April 13, 2012

Wayne LaPierre vs. “jack-booted government thugs”

For many decades after the National Rifle Association was founded in 1871, a main focus of the group was on urging and teaching gun safety, to help reduce gun-related accidents.

In fact, the famous slogan associated with the NRA — “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” — was once used as a cautionary safety warning, rather than as defensive response in the debate over gun control.

In recent decades, the NRA’s primary public focus has been on protecting and expanding Americans’ right to own and carry guns.

Your position on the controversial issue of gun control probably determines how you view another famous (and infamous) gun-related quote that’s linked to today’s date.

In a fundraising letter to NRA members, dated April 13, 1995, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called the federal officials who enforce U.S. gun laws “jack-booted government thugs.”

LaPierre tied the phrase to a Clinton-administration law that banned certain semi-automatic weapons. He wrote:

“…the semiauto-auto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”

The last part of that sentence conjured up images of the fatal confrontations between officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Randy Weaver’s family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and with the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas in 1993.

LaPierre’s use of the phrase “jack-booted government thugs” was his metaphorical way of likening BATF officials to Nazis.

During World War II, German soldiers wore distinctive military “jack boots.” Since then, the name of those high leather boots has been commonly used as a reference to totalitarian governments, especially Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime.

On April 19, 1995, just six days after the NRA’s fundraising letter was sent out, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was destroyed by a bomb, killing 168 people.

It was later discovered that the conspirators behind
the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, shared an anger over gun control laws and the federal government’s role in the Ruby Ridge and Waco tragedies.

Gun control advocates suggested that the inflammatory rhetoric in LaPierre’s letter had encouraged the bombing.

NRA officials denied that there was any link.

However, LaPierre did publicly apologize for calling federal officials “jack-booted government thugs,” saying: “If anyone thought the intention was to paint all federal law enforcement officials with the same broad brush, I’m sorry.”

Nonetheless, the group’s 1995 fundraising letter and LaPierre’s use of the phrase “jack-booted government thugs” in that letter remain notorious among critics of the NRA.

Recently, for example, liberal groups harshly criticized Fox News for using LaPierre as a commentator in a March 10, 2011 segment about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

An opinion piece on the liberal website Media Matters opined that “LaPierre is the last person a responsible media outlet should have on its airwaves to comment on the Bureau…because LaPierre once referred to ATF agents as ‘jack-booted government thugs.’”

Of course, in the view of NRA members, guns and ill-advised words don’t kill people — ill people do.

It’s a debate that is likely to continue for many decades to come.

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