Arsenal America

    Courage is generally a scarce commodity on Capitol Hill, but lawmakers are never more timid than in those exceedingly rare instances when they risk incurring the wrath of the gun-loving lobby. Basically, politicians in both parties share the same priorities: raise sufficient money, get re-elected, and score an A grade from the National Rifle Association.As I detail in my latest Sunday newspaper column, we’ve reached the point where it’s deemed sacrilegious to suggest that not all Americans should be allowed to buy weaponry at all times in all circumstances. As the Democrats – those once-fervent advocates of sensible gun curbs – have come to discover, any stance that falls short of Second Amendment purity is potential career suicide. Stray too far from gun lobby orthodoxy, and the lobby will unleash the dogs of war; any swing-district Democratic congressman who tilts at that windmill will probably wind up practicing law back home.Congress has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the NRA; as I mention in my Sunday column, the big reform on the table, in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, is predictably weak tea. House Democrat Carolyn McCarthy will today propose to outlaw high-capacity magazines, requiring that all clips contain only 10 bullets as opposed to 30 – which basically means that future rampaging idiots would have to settle for a smaller death toll. Yet even this bill is dead on delivery, especially in a Republican House.But to fully appreciate the NRA’s ongoing stranglehold, let us leave the current news cycle and recall what happened last spring, when a few politicians proposed a bill that would’ve made it illegal for people on the FBI terrorism watch list to buy weapons.I’ll pause here for a moment, and let you digest that one. You may not have been aware that people listed by the FBI as suspected terrorists can plunk down their money for guns and ammo just like virtually everyone else. Well, believe it. Remember, this is America.This freedom policy might strike you – some of you, anyway – as somewhat bizarre. After all, the FBI watch listees are prohibited from flying with you on airplanes; officially, they’re considered too dangerous to be cracking open that bag of peanuts at the adjoining tray table. Yet if these same people want to lock and load down here on planet earth, apparently that’s perfectly fine. The FBI watch list keeps them out of the skies, but not out of the gun stores. Proposals barring gun sales to suspected terrorists have been kicking around for years. President Bush wanted such a law. The New York City police commissioner lobbied for such a law. No dice, said the NRA, which sounds like the ACLU when it claims that the FBI watch list is a tool of oppression tantamount to “21st-century McCarthyism.” Only the NRA can make George W. Bush seem like a liberal. (Granted, some innocent people are probably stuck on that FBI watch list, but the various post-9/11bills have stipulated that listees who are denied weaponry would have the right to appeal.)A Senate committee actually held a hearing last spring on the watch list gun ban idea, but at least four members found convenient reasons not to show up. Democrats didn’t want to tick off the NRA (which insisted that such a gun ban would “deny Americans their constitutional rights”), and Republicans didn’t want to put themselves in the awkward position of opposing a get-tough measure designed to enhance our national security. In the end, lawmakers were too scared of the NRA to even schedule a vote on the bill.So, according to the cowed congressional consensus, it’s perfectly fine to tap the phones of the watch-list suspects, or put them under surveillance, or refuse to read their Miranda rights, or keep them off planes…but heaven forbid we deny them the red-blooded option of stocking up.No other issue better demonstrates the power of the NRA and its gun lobby allies. They’re basically signaling that they’re soft on terrorism, that in the name of the Second Amendment they will fight for suspected terrorists’ right to buy weapons, and that they will grade poorly any lawmakers who dare to stand up for national security. This attitude is the epitome of extremism. And the thing is, NRA leaders don’t even have support from their own grassroots on the watch list issue; in a 2009 survey of NRA members, conducted by a Republican pollster, 82 percent said they favor “prohibiting people on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns.”And yet, even when lawmakers have a choice between (a) being tougher on terrorism and (b) siding with the NRA, they still choose (b). On Capitol Hill, it’s hard to imagine a more stark measure of moral cowardice. Which is why, from the NRA’s perspective, the current bid to ban high-capacity magazines is surely little more than an irritant. All told, Arsenal America remains impregnable.

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