Over the past few weeks we have routinely heard from guns rights activists that the debate on gun policy is equivalent to the Civil Rights movement. This past Thursday, classic rocker and National Rifle Association (NRA) board member, Ted Nugent said this:
"But there will come a time when the gun owners of America, the law-abiding gun owners of America, will be the Rosa Parks and we will sit down on the front seat of the bus, case closed."
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white bus patron and move to the back of the bus. She was arrested and challenged the arrest in court. She is credited with being the "first lady of civil rights."
The comparison is perplexing as proponents of gun rights have not been denied access to an education, jobs, or their right to life. A few days prior to the Nugent comment, Marion P. Hammer, the former president of the NRA, said that the discussion on gun control echoed racial discrimination:
"...banning people and things because of the way they look went out a long time ago. But here they are again. The color of a gun. The way it looks. It's just bad politics."
Though the inherent idiocy of this statement should be readily apparent, Dianne Feinstein’s press release, which covers the key provisions of her proposed gun amendment, does not appear to show that there will be an attempt to ban guns based on their color or the way they look.
But these kinds of comparisons are nothing new for the NRA. Back in 2012 the organization sent the University of Colorado a letter that advised the school to revisit the Plessy v. Ferguson case. The NRA believed that the university's decision to house students who wished to carry guns on campus in separate dorm, was similar to that of the landmark 1896 Supreme Court decision that declared segregation legal as long as it was "equal."
The problem with making these kinds of comparisons is that we are not talking about the widespread, prolonged, systemic abuse of a group of individuals based on race, class, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected status.
Charlton McIlwain, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, says that the discussion concerning gun control is limited by the ways in which individuals think about gun ownership. In a recent interview he shed light on the ways in which gun issues are framed in media:
[B]ecause the association between whites and guns has historically been a positive one, it is gun violence against white victims that draws more media attention and cries of “tragedy.” More importantly however, the perpetrators in those instances are always – like the rugged Western individual – reflective only of their own individual problems, such as mental illness. We don’t talk about white-on-white crime; we talk about a solitary individual whose acts are an aberration.
It also means that people oppose gun control by evoking the historical association between whites and guns, not non- whites. Guns and gun owners are seen as essentially law abiding and patriotic. Thus, limiting access, the argument goes, is an affront to patriotism.
In the past few days, this historical association has been evoked several times, including Alex Jones’ recent rant on CNN, where he said 1776 will commence again should someone try to take away his guns. The CEO of a Tennessee company used similar language in a YouTube video, saying it will spark a civil war. These statements were in response to an acknowledgment by Vice President Biden that the president was considering the use of executive orders to help curb gun violence.
But what are the executive orders Biden is referring to?
The Atlantic reported back in December that any executive action would most likely concern modernizing the background check system, and sharing more information about gun purchases with state and local officials, keeping better information on gun sales, and restricting the import of military-style weapons. It is important to note that the executive order is limited in its scope.
Despite the fact that this was reported back in December, Biden’s acknowledgement this week that the President was looking at the use of executive orders prompted the conservative Drudge Report to post pictures of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. A conservative radio host also compared Obama to Hitler and Hugo Chavez, saying the administration was behaving more like a dictatorship.
The use of executive orders is not new; the first one was a proclamation by George Washington in 1793. Nor are executive orders the be all, end all. Congress can and does affect the outcome of executive orders, through amending, nullifying, repealing or revoking the authority on which it is founded.
A discussion about gun control is nothing like the Civil Rights movement. Despite repeated attempts to compare Obama to Hitler, he isn’t. Attempts to make such comparisons are pointless. They add nothing to the discussion and get us nowhere closer to curbing gun violence.
This debate is not so intractable.
The Obama administration understands that it needs the support of Republicans in order to pass any legislation that involves gun control, which is why the administration had a series of meetings on Capitol Hill on Thursday with gun rights proponents.
There are Republicans who have backed gun laws in the past, among them are senators Mark Kirk (Illinois), John McCain (Arizona), and Dan Coats (Indiana). Republicans have to carefully look at their continued alliance with the NRA. Close ties with the NRA come at a cost. Is the partnership with an organization that considers most measures that address gun violence as merely "feel good," still worth it?
There should be and is a vigorous and thorough debate happening about how best to curb gun violence in America. What there shouldn’t be, are cheap comparisons to past atrocities. These comparisons lessen the actual pain and real suffering of millions. Our national discourse must do better than that.