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Heaven Help the Gun Nuts

By Richard Cohen

Thursday, March 23, 2000; Page A29

According to my crack computer, I have used the expression "gun nuts" only twice in my career--and never in reference to the National Rifle Association. One reference was to right-wing militias and the other to some Pat Buchanan supporters. Now, though, I'm about to change all that. I have just read a speech by Charlton Heston, the NRA's president. The man is nuts.

My computer also tells me others have written about this speech, but for some reason I knew nothing about it. Maybe you don't, either. It was delivered to a right-wing group, the Free Congress Foundation, in December 1997.

The speech is the clearest rebuttal yet to the belief that the NRA speaks for most gun owners. Instead, it offers proof that the organization has fallen into the hands of extremists who see the controversy over gun legislation not as some gentlemanly dispute over the Second Amendment but as a no-holds-barred cultural war. In Heston's formulation, the aggressors are gun-control advocates while his side is defending nothing less than the American way. He put it this way:

"Heaven help the God-fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle-class, Protestant or--even worse--admitted heterosexual, gun-owning or--even worse--NRA-card-carrying, average working stiff." If that sentence were a weapon, it would be an anti-personnel bomb.

Recently, the statements of the NRA's Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre have created a fuss. He said Bill Clinton "has blood on his hands" for allegedly failing to enforce gun control laws already on the books. The president was lax, LaPierre later explained, because he needs "a certain level of killing to further" his anti-handgun agenda. Until I read Heston's speech, I thought that was a shocking statement.

It is Heston, though, who offers a CAT scan into the mind of the gun zealot. He said he has seen something like the anti-gun movement before. "I remember when European Jews feared to admit their faith," he said. "The Nazis forced them to wear yellow stars. . . . So, what color star will they pin on gun owners' chests? How will the self-styled elite tag us? There may not be a Gestapo officer on every street corner, but the influence on our culture is just as pervasive."

Ah, but it is not just gun owners who are being pushed around by Gestapo officers--such as Sarah Brady perhaps. It is whites in general. After all, Heston noted, "The Constitution was handed down . . . by a bunch of wise old dead white guys. . . . Now, some flinch when I say that. Why? It's true . . . they were white guys."

Heston goes on to wonder, "Why is 'Hispanic pride' or 'black pride' a good thing, while 'white pride' conjures shaved heads and white hoods?" The answer, of course, is that people who proclaim "white pride" often have shaved heads or wear white hoods. He can look it up.

The speech is a doozy, tinged with racism, homophobia and, if you will, paranoia. Still, Heston's declaration of cultural war is worth examining. Surely there is a gun culture and just as surely there are people for whom guns are alien. Country folk care more about guns than city folk, who, if anything, tend to fear them. I am in the latter group, but I was moved when I read a recent account in the Los Angeles Times of a farmer teaching his daughter to shoot. I have no desire to change that.

Handguns, though, are a different matter. They are not hunting weapons--unless human beings are the prey. They are too easily bought, too easily fired (by children, for instance) and too dangerous to have around. I would license them so strictly they would effectively be banned. That's not a political solution, however. That's just my dream.

Heston's speech is repellent. But at the time he gave it, he was merely the NRA's first vice president. Since then, he's moved up--a clear sign not many NRA members took offense. They are not alone. In Congress, the NRA is still the most formidable lobby, adored by much of the GOP and not a few Democrats. You get the feeling that if some crackpot militia had oodles of soft money, it, too, would be welcome in Congress.

In his speech, Heston--aging and no longer a movie star--nevertheless gives a fine performance as a victim. He portrayed himself as merely some guy standing up for guns. "Why does the media assault me with such a slashing, sinister brand of derision and hate?" he asked.

Because, Chuck, you're nuts.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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