The NRA wields astonishing influence on public opinion and election outcomes. It uses incessant propaganda to make the asinine seem reasonable—insisting, for example, that bona fide sportsmen need rapid-fire rifles to bag rabbits. It even defends the liberty of disturbed individuals with violent histories to obtain weapons of mass murder with nothing but twitching greenbacks and bottled fury. On Friday, its top lobbyist said the best response to the problem of school violence is more guns in the schools.
With the financial backing of the lucrative gun industry as well as its 4 million dues-paying members, it keeps politicians cowed and beholden through prodigious lobbying and campaign spending. It is always the loudest voice in the debate over controlling the kinds of guns and ammo that enable enraged men to become mass killers.
Activist groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence doggedly strive to counter the NRA, but they have few members and operate at a huge monetary disadvantage. If those who believe in controlling dangerous weaponry and ammunition are to succeed, they must forge a broad, sustained grass-roots movement—a movement like those that ultimately enacted tough drunk-driving laws and contained the lethality of Big Tobacco.
Such movements arise only when a critical mass of moderate citizens—those who tell pollsters they "somewhat" favor change—turn definite in their convictions and enroll as activists. And the best recruitment opportunities are moments of public outrage: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the Stonewall riots, Kent State University.
We stand at such a moment. A generation from now, history may note that the dominant middle Americans who had only somewhat favored a ban on semiautomatic rifles and somewhat favored background checks for purchases at gun shows finally had enough when a desperately ill young man stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, with a legally purchased Bushmaster AR-15 .223 semiautomatic rifle and a cache of 30-round magazines and murdered 20 little kids, 6- and 7-year-olds who were learning to spell and subtract and wait their turn.
An attitude shift has begun. A Pew Research poll released a week after the massacre found that 49 percent of respondents are more concerned with controlling gun ownership while 42 percent say it's more important to protect gun ownership rights. That's a tilt toward control from the poll taken after this summer's mass killing at a theater in Aurora, Colorado.
Even more promising, the true believers—those who make things happen or keep them from happening—now have the upper hand: 42 percent of respondents strongly believe it's more important to control ownership while 37 percent strongly favor ownership rights.
The visceral response is beginning to translate into service: Participation in the online Demand a Plan campaign, which advocates background checks for every gun buyer and nationwide bans on semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips, has soared since Sandy Hook exploded into our consciousness.
By harnessing their outrage, those who have grown weary of witnessing slaughter can make this moment the fulcrum of historic change. Those who ache for the unlived lives and grieving families of Newtown must contribute cash, write to Salem and Washington, gather signatures, and speak out at public meetings.
Dec. 14, 2012, can mark the moment when a critical mass of citizens commanded their representatives to defy the fearsome NRA. That's what it will take to boot the big badass of the beltway.