About a week after any particularly shocking or spectacular mass shooting, the nation is usually treated to the thoughts of Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association. Recall that one week after Sandy Hook, LaPierre blamed the mass murder of 20 children on “gun free zones” in schools, and claimed that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The real culprits, he said, were violent videogames, along with the country’s “refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill.” Coming as they did in the midst of a period of horror and grief, LaPierre’s comments became fodder for nationwide criticism and ridicule. Even ardently pro-2nd Amendment conservatives distanced themselves from him. But four months later, the two Sandy Hook-inspired bills proposing modest new restrictions on assault weapons and expanded background checks died in the Senate. And it wasn’t even a tough vote. Even after Sandy Hook, lawmakers paid absolutely no political price for their service to the American gun industry. Wayne LaPierre had paid it for them.
The 7-day mark for the Pulse Nightclub shooting came this past Sunday, when John Dickerson interviewed LaPierre on CBS' Face the Nation. This time around, the NRA frontman rejected the notion that the nightclub shooting had anything to do with targeting the LGBTQ community, or with the easy availability of tactical-grade firepower to a man known by the FBI to have radical Islamic inclinations. This time, according to LaPierre, the real issue was “terrorism.” One might imagine that someone interested in preventing terrorism would be ok with stopping people on a terrorist watchlist from buying assault weapons. But when pressed on that point, LaPierre argued that doing so would somehow be “tipping off the bad guys.” (Oddly, this argument has yet to be made against the no-fly list.) Unsurprisingly, the Senate voted down any meaningful gun control legislation yesterday: one day after LaPierre’s appearance on television, and eight days after the deadliest single-gunman massacre in modern American history. The pattern is clear: the “debate” about gun control has become a circular discourse that produces no change. Thousands more Americans will die because of it.
Strangely, we still don’t seem to have a good fix on exactly what Wayne LaPierre is. The media treats him as a thought leader on the issue of guns, even though everyone already knows exactly what he thinks. Wayne LaPierre is not a thought leader, or a politician, or an activist. He is not a true party to any debate over gun regulation, because he has no authority to make concessions on behalf of his principals—the gun manufacturers. He is merely an agent of a massive industrial apparatus that wants to stay politically invisible. He is a program on a recursive loop. His only job is to keep gun manufacturers and their congressional enablers from ever having to come to the negotiating table. Whenever anything particularly unfortunate happens involving a firearm in this country, Wayne LaPierre trots out onto the public stage and metaphorically lights himself on fire. Gun control advocates immediately challenge his over-the-top rhetoric, and the circle of gun control discourse remains closed, leading nowhere.
As long as LaPierre is treated as if he has anything of value to add to gun control debate, and as long as gun control advocates continue to be suckered into directly engaging with him in the political arena, then he is succeeding in his task. He is a red herring; a heat sink. His continued success means that his corporate paymasters, including Midway USA, Springfield Armory, Beretta, Sturm Ruger, Smith & Wesson and Taurus, need never cease—let alone answer for—their moral crimes. His continued success ensures that the politicians who faithfully serve the gun industry will continue to do so without consequence.
Unlike the vulnerable corporations cowering behind him, Wayne LaPierre cannot be shamed, bankrupted or politically defeated. He must be bypassed.