At an organizing breakfast for National Rifle Association (NRA) grassroots activists, Samuel Richardson, a man with whom I have not exchanged a word, passes me a note.
“Please read the book Injustice by Adams,” it reads. “He was [sic] lawyer for US Justice Department who prosecuted Black Panther Case.”
Quite why Richardson thinks this book is for me is not clear. There are six other people at the table, a couple of them journalists. That I am the only black person in a room of around 200 may have something to do with it.
Christian Adams, a former US Department of Justice lawyer, resigned after the department decided not to prosecute members of the New Black Panther party who brandished guns and intimidated poll watchers outside a voting station in Philadelphia in 2008. Several attorneys, including Republicans, have argued that while the case was serious it did not warrant the department’s resources. Adams believed there were darker forces at play, claiming the case “gave the public a glimpse of the racially discriminatory worldview” of the department under Obama.
Richardson goes further. The press and the government are in cahoots, he explains, to oppress white people.
“It’s fascistic,” he explains. “It’s just like Hitler did. Discriminating against one ethnic group and claiming that they’re the cause of everything that’s wrong. It’s what happened in Rwanda,” intimating that white Americans, like Tutsis, could one day find themselves systematically slaughtered in their own land.
It would be easy to ridicule the NRA. Billboards for its national convention all around St Louis promise “acres of guns and gear.” In the exhibition hall they are giving two free guns, twice a day, to anyone wearing a sticker that says “Ambush.” They also sell semi-automatics in pink camouflage. One of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the country and deeply embedded in the Republican party, the NRA still calls itself the US’ oldest civil rights organization.
However, the US’ relationship with guns is as deep and complex at home as it is perplexing abroad. That most British police are not armed confounds even the most liberal Americans and even though the US is evenly split on whether there should be more gun control, every time there is a gun-related tragedy, whether it is the shootings in Arizona, Virgina Tech or any number of schools, the issue has been effectively removed from the electoral conversation. And at the center of these apparent contradictions stands the NRA, once an organization that represented the rights of hunters and sportsmen and now a major political player closely linked to the gun industry.
“All the domestic controversies of the Americans at first appear to a stranger to be incomprehensible or puerile,” suggested the 19th-century French chronicler Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. “And he is at a loss whether to pity a people who take such arrant trifles in good earnest or to envy that happiness which enables a community to discuss them.”
However, guns in the US are no trifling matter. There are approximately 90 guns for every 100 people in the US (a rate almost 15 times higher than England and Wales). More than 85 people a day are killed with guns and more than twice that number injured with them. Gun murders are the leading cause of death among African Americans under the age of 44.