina). It’s become an integral part of the show of force by what appears to be a citizens’ militia challenging the existing order.
“Having unlimited access to weapons means that no one will deprive them of their freedom as long as they have a weapon, including when carrying arms during protests against COVID-19 health measures,” Smyth explains. “The weapon permits them to demonstrate their freedom on one hand, and on the other – to intimidate. When they come armed with rifles to a demonstration, they want to send the message that they will fight to the death to maintain their freedom, and part of that freedom is the fight against social lockdown. There is a clear attempt here to threaten. It’s very simple.”
'The NRA: The Unauthorized History' by Frank Smyth, Flatiron Books, 320 pages