When the Tide Goes Way, Way Out

In the last few years, there have been more words written about guns and gun violence in this country than there are bullets being stored up for the Apocalypse. I promise I am not going to wade into the debate about gun control. But as a gun owner, I am worried about where the intransigence of the NRA is taking us. They have had their legislative way for so long with their fear-driven agenda that “patriots” are now walking into malls and restaurants with enough weaponry to scare ISIS.

From a rhetorical standpoint, the memes have all been going the way of the Second Amendment lobbyists. “My cold dead fingers” and “good guys with guns vs. bad guys with guns” are memes that have created a legislative climate where any gun is not only legal, but carrying guns has become mandatory everywhere except at the NRA convention and the Georgia Statehouse (not a joke). I predict this will change. And it will change sooner than people think. The pendulum is about to take a wild swing in favor of the “gun grabbers.” There is a meme hidden away that will change the debate completely if and when it gets out. And if it doesn’t, there are other memes waiting.

But first a little history. Memes have always been a part of American politics. Recent examples of memes radically changing attitudes support my argument that the NRA’s legislative stranglehold is more fragile than anyone thinks. In 1967, the majority of Americans supported the Vietnam War. Then came Tet and the photo of a Vietnamese general shooting a prisoner in the head. That single meme empowered the peace movement that destroyed LBJ’s presidency and, temporarily, the Democratic Party. The withdrawal of U.S. troops was inevitable after that photo became public. Yes, there were other memes; but that single image changed our view of being the good guys. John Wayne never shot an unarmed prisoner.

In the 1970s, when the AIDS epidemic struck, much of the electorate didn’t want to spend any resources on fighting the disease because, as some people said, “It’s God’s way of punishing the gays. We heterosexuals are safe.” Then came the eighties. Middle schooler Ryan White and basketball legend Magic Johnson became the poster children of AIDS awareness. Activists created a humongous quilt with the names of AIDS victims. These memes changed the debate about AIDS. Money poured into research labs. And let’s not forget the meme of a dead Kurdish baby girl lying in the arms of her mother, who had also been killed by Saddam’s mustard gas. That photo (along with repeated lies and deceptions) did the heavy lifting in building support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq in search of WMDs. Over twenty percent of Americans still think Saddam was behind 9/11.

The right meme changes American political debate. From Michael Bloomberg to Gabby Gifford, gun control activists are searching for a way to end the NRA’s obstinate resistance to any gun laws. The gun lobby has relied mostly on fear and a slippery slope argument to achieve its victories. Politicians and marketers know the way to the public’s favor lies in the brain’s amygdala, not the cortex. LaPierre and company have cynically taken advantage of this knowledge. But once gun control activists turn the tables and take aim at people’s fears (pun intended) instead of their rational selves, the NRA is doomed to lose. The majority of Americans supports some form of gun control once gun violence affects them directly. They just don’t match the passion or numbers of the NRA at this time. But in spite of what “Joe the Plumber” thinks, most people would argue that the right to live trumps the right to have any weapon any time anywhere.

So what will raise the ire of the average American enough to alter the political landscape? (Warning: the following is graphic) On a computer hard drive in Connecticut are the crime scene photos from Sandy Hook Elementary. You remember; it’s the school shooting that some extremists deny happened. Among those photos is one of a six-year-old child whose brain tissue is splattered all over his or her teacher who died trying to protect her students from a madman. Among the digital recordings of the carnage visited upon those innocent children and the adults who tried to protect them is an image of blood and gore so horrifying that it will sear itself into our national conscience, and knee-jerk support for the Second Amendment will crumble like a sand castle in a hurricane. This photo is a meme that will change the debate over gun control permanently. Americans, in general, are a squeamish bunch. We love our burgers but don’t show us how the cow gets killed and butchered. We are ok with Hollywood violence but not the real thing. Show us a photo of what could really happen to our children as the result of gun violence, and the fear generated by our collective amygdalae will create a tsunami of change that will drown anyone stubborn enough to try and stand in the way.

I know, people will argue the police will never release those photos in order to spare the feelings of the parents. But what if the parents themselves demand the release of the photos? There is no open criminal investigation. Legally, the rights to those photos rest with the parents and guardians of the children whose images are captured on the state’s computers. And those parents have been organizing and seeking ways to change the public’s attitude towards guns. If they demand the photos, what judge is going to turn them down? Okay, maybe it won’t occur to them to ask? Or maybe they are too traumatized to use these photos?

But does it really matter if the Sandy Hook parents act or not? Every week brings another mass shooting, another school or community ripped apart. With all of the cell phone cameras around, sooner or later, an iconic game-changing photo will emerge. Or maybe gun control advocates will put together a travelling exhibit like the AIDS quilt or the Vietnam memorial to remind communities of the thousands of children who die from gun violence every year. It is inevitable that a meme will emerge that will cause our fear of actual gun usage to outweigh our NRA-inspired fears of criminals and the government.

Don’t attack the messenger here. I like my guns. I believe in their usefulness and in my right to have them. But it can’t be an unlimited right if we are to have a civilized and safe society for our children. An armed society is inherently not a polite or safe society. I offer Somalia, Iraq, and the Sudan as exhibits A through C. After the shooting in San Jose, Richard Martinez, father of one of the victims, put the country on notice. Rational discourse about gun control is over for him. He’s mad as hell. And eventually, he and other survivors will figure out a way to make the majority of voters angry as well. Then the joke about the NRA standing for Not Relevant Anymore will come true. A good dream for some, but a nightmare for others.