CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The National Rifle Association’s David Keene, who took questions at a public forum at Harvard this week, might not much like being likened to Daniel in the lion’s den. The Bible’s Daniel, after all, was a government bureaucrat — the kind Keene has spent his life in conservative politics taking on. And since the king’s pet administrator did not go into that pit willingly, it’s Keene who deserves more credit for showing up.
The students were polite — hey, it’s Harvard, where well-spoken young persons dress up on Saturday night, and, in the dorm where I’m living this semester, often introduce themselves in the elevator. But they weren’t pussycats at the forum, either, asking Keene in various ways why he’s OK with dead kids and mass shootings.
A sophomore mentioned the NRA commercial that called Obama “an elitist hypocrite” because his kids have armed protectors: “Can you say in hindsight,” she asked the NRA president, “if you believe that was an extremely bad piece of propaganda, and completely inappropriate?” A senior who described herself as a future classroom teacher wanted to know, “Is the right to hold a gun more important than the right for our children to learn?” And a sophomore informed Keene, “Frankly, I wasn’t very satisfied with your response” arguing against limiting magazine size. “Why do they need these types of firearms when children continue to perish?”
No one who asked a question voiced even a corner of agreement with Keene, and when the moderator, CNN’s John King, asked how many in the audience “believe no one should be able to buy a gun,” maybe 20 percent of those present raised a hand.
Keene kept his temper, too, but his answers were even more monochromatic than the questions. The current debate, post-Newtown, he said, had only proven correct his warning that if President Obama won a second term, he was sure to “find a way” to go after guns. He accused the president of only pretending to want common-sense reforms. “Typical Barack Obama, he’s positioned himself as the most reasonable man in the room,” Keene said. But “it’s very difficult to engage in a rational discussion with someone who’s out to destroy you.”
I’ve argued before that the Second Amendment is to the right what the abortion debate is to the left, and Keene cited the “slippery slope,” argument outright: “Once you start down that road,” he said, confiscation is the obvious end point. To the sophomore who’d said “children continue to perish,” he in essence used the same argument abortion rights advocates offer: If “you or someone else doesn’t like it,” he said of high-powered guns, “you don’t have to buy one.”
He insisted that there’s no daylight between the NRA’s leadership and its membership on reform. And because I guess not every Republican alive has heard yet that jokes are not required to include a reference to rape, he quipped that he’s stopped saying his group’s approval rating is higher than that of Congress, since “we could be serial rapists and have a higher favorable rating than Congress.”
The “practical, real-world problems” with expanded background checks didn’t seem all that daunting: “What happens,” he says he asked an unnamed U.S. Senator recently, “when you go home to your farm and you want to sell your shotgun” to a neighbor whose feelings could be hurt by the suggestion that the sale might entail filling out some paperwork? “And he says, ‘Senator, we’ve known each other since we were 4 years old!’ ” He’d get over it, is my guess, unlike those grieving families in Newtown.
NRA officials have predicted that an assault-weapons ban would cause “dire consequences.” But when King asked what “dire consequences” had come of the assault-weapons ban that was in place between 1994 and 2004, Keene offered only this: “Millions of Americans were disadvantaged,” including at competitions in which it was less fun to have to stop and reload all the time, he said. “I guess there’s no reason someone should have a Maserati, either,” he said, but Chevy owners don’t get to decide that.
Keene’s own daughter, who has served in the military in both Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, now owns only one gun, an AR-15, “because she can tear it apart. And she would have been disadvantaged” if she couldn’t have stuck with her favorite firearm.
On either emotion or logic, Keene can’t come close to competing with his adversaries — and of course, he doesn’t have to, given the locked and loaded NRA control over Republicans and some Democrats in Congress. He does agree with Obama on one thing, though: During the president’s recent State of the Union address, Obama said of those touched by gun violence, “They deserve a vote.”
The gun lobby deserves one, too, Keene suggested. For years, he said, no gun control legislation has even gone to the floor, so his organization has been grading lawmakers — and supporting them or withholding support — based on rhetoric alone. Now, though, he said, he expects no filibuster from gun rights supporters in the Senate.
“I’ll tell you something: There will be votes.” And consequences — from the NRA, and maybe even from voters.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post politics writer who anchors ‘She the People’ and is spending this semester at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.