We’re all familiar with the tiny little fundamentalist Christian group known as Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. They consist mainly of the Phelps family, led by their patriarch, Fred Phelps, and they are most famous for demonstrating at the funerals of dead soldiers killed in the war as well as prominent people, including victims of terrorism, and carrying signs that proclaim GOD HATES FAGS and such gentle comfort. Their belief is that God so hates gays that he is inflicting his wrath on this nation for tolerating their existence that he does such things as kills soldiers for defending America. I don’t know if they plan to show up at the funerals for the victims of the shooting in Connecticut, but I wouldn’t put it past them.
Several states have written laws to prevent this pathetic little band of misfits from picketing at funerals, and they have also been sued for causing emotional distress. However, the courts have been circumspect about infringing on their right to express their opinions, and they were successful in defending themselves against the lawsuit. The rights of the people to express themselves, no matter how execrable their opinions are, cannot lightly be infringed.
Many if not all other Christian denominations have been swift to condemn the Westboro Baptist interpretation of the bible, and the are equally horrified to see the name of their god libeled in such a way. Of course not all Christians believe what they do and it would be unfair to tar them with the broad brush of bigotry and homophobia. And even as there are milder versions of the Phelps theology out there edging into the mainstream, they are still not representative of the vast number of Christians who are loving, kind, gay-friendly, or LGBT themselves.
In 1965, my father taught me how to shoot a shotgun. It was a little bolt-action .410, and I learned how to shoot ducks at Erie Marsh, a private hunting preserve on the western shores of Lake Erie just north of Toledo. At the same time, I participated in the NRA marksmanship program at summer camp with a .22 rifle and did pretty well, even for someone with monocular vision and pacifist leanings. Back then, the NRA was seen by most people as a hobby group and with about as much clout as AAA, the auto club.
But in the last thirty years, they have become political and fanatical. Their knee-jerk response to any attempt to regulate firearms has been blind and ferocious opposition despite the fact that the Second Amendment — the one they hold so dear over all others — begins with the words “A well regulated militia….” They are the first to get on the air after a massacre and say something like “Now is not the time to talk about gun control” while the nation is reeling and the families are in shock, knowing full well that they have reams of talking points that are meant to erect strawmen diversions and change the subject away from anything but considering gun control beyond the meager patchwork of band-aids that are already in place, each of which they fought tooth and nail against. Wayne LaPierre is the public persona of the NRA, a well-dressed and polished spokesman who appears on Sunday talk shows to speak soothingly but forcefully for the unfettered and absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment. Their fallback mantra is that no form of gun control would have stopped Adam Lanza or any of the other people who have committed gun crimes, so more gun control won’t help, and it will lead to tyranny: after all, that’s how the Nazis did it.
But just as Westboro Baptist Church does not represent all Christians, neither does the National Rifle Association represent all gun owners, gun collectors, target shooters, or hunters. I know a lot of people — liberals included — who own guns, know how to shoot them, admire the craftsmanship of a well-made firearm the same way I admire a beautiful automobile. They are as much in favor as sensible gun control and licensing — on the same level as your average automobile driver — as the most passionate pacifist, and I daresay that they represent the majority of gun owners in America.
The NRA has become the Westboro Baptist Church of gun owners, and Wayne LaPierre is their Fred Phelps. The difference is that while Mr. Phelps and his followers exert no political power and do little more than clamor for attention, the NRA, through political extortion and the sowing of fear and paranoia (as well as a very good interpretation of Freudian psychology), has become the most powerful lobby in America. Far more than any labor union, church, or even political party, the NRA has managed take away even the possibility of raising the topic of discussion of any form of gun control.
As long as they can do that, there will still be days like yesterday in Newtown, Connecticut.