Guns and Liberty!

EASTSIDER-I couldn’t resist the title. The content has to do with the NRA and the ACLU -- and some things they have in common. Actually, there is a blog called “God, Guns and Liberty,” but throwing in God seemed a bit over the top, even for me.



As I age, I notice that institutions I knew and belonged to in my younger days have morphed into entities I have a hard time recognizing. Such is the case for both the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

Growing up during my adolescent years in Orange County (at least until I got thrown out of high school after my freshman year), it was a very different place from now. Not so many folks as well as a lot of orange groves, although those were all destroyed within the space of four or five years…for affordable housing. 

Anyhow, my dad, who was a democrat and a dentist, had always grown up with guns. So, when I was around 14, I got a Marlin .22 lever action rifle. But first I had to take the NRA gun safety course to demonstrate that I would be “gun safe” and prove it with an NRA certificate. The same was true for a lot of my friends. So, I have been an NRA member on and off for years. 

A lot of California was rural in nature and most folks had guns -- mostly shotguns and/or rifles for hunting, along with some handguns. At that time, the NRA was there to make sure you understood what you were doing before being trusted with something that could kill. In effect, they were the good guys. 

Later, at Berkeley in the 60s, I was a strong believer in guns again, but this time with a twist. I had absolutely no trust in any government that would draft citizens and ship them off to a stupid war in Vietnam, when even a dunce could discover that the Vietnamese had beaten the entire Chinese Empire to a dead stop off and on for something like a thousand years. 

At the time, I didn’t actually have a gun, because (a) I couldn’t afford one as a grad student, and (b) with my luck the National Guard would have shot me down like a dog if they ever saw me with one. I had friends, of course, who did have guns, but they were working to pay for them and not going to grad school. 

When I moved to LA and worked as a Social Worker and union representative, I had some friends with guns and I also had the basics -- a 12-gauge shotgun and a revolver. This was back in the 70s, around the time some of my more radical friends left the cities and went off the grid in places like Big Sur and Humboldt County.  

These friends were not conservative people, more like remnants of the radical left, distrustful of society and government. They did stuff like spike trees, grow dope, and just plain wanted to be left alone. And just to make sure, they had some serious hardware -- I vaguely remember Ruger Mini-14’s being popular back in the day. 

The NRA and the ACLU 

This is not a wistful reminiscence; I’m simply pointing out that gun ownership is not limited to right wing crazies and farmers. Distrust of government is often based in reality; guns and the 1st Amendment, as well as the 2nd Amendment,all have their place. I have written about this before

The 2nd Amendment regarding guns and the 1st Amendment regarding rights to free speech have always been correlated for me. Both were inserted into the Constitution because of a healthy distrust of government -- particularly authoritarian regimes like the British Empire. 

As a friend once quipped, the 1st Amendment allows you say whatever the hell you want to say, and the 2nd Amendment is your ultimate backup. For that reason, over some years, I was a card-carrying member of both the ACLU and the NRA -- even though some of my friends thought I was weird. Well actually... 

During those years, both the NRA and the ACLU did a good job. The NRA provided gun training to keep people gun safe; it also defended our right to bear arms. The ACLU got involved in the free speech movement, and defended such worthies as Lenny Bruce, whose performances were both incredibly vulgar, and even more upsetting, filled with a white-hot sense of anger against the system.  Life was good. 

However, over the years,as both groups fundamentally changed, I stopped supporting them.  

The NRA, for its part, got lucky in a 2008 Supreme Court case which said it was OK to have military arms. Eventually, they simply morphed into a lobbying front organization for gun manufacturers.  

Let me be clear. I don’t trust a gun manufacturer any more than I trust any corporation. Check out this 2005 Congressional law that basically indemnifies gun makers from liability for their products.  That’s like giving the nuclear power plant industry blanket immunity. Oops, I think we did. 

A bad court decision andsuccessful lobbying aside, I really don’t know that the language of the 2ndAmendment was ever designed to cover a civilian’s right to buy and use all the god awful military hardware that is being used in wars around the world.This kind of thinking became hot after the gun lobby (NRA) got a complicit Congress to pass that sweeping indemnification law. Giddy with power. 

As for the ACLU, their change in emphasis over time was subtler,but at the same time just as scary.  Somehow, they changed from full-on defenders of free speech full-bore to-the-limits of the First Amendment, into a politically correct institution suing the County of Los Angeles over a cross in the County Seal. Sheesh. And just check out their wimping out after the recent Charlottesville confrontation. C’mon folks, free speech means just what it says. 

The Takeaway 

It seems to me that the ideological drift of the NRA and the ACLU mirror the disintegration of any center in American politics. For a long time, Congress was a “good old boys club,” almost literally.  Whoever was in the White House, there was not a lot of churn amongst club members in the Senate and the House. Now it’s every gerrymandered district for itself, whoever get the biggest donors. So, off to tribalism and the left and right. 

Back in the day, the NRA and the ACLU coexisted for the most part. Now one is branded right wing and the other is branded left wing. But this is not really the case. 

For their part, the NRA is just another lobbying group for gun manufacturers and should be outed as such. 

Face it, the language of the Supreme Court Case did not bar regulation of military type weapons. It said the: 

“Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home."
As for the ACLU, I think their mandate to defend civil liberties, however foul the conduct of its clients on either the right or the left, is at risk of being modified after Charlottesville. 

It’s all too bad.Guns and Liberty worked out pretty well in the 70s. Maybe someday, we can get back to rationality.


(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.