This week’s manufactured controversy amongst the National Rifle
Association, the White House and its designated thugs, and various other
parties reflects little if any credit on any of the parties. But the
media, which love a nasty spat over not much at all that can be reported
at the level of personalities rather than issues, are loving it.
Let’s acknowledge that, in part of the way he expressed it, NRA
Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre went a bit over the line — or
over what he had to know the media would consider the line. He said of
President Clinton: “I’ve come to believe that he needs a certain level
of violence in this country. He’s willing to tolerate a certain level of
killing to further his political agenda and his vice president, too.”
Does President Clinton really desire a killing now and then so he can
make gun-control hay? Probably not. But he knows that since the country
is composed of human beings rather than angels, a certain number of
shocking crimes in which guns are used will happen. That’s the reality
everybody understands but almost nobody will acknowledge out loud. The
notion that every violent crime is shocking, that somehow, some way, the
right government policies could reduce the levels of violence to zero is
hopelessly utopian. It’s not gonna happen.
But the basic point LaPierre made — that this White House exploits
every highly publicized tragedy in the country in order to move along
some piece of legislation limiting American freedoms — is so obvious
and so blatant that it almost shouldn’t have needed saying. The fact
that the clumsy utterance of this truth created such a firestorm —
followed, needless to say, by yet another push for a pet White House gun
control proposal — suggests how rare and unwelcome a commodity truth is
in contemporary politics.
In addition to choosing an unfortunate way of expressing himself
(although it’s more than possible that no matter how carefully he said
this particularly unwelcome piece of truth the media and White House
would have jumped on him), however, Mr. LaPierre’s other message was
ill-advised. In the process of criticizing Clinton for exploiting
tragedy — a perfectly valid criticism that should be repeated and
emphasized often — he also criticized the administration for being
singularly lax in enforcing existing gun laws. “You can’t care about
stopping crimes with guns and give the country a complete lack of
enforcement,” he said.
Pardon me, but I suspect that most of the natural constituency of the
NRA would call a party if the federal government really got to the level
of “a complete lack of enforcement” of existing laws. The multifarious
laws are enforced inconsistently and arbitrarily, and used for political
purposes or to get at inconvenient people. But lack of enforcement is
simply not the problem. A full-court press on federal gun laws would be
a horror. I breathe a prayer of thanks every day that we don’t get all
the government we pay for, and I cringe whenever some well-meaning
reformer wants to make government more efficient. Government
inefficiency is the only reason we have any freedom left.
If anything, the NRA should be calling for the repeal of existing
federal gun laws (on all kinds of grounds, from constitutional to
practical to moral) rather than calling for them to be enforced more
stringently. If it has made the political/social calculation that the
time isn’t ripe for such a call, that it would only reinforce the NRA’s
image as “extremist,” it should just keep quiet on the matter.
I recognize that there might be a possibly shrewd calculation behind
the call for more stringent federal enforcement. Abraham Lincoln noted
long ago that one way to get rid of a bad law would be to enforce it
completely, to the very letter. Maybe LaPierre, somewhere deep, was
secretly hoping the Clintonistas really might try to enforce each and
every one of the absurd federal firearms laws to the limit, and the
result would be such chaos and repression that people would finally
recognize just how absurd and dangerous they are. But he didn’t say
Some years ago, when I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, the
Fairfax police, in a wage dispute, engaged in a fascinating kind of job
action. For a few days, they went by the book and enforced every law on
the books as stringently as it was theoretically supposed to be
enforced. After a few days of citizens getting tickets for rolling
stops, sloppy right turns and the like, and calling their elected
officials, the police got their raise.
Interestingly, however, in Fairfax the laws that created chaos and
resentment when fully enforced were never repealed. Once the problem was
resolved for the time being, by allowing the police to exercise
discretion (or act with utter arbitrariness, depending on how you look
at it), most citizens didn’t have the energy to make sure governing
bodies got to the root of the problem, by repealing or revising laws
that turned out to be disastrous if actually enforced.
So, as is true at the federal level and in most localities, we end up
with too many laws, some of them contradictory and all of them subject
to abuse. But as long as the police don’t actually enforce them all,
they stay on the books. But when an NRA official calls for strict
enforcement, he tacitly endorses the idea that the proper approach to
crime is a lot of federal laws strictly enforced, which is pretty much
the opposite of common sense or constitutional governance.
So much for the puny sins of the NRA. Did any of them justify the
astounding and hypocritical White House response? Or was the entire flap
created to divert attention from last Friday’s stories about the
partially leaked LaBella report, in which the Justice Department’s
former designated hitter on 1996 campaign finance scandals took the
department to task in no uncertain terms for, essentially, covering up
the possible culpability of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and
other top administration officials?
Incidentally, has there ever been a public official who looked more
like a Mafia hit man than White House spokesman Joe Lockhart? It might
be seen as appropriate that an administration full of malefactors and
liars would have something of a thug or goon as a front man. But it’s
almost so appropriate as to be ironic — or an in-your-face declaration
that this administration thinks it can thumb its nose at any accusation
and come out ahead no matter how valid the accusation.
Usually politicos try to have somebody smooth or dapper, or warm and
fuzzy in some way or another, to coddle the press. This administration
blatantly puts a ruthless thug who looks and acts like a ruthless thug
in the position. Interesting.
True to its pattern of attacking with exaggerated and outrageously
improbable charges whenever it feels even the slightest bit vulnerable,
the administration that has operated like an eight-year political
campaign went into war-room mode. Clinton and Lockhart (along with Janet
Reno, the Waco arsonist) alternated between crocodile tears at how
deeply hurt they were at those big blue meanies over at the NRA and
gleeful attacks on them as extremists and dirty fighters. Maybe it takes
one to know one.
And, of course, Clinton validated Wayne LaPierre’s basic accusation
— that Clinton exploits every tragedy or conflict to get more useless
(at best) but potentially oppressive laws passed — by Tuesday. He held
a pep rally to push for a House-Senate conference committee to reconcile
different versions of a gun control law passed last year and for some
precious new law in hypocritical “honor” of the Columbine victims. It
was exactly the kind of exploitation of events LaPierre had pointed out
— done within moments of a criticism that might have had a chance to
hit home, and done boldly and blatantly, with the courtier media
cheering him on. You almost had to admire the chutzpah.
As for the media, it is probably too much to hope that some member of
the national media, somewhere, sometime, might actually look into the
appropriateness of this or that new gun control proposal
dispassionately, giving both sides a fair shake. But it might be nice
for somebody to note that no new federal gun control law in existence or
proposed would have stopped the Columbine shooters, who were already
violating dozens of laws.
But forgive me. Even staunch anti-utopians sometimes lapse into
utopian dreams. Perhaps we’ll see a press that doesn’t suck up to one
side or the other (or both sides) in the political carnival when pigs
fly. A press that tries to represent the interests of their readers and
the people in general rather than the interests of the government? What
was I thinking?