Commentary

Raising a red flag on Memorial Day

Our gun-addled culture is falling apart 

May 30, 2022 7:00 am
A beat up, battered US flag hanging on a baseball backstop

Photo by Wayne S. Grazio via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As a national holiday, Memorial Day is meant to bring us together. Even if we differ on the politics that led our country into the many wars the U.S. has fought over the years, I can appreciate my neighbors who raise a flag, hands on hearts, at the veterans’ memorial at the local park. It’s moving to honor service, sacrifice, the elevation of a higher good over individual self-interest. Despite our differences, we can come together around our shared history and our country’s ideals — that all people are created equal, that, regardless of race, religion or national origin we all belong, together, to this vast, imperfect democracy that aims to uphold liberty and justice for all.

But this year is different.

US map made out of guns gun control NRA
Getty Images

This year, over Memorial Day weekend, families were gathered in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York to bury their loved ones — 19 little children and two teachers shot dead in their classrooms in Uvalde; a retired police lieutenant, a substitute teacher and a beloved grandmother of six among the 10 Black victims of the racist gunman in the Tops supermarket in Buffalo. On Friday, with parents and community members still reeling, the National Rifle Association brought its members to Texas for the group’s annual conference. Gun rights activists wrapped themselves in the flag, repeating the words  “liberty” and “freedom” ad nauseum, until they were drained of all meaning. The people who defend unfettered access to automatic rifles with no background checks, who oppose even the most modest measures to protect against yet another mass shooting, claim to represent America’s highest ideals. There have been more firearms deaths in the U.S. since 1968 than  U.S. soldiers killed in every conflict since the Revolutionary War. Our country is not just divided, it’s broken.

Gun worship is a terrible sickness. And here in Wisconsin we are not immune.

In the days between the two mass shootings in New York and Texas, Wisconsin Republicans met in Middleton for their party convention and approved their 2022 party resolutions. Toward the beginning of the resolutions document on page 4, there’s a section titled  “conservative values.” First among these is “2nd Amendment and gun rights.”

There, in black and white, the party unequivocally states its position that the state must increase unfettered, unregulated access to guns. The platform takes a firm stand against universal background checks for gun purchases. It opposes the tracking by the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms of the millions of guns purchased annually in the United States. And it specifically derides Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal that Wisconsin join 19 other states that have red flag laws — also known as extreme risk protection orders — that permit police or family members to petition a court to temporarily take away firearms from a person who poses an immediate risk to himself or others. 

A defiant Wisconsin GOP

The language of the resolutions is proudly defiant, trashing modest gun safety legislation floated by Evers and President Joe Biden as if this were the obvious moral high ground:

“NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Republican Party of Wisconsin, in convention assembled, states its opposition to the creation of these “gun control” laws; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Republican Party of Wisconsin asks that the legislature protect the citizens from this genuine, severe threat to our liberty by showing its opposition to these laws by not permitting this legislation to come before the Wisconsin State Assembly or Senate; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that our government leaders protect our 2nd Amendment Rights by opposing any legislation that would restrict the sale or ownership of lawfully produced guns, clips/magazines, and ammunition or any legislation that would impose extraordinary taxes or fees on same.”

If the price of “liberty” is that we must tolerate the periodic massacre of elementary school children in their classrooms and grandmothers at the supermarket, that’s OK with the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

In its platform, the GOP further resolves to do away with the current state system for issuing permits for guns and make Wisconsin a “constitutional carry” state, allowing the legal, public carrying of handguns, either concealed or out in the open, without a license or permit.

Wisconsin Republicans’ obsession with increasing the proliferation of guns has reached the point where they don’t even justify it in practical terms anymore. It’s just a matter of faith, impervious to reason.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in the pre-session news conference | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in the pre-session news conference | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

Take Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ comments to the Associated Press that he’s “open to the idea” of arming teachers, so they can engage in classroom shootouts — a solution that shows you how truly off the rails the GOP has gone. Even Vos admits that putting more guns in schools is unlikely to prevent school shootings. “The idea that we are going to take a heinous act like this [the Uvalde school massacre] and find some kind of logical way to prevent it 100% of the time, I just don’t see that occurring,” he told the AP.

What kind of a society throws up its hands and declares that it can’t protect its own children from being mowed down at school?

The idea that mass shootings are unavoidable is simply a lie. 

The United States is an outlier among nations. We endured 214 mass shootings within the first 145 days of 2022 — more than one per day. The rate of death by gun violence in this country is matched only by countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, where governments have been overrun by armed gangs. Among First World nations, there is no comparison.

It’s pretty obvious that unleashing millions of guns and refusing to regulate or track their use leads to more gun violence.

But among the “really good ideas” proposed by Wisconsin Republicans in the last legislative session, according to Vos in a recent interview with Wisconsin Eye, was “making it easier to own a firearm to protect yourself dealing with crime.” One such bill would have allowed people to carry concealed guns onto school grounds.

As Republicans push for less and less regulation and more and more guns, gun violence keeps going up. The Examiner’s Isiah Holmes reports that after former Gov. Scott Walker signed a series of bills making it quicker and easier to buy a gun and allowing Wisconsinites to carry concealed firearms, gun homicides increased. And incidents of violent gun deaths have closely tracked the number of concealed carry permits issued in the state. 

Wayne LaPierre, NRA vice president and CEO, attends the NRA annual meeting of members at the 148th NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits on April 27, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. A statement was read at the meeting announcing that NRA president Oliver North, whose seat at the head table remained empty at the event, would not serve another term. There have been recent reports of tension between LaPierre and North, with North citing financial impropriety within the organization. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Wayne LaPierre, NRA vice president and CEO, attends the NRA annual meeting of members (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There’s no question that the NRA and its handmaids in the Republican party, both in Wisconsin and nationally, have actively worked to create the conditions for mass shootings. They successfully blocked the renewal of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban when it expired in 2004, making it possible for the 18-year-old shooter in Uvalde to legally purchase a semi-automatic weapon specifically designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. They have lobbied heavily against background checks. In a victory for the NRA here in Wisconsin, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker did away with 48-hour waiting periods for handgun purchases in 2015.

The Republicans know that measures like waiting periods make guns less accessible and therefore reduce their use. That’s why they’ve imposed the same waiting periods and other restrictions on abortion access that they object to when it comes to purchasing guns. When it comes to abortion, they say these restrictions are a way of “defending human life.”

Protecting gun manufacturers

If Republicans are uninterested in protecting school children from the next mass shooting, they have given plenty of thought to protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits after the next mass shooting occurs. 

In February, the Legislature pushed through a bill to protect gun dealers from civil lawsuits.The measure, Senate Bill 570, would prevent people from suing gun and ammunition makers, distributors and dealers when their products are used illegally. SB-570 was backed by the NRA, Wisconsin Firearm Owners, Wisconsin Gun Owners, Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, National Shooting Sports Foundation and Hunter Nation, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The Wisconsin bill was a reaction to a successful settlement by families of children murdered in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The families received $73 million from Remington, which manufactured the assault rifle used to kill 20 first-graders and six teachers. SB570, which was vetoed by Evers, would have banned such lawsuits in Wisconsin.

It’s hard to fathom how Republicans in our state and nationally could remain determined not just to do nothing to protect against mass shootings, but to actively back policies that increase gun violence.

Despite their rhetoric about defending American values, most of the public is not with them. A large majority of people in the United States tell pollsters that they favor stronger background checks for gun owners and red flag laws. Most of us don’t buy the idea that we’ll be safe if we each, individually, start carrying a gun everywhere we go, in case we have to shoot back to defend ourselves against the increasing risk of gun violence.

There’s no question that the risk is increasing. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives just released a startling report showing that licensed gun manufacturers produced more than 11 million new weapons in 2020, almost triple the number produced in 2000.

Screenshot from Kleefisch’s campaign announcement of her walking streets of Kenosha

Maddeningly, Republicans see political opportunity in the rising fear and insecurity after each new shooting. When Milwaukee Bucks fans were caught in crossfire in the Deer District that injured 21 people, the same Republicans who support policies that upped the flow of unregulated firearms into the city,  including GOP gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch, cashed in on the crisis, rushing to make campaign ads posturing as defenders of public safety. 

So far, voters have not forced Republicans to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Until that changes, there is apparently no low to which they will not sink.

After the school shooting in Uvalde, Sen, Ron Johnson suggested that “critical race theory” and “wokeness” were responsible for the murder of elementary school students and rejected the idea that “some gun law” could have any impact on future mass shootings. 

Maybe it’s a good sign that Johnson, who has received about $1.2 million in contributions from the NRA, felt he had to run away from CNN’s Manu Raju to avoid answering a question about why he opposes expanding background checks for firearms. Likewise, the handful of Republicans who discovered a sudden scheduling conflict that prevented them from attending the NRA convention in Texas seemed to be experiencing a vague stirring of conscience.

What is patriotism?

As galling as it is to listen to Republicans blame mass shootings on everything except easy access to guns, in a way they are right that the violence erupting in our country right now is tied to their obsession with nonexistent threats like critical race theory and the “great replacement”— the idea that people of color are pushing out whites. (Johnson claims he’s never heard of  “the great replacement”  but he’s made textbook “replacement theory” remarks, attacking President Joe Biden for having what he calls “open border policies” and telling a conservative talk radio host, “I’ve got to believe [Democrats] want to change the makeup of the electorate.”)

Republican Party of Wisconsin resolutions | Screenshot via Wispolitics
Republican Party of Wisconsin resolutions | Screenshot via Wispolitics

Here’s where Republicans are right that “critical race theory” and “the great replacement” are destabilizing our country: The more they stir up racist hate, the worse things get. They are feeding a fringe movement that believes America is about white power backed up by the threat of violence. That deranged idea apparently motivated the shooter in Buffalo to take 10 innocent Black shoppers’ lives.

Thanks to their twisted worldview, the minuteman with a musket pictured on the Wisconsin Republicans’  resolutions document has morphed into the teen militiaman Kyle Rittenhouse, who brought his semi-automatic rifle to Kenosha and used it to kill two unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters.

KENOSHA, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 02: Kyle Rittenhouse listens as his attorneys speak to the judge during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse on November 2, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse shot three demonstrators, killing two of them, during a night of unrest that erupted in Kenosha after a police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back while police attempted to arrest him in August 2020. Rittenhouse, from Antioch, Illinois, was 17 at the time of the shooting and armed with an assault rifle. He faces counts of felony homicide and felony attempted homicide. (Photo by Sean Krajacic -Pool/Getty Images)
KENOSHA, WISCONSIN – : Kyle Rittenhouse  during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse on November 2, 2021. (Photo by Sean Krajacic -Pool/Getty Images)

On Memorial Day, we need people of all political persuasions to stand up against this deeply distorted view of American patriotism. Violent racism is woven into our country’s history — even if Republicans don’t want kids to learn about it in school — but we can’t allow it to define our future. Nor can we accept that periodic bloodbaths in our communities are the price of freedom. 

We have to find a way to come together again around a shared set of ideals – freedom from fear, freedom from hate and violence, the optimism that we can make a better life for our children. We owe them that.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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