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Gun debate muzzles the middle ground

The NRA and Brady Campaign are locked in an antagonistic embrace that creates gridlock on solving the nation's gun problems.

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Two years ago, Florida enacted a law that allows anyone who feels threatened anywhere to use deadly force. Today the National Rifle Association (NRA) is shepherding similar laws through legislatures across the country.

The so-called Castle Doctrine extended the notion of a man's home being his castle to public streets being his castle. When the law first went into effect in October 2005, the nation's most prominent gun-control group, the Brady Campaign, decided to fight back. Sort of.

The Brady Campaign – understaffed, underfunded, and generally floundering – missed the news of the law's consideration until it was almost a done deal. In behavior typical for both sides in a war of words, the gun-control group's inability to keep the legislation from passing did not stop the group from using the occasion to ratchet up the rhetoric.

The Brady Campaign put up a billboard in Miami that October, took out ads in cold climates where people often take Florida vacations, and handed out fliers at Florida airports – all warning tourists of their possible demise on their trips to Florida beaches and Disney World.

The campaign got the biggest reaction in Britain and Canada, where it fit perfectly into the notion of Americans as barbarians. A headline in the British Birmingham Post read, "Going to Florida? Beware the gun-happy locals."

Although Florida officials were unhappy about a potential blow to tourism, the bigger upset was that the Brady Campaign's move played right into the NRA's hands.

The dirty secret of both sides in the gun debate is that, without a powerful enemy, they cannot woo supporters or raise money. They are like boxers in a ring – propping each other up even as they try to get in blows. They are locked in an antagonistic embrace that creates gridlock on solving the nation's gun problems.

Of course, it is not an embrace of equals. The NRA has a $200 million annual budget, while the Brady Campaign's is $8 million. Since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, gun rights groups have given $18.7 billion to political candidates, while gun control groups have given only $1.7 billion.

In fact, no one knows whether shootings have increased in Florida as a result of the Castle Doctrine because the Brady Campaign and other interested groups cannot afford to have lawyers track the results.

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