My second cousin, Pete Brownell, was just elected President of the National Rifle Association. While I’m proud as punch of Cousin Pete’s accomplishments, I confess I’m confused and conflicted about his new role. I’m having difficulty reconciling what I know about Pete with what I observe about the NRA.
I knew Pete as a boy growing up in rural Iowa. Later, he and I reconnected to train together for triathlons, and share lunches and coffees. I cried with him when his mother died, and his dad came over for my mom’s funeral. My daughter spent a summer working for him as a nanny. I’m named after his grandfather. My cousin Pete is a caring, compassionate guy, the kind of person you’d enjoy spending time with.
So how did he get mixed up with an outfit like the NRA?
It’s true that Pete’s family business, Brownell’s, Inc., is the world’s largest supplier of firearm accessories, so there’s that. But that doesn’t automatically mean he has to run the NRA, too.
The NRA is the biggest, meanest bully on the block, shouldering its way into backroom deals with legislators simply to sell more guns, with utter disdain for the public good. There’s already a gun for every man, woman, and child in America, for God’s sake. Why do we need more? The NRA has long ago abandoned arguments based on common sense, public safety, or fact. More firearms in the hands of more people will not make us safer. It’s not the Wild West. “Good guys with guns” don’t deter “bad guys with guns.” That’s just stupid. More guns put us all at ever greater risk.
Why is the NRA pushing for guns in schools, statehouses, bars, and churches? Who thinks it’s a good idea for children, or mentally unstable people, or no-fly passengers to own guns? What other civilized nation is so enamored with weapons? Demonstrably, sensible gun regulations save lives. Tens of thousands of people in the U.S. are killed by firearms each year, but statistics are hard to come by because the NRA has lobbied hard to exclude gun violence data from CDC public health studies. How much money has the NRA poured into the legislative process in opposition to the will of the people who, when polled on this question, consistently support common sense gun regulation?
How many times have law enforcement agencies themselves opposed the extreme positions held by the NRA, fearing they would make their jobs more difficult and less safe?
As I see it, there are three alternatives to consider. First, I could be wrong about the NRA and its belligerent “Pry it from my cold dead hands” rhetoric. Maybe with even more guns on the streets we will all be able to sleep soundly at night. How many more, exactly? Another hundred million?
Second, maybe with Pete at the helm of this powerful organization, we will see some positive change. Perhaps the words “well-regulated militia” from the Second Amendment will come into sharper focus on his watch. A gentler tone. The recognition that firearms might not be appropriate in every single setting in American life. Call me an optimist; that’s the option I’m rooting for.
But the third alternative scares me. What if my cousin has sold out? He’s a smart guy, and a brilliant businessman. But business has a social context and a community impact, a reality we tend to overlook in this country. In the three days following the Sandy Hook massacre, Brownell’s sold three-and-a-half years’ worth of 20-round ammo clips for the AR-15 rifle. Now, outdoorsmen don’t buy high capacity AR-15 magazines for hunting deer. Profiting from human tragedy is obscene.
Lots of people have their loyalties tested in their professional lives. Lawyers have to defend both the innocent and the guilty. Police must ensure the safety of protesters no matter what their cause might be. Perhaps my cousin is conflicted by the public roles he plays. One can only hope.
I hope to ride bikes with Pete again someday, so we can talk this over. I have a feeling it will have to be a very long ride.