Wierd Internet Ideas: The NRA and terrorism

In the wake of the tragedy in Paris comes the analysis. Of course people will see any major event through the lens of their own understanding of the world but unfortunately the murders in France also coincide with the height of campaigning for the US Republican Party primaries. Consequently as well comments that are wrong but at least relevant, we also have to put up with comments that are attempts to shoe-horn US political obsessions into world politics.

No clearer example of this is Donald Trump who said:

“You can say what you want, but if they had guns — if our people had guns, if they were allowed to carry — it would have been a much, much different situation,”

There are layers of wrong there, both in his previous characterization of France having particularly strong gun control laws (much less strong than the UK), whether people carrying guns would have helped any (probably not) and whether more lax gun laws would not have contributed a greater number of deaths overall from other causes (probably so). [As an aside: There is an odd tendency I’ve noted from various parts of the right (not just in the US) to see France as a stand-in for Europe and European attitudes and hence any sort of vague difference between Europe and the US is assumed to be greatest in France. In reality France can be more nationalistic than the US, less committed to multiculturalism than the US, less permissive in some aspects of social policy than other parts of Europe, less strict on guns than the UK, less social-democratic than Scandinavian countries etc etc.]

I’m tempted to say that of all the many issues that have a bearing on the tragedy in France US gun control politics (typically a less partisan and less volatile issue in other nations) has zero to do with international terrorism. However, that isn’t entirely true. The connection though isn’t the Die Hard fantasies of open-carry advocates who imagine that they will leap to the rescue and single-handedly save the day from suicide bombers, but with the organizations that underpins much of the vehemence of US guns politics: the NRA.

In July 2006 the United Nations in New York held a conference on work to limit the illicit trade in small arms. That is attempt to find ways between countries to stop the international trade in small arms to terrorist organizations and rogue states. You can read the website of the conference here http://www.un.org/events/smallarms2006/index.html

For context and for a view that isn’t that of a bleedin’ heart lefty here is part of the statement of the Israeli government on the Porgram of Action that UN member states (including the US) had previously agreed:

Illicit SALW in the hands of terrorists in the region is the major source of concern and poses as a grave risk to human security . Israel is convinced that the UN POA can and must contribute to changing this terrible reality . By now, five years after the adoption of the Programme of Action, the international community must make it a priority to block the transfer of small arms and light weapons to terrorist groups. This pursuit is paramount should the UN Programme of Action seek relevance in the Middle East . Nothing can justify terrorism. Nothing can justify the practice by some states of condemning terrorism and yet condoning the transfer of SALW to terrorist groups . We must make this critical issue our priority.

Israel’s position was quite understandable. Whatever issue people may have with the arms trade more generally limiting weapons to terrorist groups or to groups such as the insurgents in Iraq who at the time were attacking US troops stationed there makes sense. Naturally the relatively new US installed Iraqi government was also at the conference and also was concerned about the ability of terror groups to buy and sell weapons.

Now, this was all sometime ago and there have been further conferences and agreements and many, many world events. So why look back here? The reason is it provides a neat example of the relationship of the National Rifle Society and world affairs. This link is to an NRA website that was set-up specifically by the NRA for its own campaign about the UN conference http://web.archive.org/web/20060913001359/http://www.stopungunban.org/

I’ll quote the opening page at length as the formatting is not so great anymore:

This 4th of July, while you and your family celebrate the 230th Anniversary of the founding of our great nation, there’s one party you won’t be invited to…
…And that’s the party that Kofi Annan is throwing at United Nations headquarters in New York — using your tax dollars — for nearly fifty dictatorships, six terrorist states, governments that endorse execution based on religious faith, and a multitude of other nations from around the globe.
You see, this party isn’t to honor your freedoms — but to conspire to take them away. That’s right. Over our 4th of July holiday, while taps is played at Arlington National Cemetery to honor Americans who have sacrificed their lives for freedom…
…These dictatorships, terrorist states and so-called “free” nations of the world plan to meet on our home soil to finalize a U.N. treaty that would strip all citizens of all nations of their right to self-protection, and strip you of your rights under the Second Amendment.
Before one word falls from their lying lips about our country and our freedoms, I want them to hear from America’s 80 million gun owners and YOU.
Send three, ear-splitting letters of protest—your shot heard ‘round the world—to the U.N. this 4th of July. Click the links to the right to print your three letters on your home computer to fax or mail, or to send this link to fellow gun owners who want to fight the U.N. gun ban.
If millions of gun owners speak with one thundering voice of outrage, we’ll stop the global gun ban treaty before it destroys our firearm freedoms. Thank you for acting

Which is a whole series of very, very odd things to say. Putting aside the general anti-UN screed (it is a place were all world nations meet to discuss stuff – necessarily it has lots of bad states in it) the level of factual error was fascinating:

  1. The conference wasn’t meeting on July 4 (it was meeting either side of it but it didn’t meet on a public holiday)
  2. It wasn’t attempting to strip Americans of their ‘freedom’ as it is already illegal for US citizens to sell weapons to terrorists or buy them from terrorists
  3. It wasn’t finalizing a treaty – the Program of Action wasn’t a treaty and the US had already agreed to it (although there have been later treaties)
  4. It wasn’t about a global gun ban but about the trade in small arms to terrorists and rogue states
  5. Even if all of the above paranoid nonsense was true the UN has no power to enforce a treaty on the US

It is cheap to label something a ‘conspiracy theory’ but when a website has a prominent section labelled ‘conspirators’ (http://web.archive.org/web/20060826174009/http://www.stopungunban.org/pages/conspirators) it seems apt. On that page various gun control groups are listed to show how the conference really must be a hive of gun-grabbing. What the NRA didn’t mention was the various other groups who would also be at the conference like the British Shooting Sport Council or the South African Gun Owners Association. (http://www.un.org/events/smallarms2006/ngos.html). Of course that page leads with Wayne La Pierre spruiking his book The Global War on Your Guns. The rants continue here http://web.archive.org/web/20070316110830/http://www.stopungunban.org/pages/moneytrail

So what on Earth was all that about? The anti-UN position is not that unusual in the US but the full on attempts by the NRA to wildly mischaracterize an attempt to limit terrorists access to weapons was odd even by the standards of the NRA. In particular this was way beyond their remit as a defender of American’s 2nd amendment rights. If nothing else, did they really have nothing else better to do with their time and why actively lie to their members?

Of course the answer isn’t very mysterious. The NRA is not a freedom organization or a rights organization but an industry lobby group. In particular it is a lobby group for an industry that has an image problem as literal merchants of death. The arms industry couldn’t be seen supporting selling guns to terrorists or to Iraqi insurgents intent on killing US soldiers and so the NRA acts, as it always does, as the deniable spokes-group for the arms industry. Even then the NRA couldn’t be seen arguing for arming terrorists either and hence it mounted a massive campaign against a wholly imaginary foe. The purpose of the campaign was to simply direct its members at the their elected representatives and makes a loud (if incoherent) fuss.

It was almost gloriously cynical. By very simple propaganda techniques the NRA used a section of the US population probably most devoted to the interest of US soldiers oversees to lobby unwittingly against attempt to stop people attacking US troops from getting guns.

And here we come full circle. US gun politics is really the business of the US. In theory as I don’t live there the madness of US gun policies aren’t my problem but in reality US gun politics means the NRA, and the NRA acts on an international stage. As a lobby group for an industry with a vested interest in war, the NRA has acted (as shown in the case study above) to aid the illicit trade in small arms to terrorists.