Does NRA press conference mark moment gun industry turns into cigarette industry?
"This is the beginning of a serious conversation...We won't be taking questions today."
That was the oddly ironic statement by NRA president David Keene closing out one of the most jarring press conferences in recent memory, as the National Rifle Association's president took to a podium on the 7-day anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings to blame everything but lax gun ownership laws for the nation's continuing problem with such tragedies.
As the website BuzzFeed handily clarified, NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre blamed video games, Hollywood celebrities, devotion to sports stadiums, reductions in President Obama's budget for school policing next year, gun free school zones and much more for massacres such as the shootings in Newtown, Conn.
Though billed as a press conference, LaPierre took no questions, introducing former U.S. Congressman Asa Hutchinson, who announced a National School Shield program to advise schools across the country on creating "a comprehensive strategy for school security" featuring "armed, trained qualified school security personnel." See NRA's transcript of the press conference here.
Keene said the group would be happy to talk anyone on Monday, one day before Christmas. Left unanswered was the question of why they couldn't take questions at their own press conference, before a group of journalists already assembled.
Some called it a textbook definition of how not to present a press conference, leaving the NRA looking like a group of older, white male fatcats refusing to discuss any restrictions on gun ownership.
The optics were awful, with the group's leaders baldly insisting they were starting a dialog while refusing to take questions from reporters and escorting two different protesters from the room. And there was the fact that this all occurred one week after a man armed with an assault rifle killed 20 elementary school students.
Others said this was a message for the NRA's most ardent supporters, calculated to make the media pile on in criticism and turn the group into a sympathetic victim.
But I think this was a line drawn in the sand for the American people. The NRA has just refused to help draft sensible legislation limiting access to weapons whose only real purpose can be killing large numbers of people, or pretending you're doing so on the shooting range.
So the question rises: Is this the moment when the gun industry turns into the cigarette industry -- a business which even many smokers believe profits by selling a product which kills people?
By allowing no middle ground on this issue, the NRA is challenging those who believe in gun ownership but want some limits on the weaponry available to join their side or leave.
But even among the conservatives who support the NRA, there must be some who balk at the idea of spending tremendous sums of money to pack armed guards into schools -- many schools already have such guards, anyway -- at a time when our national debt is already soaring. To say nothing of the intrusion on personal privacy involved in creating a national registry of people with mental health issues, as suggested by LaPierre; something I would assume some conservatives would also resist.
NPR's Fresh Air had an interesting conversation with Tom Diaz of the Violence Policy Center, who said the NRA and its supporters in Congress have pushed for laws keeping the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and Centers for Disease Control from studying or releasing data on which types of guns are used in what types of crimes and the impact of gun violence in society.
Regardless of where you fall on the issue, shouldn't our lawmakers and public have access to all the information that's available?
Some conservatives seemed to agree that this marked a step into crazytown for the NRA. "Conservatism truly is broken," tweeted former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum. Fellow CNN analyst and editor of Redstate.com Erick Erickson tweeted a more measured reaction: "While I agree with the NRA and LaPierre's points in substance, I'm not sure this presser was good in style a week after Newtown."
The NRA seems to be betting it's "you're with us or against us" philosophy will rally enough of its supporters that it can weather tough questions on gun control laws.
But I have a feeling even those of us who feel Americans should always have the right to own guns for hunting and personal protection will balk at a no-compromise stance which refuses to consider that better gun control laws, paired with other solutions, can curb gun violence in America.