That’s former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, delivering the opening remarks at today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence. As you may remember, Giffords was shot in 2011 by Jared Lee Loughner, whose list of complaints against her included her failure to completely answer his question, “What is government if words have no meaning?” at a 2007 campaign event. Something is wrong with Loughner’s brain. Thanks to that and his legally-purchased Glock 19, something is wrong with Giffrords’s brain now, too. After she struggled to speak on an issue that affects her and thousands of other Americans on a very personal level each year, Wayne La Pierre took the stand to disagree with her, because that is his job.
Wayne La Pierre’s job pretty much sucks right now. As head of the National Rifle Association, he is paid to argue whatever position will increase gun sales, no matter the subject at hand. Lately, the subjects at hand do not readily sell guns. Yet La Pierre cannot very well go on TV and say that, now that he thinks about it, maybe high-capacity magazines or gun shows that skip background checks aren’t such a good idea after all. Regardless of his personal assessment of a situation, La Pierre has to say that the obvious solution is more guns.
Hence his demand after the Sandy Hook shootings—absurd and even offensive by many people’s standards—that we install armed guards in every classroom in America. He doubled down on that claim today, explaining to Patrick Leahy:
It’s time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children. About a third of our schools have armed security already — because it works. And that number is growing. Right now, state officials, local authorities and school districts in all 50 states are considering their own plans to protect children in their schools.
Ah, the security a child feels when one adult is shooting at him as another, trusted adult returns fire—just like a blanket. At least publicly, La Pierre shows great confidence in this approach, which is weird because in other regards he is kind of a nihilist. He feels there is no point in expanding background checks, for example, since he does not ” believe the way it is working now that it does any good to extend the law to private sales.” Rather than expanding gun control laws, La Pierre argued, we should better enforce the ones we already have—even though he is categorically against those, too.
It was a cloud of obfuscation, in other words. One cannot but feel sympathy for La Pierre, since he was called before the Judiciary Committee to represent the position that what happened to the keynote speaker should not influence our behavior. That’s a tough sell, but La Pierre has to make it. Otherwise, he would have to quit his job.
Let us assume that when La Pierre explains that there is no point in expanding background checks to a former congresswoman shot in the head by a crazy man’s legally purchased handgun, his temptation to quit his job is great. Probably, he has to tell himself that he is right just to get through it. The only plausible alternative is that he does not care whether what he says is right or wrong, and he just wants that sweet NRA CEO paycheck. That seems statistically unlikely, though; probably, he has gradually come to the point where he makes himself say whatever might increase gun sales over a period of years.
In either case, he has exempted himself from serious debate. We know what La Pierre is going to say in response to any given question, so what is the point in asking him? A congressional hearing that wanted to get to the bottom of this damn thing would not call on the head of the NRA, for the same reason that you do not ask a car salesman whether you should buy a bus pass. He’s not going to give you information. He’s not even going to propose some solution you hadn’t considered. He’s just going to suggest that we all buy sweet new cars, and in that sense his presence is unnecessary.
The only reason you would invite a car salesman to your bus pass debate or Wayne La Pierre to your congressional hearing on gun control is to present the illusion of fairness. Having La Pierre testify demonstrates that you are hearing all sides. That his testimony is so predictable as to be intellectually dishonest doesn’t matter, because his testimony is not the point. As with La Pierre’s job, what he says in the hearing is not so important as the position he represents. Guy who says that guns are great no matter what: check.
If you hoped that today’s hearing might settle something in the national debate on gun control, of course, La Pierre’s presence is dispiriting in the extreme. He suggests that what went on this morning was theatre, the performance of trying to figure out what to do about gun violence. Maybe we will do something, and what we saw was really the performance of not knowing what it was yet. I worry, though, that today’s hearing was all a show, and in the end we will declare that we disagree too much to do anything about guns. We called in the guy who is paid to disagree with everything, after all.