Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Watch | Opinion

How the NRA's allegiance to cops undermines its credibility on gun rights

By Radley Balko

July 11, 2017 at 2:10 PM

Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

At long last, someone from the National Rifle Association has spoken up about Philando Castile. Sort of. During a CNN segment, NRA spokeswoman and pundit Dana Loesch said this:

I think it's absolutely awful. It's a terrible tragedy that could have been avoided. I don't agree with every single decision that comes out from courtrooms of America. There are a lot of variables in this particular case, and there were a lot of things that I wish would have been done differently. Do I believe that Philando Castile deserved to lose his life over his [traffic] stop? I absolutely do not. I also think that this is why we have things like NRA Carry Guard, not only to reach out to the citizens to go over what to do during stops like this, but also to work with law enforcement so that they understand what citizens are experiencing when they go through stops like this.

As Jacob Sullum points out at Reason, this is pretty weak stuff. A law-abiding gun owner was shot and killed by a cop after doing everything he was supposed to do. It then took more than a year for anyone from the nation's largest gun rights organization to comment, and when she did, she offered a vague, heavily qualified, quasi-criticism of the cop while implying not only that Castile contributed to his death but also that he might be alive if only he were carrying an NRA Carry Guard card.

This is about par for the course for the NRA. This is the group that claims to be the only thing preventing the government from obliterating the Second Amendment, yet they're noticeably quiet about the people doing the most violence to the Second Amendment — the armed, badge-wearing government employees we call law enforcement officers. For all the NRA's dire warnings about government gun confiscation, the real, tangible threat to gun-owning Americans today comes not from gun-grabbing bureaucrats but from door-bashing law enforcement officers who think they're at war — who are too often trained to view the people they serve not as citizens with rights but as potential threats. Here, the NRA just doesn't want to get involved.

Take the issue of police raids. When I started writing about the massive increase in the use of SWAT teams, no-knock warrants and "dynamic entry" police raids back in the early 2000s, I was at first surprised at how quiet the NRA was about the issue. When I wrote about the story of Cory Maye, a black Mississippi man on death row after shooting a white police officer during a botched, midnight raid on his home, a number of prominent gun rights advocates spoke up on Maye's behalf — as many have with Castile. (Maye claimed that he thought his home was being invaded by criminals.) And yet as with Castile, the NRA was silent. It's been that way ever since.

But this wasn't always the case. Back in the 1990s, the NRA was sharply and very publicly critical of aggressive police tactics, at least at the federal level. Recall Wayne LaPierre's (in)famous quote deriding ATF agents as "jack-booted thugs." The NRA was widely ridiculed for that criticism — unfairly I think. Though the group's rhetoric could be unhinged at times, so could ATF's tactics. As scholars like Dave Kopel have documented, ATF of the 1990s was brutal, ruthless and dangerously unaccountable.

ATF quieted down when the Bush administration took over, and so did the NRA's criticism. Today, the agency still uses aggressive, constitutionally dubious tactics, but its targets tend to be minorities, the poor and the mentally ill — people less likely to be card-carrying members of the NRA.

But while the NRA has occasionally spoken out over the years about federal abuses, the group has always been reluctant to criticize local police. As has now been well documented — first by the work of criminologist Peter Kraska, and later by surveys from groups like the ACLU — we've seen a massive rise in the use of "dynamic entry" tactics, in which cops break into houses, often at night, in an effort to take the occupants by surprise: whether by the ever-growing number of SWAT teams, or by narcotics units, gang units, drug task forces and other specialized units. Most of these raids are to serve drug warrants, although they've been justified for an ever-growing list of infractions, some incredibly petty. Drug warrants often rely on dirty information. Cops often face pressure to nab suspected drug dealers quickly or to seize a drug stash before it's moved. That can make shortcuts tempting. This is where we get the wrong-house raids that are particularly dangerous for gun owners. These raids are designed to distract, confuse and disorient. So it's of no surprise that when they go wrong, innocent people (or even people guilty of drug crimes, for that matter), might confuse the raiding cops for criminals.

To make matters worse, some police agencies consider legal gun ownership a reason to use these tactics. We covered one such incident here at The Watch. In 2014, police in Iowa conducted a violent dynamic-entry raid on a man suspected of credit card fraud. Their justification for the heavy-handed tactics? The suspect's roommate had a legal gun permit. Imagine if the roommate — who had done nothing wrong — had been home. He likely would have reached for his gun. He might well be dead.

In fact, there's a long list of legal gun owners who were shot dead under precisely those circumstances. One of the more infamous examples is Donald Scott, a gun-rights advocate shot down in his own home during a fruitless marijuana raid in 1992. Just a few of the other examples:

There are of course many others. There are lots of other examples in which police have injured or killed people during these raids after mistaking some other object in the victim's hand for a gun. I suppose those aren't specifically gun-rights cases, but they're part of the same problem.

There are also the examples like Cory Maye, in which the victim of a botched or mistaken raid was prosecuted after understandably mistaking the cops for criminal intruders, and reaching for a gun to defend themselves or their families. (See also Ryan Frederick, Marvin Guy or Matthew David Stewart.) More recently, Henry Magee was no-billed by a grand jury in Texas after killing a cop during a pot raid on his home, and Ray Rosas was acquitted by a jury after wounding three officers during a raid in which police appear to have been looking for Rosas's nephew, who didn't live in Rosas's home. Rosas in fact had previously been subjected to death threats after testifying against a gang member.

As far as I know, the NRA did not vocally support any of these legal gun owners. They didn't criticize the police. They didn't call for a change in police tactics.

As the Castile shooting demonstrates, it's about more than just raids. It's about police training and mindset, too. As we have also pointed out here at The Watch, the officer who shot Castile had recently attended a "Bulletproof Warrior" class, one of series of incredibly popular classes run by Dave Grossman and Jim Glennon. These classes teach cops to see see threats everywhere, and to adopt a starkly cynical, apocalyptic view of the world — similar to the view often provided by NRA head LaPierre, and that Loesch adopted in her recent, much-discussed NRA promotional video. The police officer who shot John Crawford — gunned down in an Ohio Walmart as he held a pellet gun he was considering buying — had recently attended a "pep talk" presentation that cited Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and other mass shootings to motivate officers to confront "active threats" with "speed, surprise and aggressiveness."

While some police agencies are moving more toward de-escalation and conflict resolution, there's a competing philosophy pushed by personalities like Grossman that cops aren't killing enough people and need to act more instinctively — to move beyond fear or reservation when taking a human life. That latter philosophy is taking hold even in jurisdictions with a history of police violence.

To the extent that the NRA has addressed any of this, it has been to disparage critics. A 2014 article in the organization's magazine, for example, mocked critics of police militarization, and cautioned against "a 'knee-jerk' reaction to every use of force situation caught on camera." And in this video, the NRA's Dom Raso, a former Navy SEAL, discusses the benefits of police militarization with a New Jersey SWAT commander, before the two roundly dismiss concerns about what effects militarization might have on police tactics and mindset.

To their credit, there are gun-rights advocates who have worried about these issues for years. They just aren't the NRA. (I should disclose here that generally speaking, I favor the right to own and carry a gun.) In one recent example, David French wrote about the police shooting of Andrew Scott at National Review:

Imagine you're up late one night. It's after midnight, and maybe you're finishing a movie. Or perhaps you're reading a book, and it's too good to put down. Or maybe you're like a young man named Andrew Scott: You're playing video games with your girlfriend.

You hear a loud pounding on your front door. You're not expecting anyone, and no one is shouting or yelling anything from the other side. Instead, the pounding continues, and the door rattles on its hinges. If this happened to me, living in a rural part of Tennessee, I'll tell you exactly what I'd do — I'd answer the door warily, with a gun at my side.

After all, my home is my castle. It's where my wife and kids are, and it's hard to imagine a situation where there's loud pounding, that late, that doesn't involve a degree of urgency. I have a constitutional and a human right, guaranteed under the Second Amendment, to defend my family, my life, and my home.

Unless, of course, the people pounding on the door are cops who 1) had no search warrant, 2) didn't turn on their emergency lights, 3) didn't identify themselves as police, 4) misunderstood a neighbor's directions, and 5) showed up at the wrong house, the house of a completely innocent man. Then, my right to defend myself turns into a right to die in two seconds flat, without firing a shot or even clambering a round.

That's the effective holding of a panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a holding that the entire Circuit declined to review en banc just last week.

That ruling came just before the Supreme Court ruling in the Angel Mendez case. There, police officers illegally entered Mendez's private residence without knocking or announcing. When Mendez reached for a BB gun, the police opened fire, severely injuring Mendez and his wife. The court ruled that qualified immunity for police officers prevents Mendez and his wife from suing the officers for their injuries. (That's a rough summary of a complicated case — see the previous link for a more thorough discussion.) The ACLU, the NAACP and the conservative Rutherford Institute all submitted amicus briefs on behalf of Mendez. The NRA did not.

The only recent instance I can recall in which the NRA did oppose the wishes of law enforcement was when the group fought back against the Indiana legislature's attempt to overturn a (widely mischaracterized) Indiana Supreme Court ruling about the Castle Doctrine and home defense. (To their credit, they were right about that one.)

Because the NRA was active in denouncing the aggressive police tactics ATF was using against (mostly white) gun owners, and because the group has been silent when those same sorts of tactics are used against black people to serve drug warrants, some critics have accused the group of only favoring gun rights for white people. I think it's probably more complicated than that. The NRA, for example, was way out front in defending Shaneen Allen, a black woman facing some pretty serious prison time after an honest mistake put her in the grip of New Jersey's asinine gun and sentencing laws. In fact, they were defending her long before a few liberal groups finally came around. And many of the cases already mentioned above — during which the NRA stayed silent — involved white people.

A more accurate criticism might be that the NRA's allegiance to law enforcement has made the NRA indifferent to the ways that police tactics, use-of-force policy and police training violate the rights of gun owners (and those perceived to be carrying guns). And as with most bad criminal-justice policy, the laws, policies and training disproportionately violate the rights of blacks and Latinos — and the NRA is indifferent to that, too. The group does itself no favors when its figurehead spouts lazy, racist dog-whistles; when its aforementioned record of criticizing ATF goes silent when the agency's aggressive tactics are aimed at minority neighborhoods.

Its history of putting unapologetic bigots in its leadership doesn't help, either. Perhaps the best illustration of the problem is Ted Nugent, the NRA's celebrity, unabashedly bigoted board member. The grizzled rocker is regularly warning us of impending government tyranny, but then defends, for example, the killing of Eric Garner, or the South Carolina police officer who body-slammed a high school girl (by describing the girl as an "animal," no less).

I doubt you'd find many NRA members who would say the Second Amendment applies only to white people. But when you speak out only on gun issues that primarily affect white people, when you mostly stay silent when black gun owners are violated, when you provide a platform for a celebrity spokesman who openly spews racial slurs, and when you demagogue fear of crime by conjuring images of black people, you certainly can't blame black and Latino people for asking the question.

In short, the NRA seems to think we're at risk of creeping tyranny and abuse of power from all sectors of government except from the men and women armed, badged and entrusted with the power to kill. That's a problem, because if armed agents who enforce the laws on the ground aren't required to respect our rights, our rights don't really exist.

The Supreme Court could rule the NRA's way on the Castle Doctrine for the next 25 years, but if the police continue to kick down doors with impunity, law-abiding gun owners will be at risk, and the Second Amendment will be more of an empty gesture than a constitutional protection. The Supreme Court could rule the NRA's way on conceal carry for the next 25 years, but if the organization keeps pushing the line that cops are at war, that the populace is dangerous, and that every citizen is a possible threat, the right to carry a gun in public will always be constrained by cops conditioned to see every weapon as a threat to their existence.

Finally, the Supreme Court could rule the NRA's way and abolish all the state laws like those that ensnared Shaneen Allen, but as long as the NRA and its allies push rhetoric that makes white people (and white cops) see all crime with a black face, the right to bear arms for people who look like her — or who look like Philando Castile — exist only in theory.


Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."

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