It's quite salutary that Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association are getting so much attention, because the truth is that most Americans aren't familiar with their rhetoric and the reality they inhabit. If you didn't know too much about LaPierre but tuned in to see him on Meet the Press yesterday, you probably came away saying, "This guy is a lunatic" (a word we'll get to in a moment).
I'm not talking about his preferred policy prescriptions. I'm talking about his view of the world. LaPierre gets paid close to a million dollars a year, which I'm guessing allows him a comfortable lifestyle. But he seems to imagine that contemporary America is actually some kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape a la Mad Max, where psychotic villains in makeshift armor and face paint cruise through the streets looking for people to kill.
Why do we need armed guards in every school? "If we have a police officer in that school, a good guy, that if some horrible monster tries to do something, they'll be there to protect them." Monsters? Yes, "There are monsters out there every day, and we need to do something to stop them." Should we improve our mental health system? Well, maybe not improve it so much as keep track of everyone who has ever sought mental health services. "We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed. We have no national database of these lunatics...We have a completely cracked mentally ill system that's got these monsters walking the streets." There was also this: "Most of the media, when I go around this country, they're protected by armed guards." This got a lot of guffaws from journalists, because no one who works in the media knows anyone in the media who is protected by armed guards, except maybe Roger Ailes. Does LaPierre actually think that your average working journalist takes an armed escort when he goes down to City Hall to interview the deputy mayor? Who knows. But as LaPierre has candidly said, before "We have nothing to fear but the absence of fear."
At his Friday press conference, LaPierre effectively offered a one-sentence summation of his group's philosophy: "The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Here's a good rule of thumb: If you talk without irony about "bad guys" and "good guys," you're inhabiting an imagined world that has absolutely nothing to do with reality, and it's a good bet your ideas about policy are similarly absurd. But you can't understand the NRA's perspective without grasping the importance the good guy/bad guy dichotomy plays in their worldview. As far as they're concerned, we are indeed living in that post-apocalyptic nightmare, where murderers and rapists are going to come banging down your door any second and the police are ineffectual.
What they never acknowledge, however, is that the typical gun murder isn't a home invasion. Harold Pollack got data for his hometown of Chicago, and according to the police there were 433 murders there in 2011. How many happened in the course of a burglary? One. In the whole country, we get about 100 murders that happen this way. In 2011, 14,612 Americans were murdered; gun murders account for about 9,000 of those.
So what do the actual gun murders look like? They're disagreements that get out of hand, people taking revenge for real or imagined slights, family members killing each other. They're not the work of super-villains, or "lunatics," or commando squads of "bad guys" (David Frum has more on this). But the NRA and its supporters believe that the home invasion is always just moments away, and that's why our laws must allow everyone to be armed to the teeth.