— The National Rifle Association appears to suffer from pinaciphobia: the fear of lists.
It doesn't matter whether such lists are compiled by a local, state, national or international body; whether they are public, private, corporate or academic; whether they are of actual human beings (such as suspected terrorists) or inanimate objects (such as guns). The NRA opposes them. How long before it comes for your grocery list?
We jest. But that is exactly the kind of logic employed by the NRA, which uses its influence to stoke fear and paranoia among gun owners about the U.S. government's interest in information. Of course, government lists, from McCarthy's to Nixon's, don't exactly have a sterling reputation. The kinds of lists the NRA fears, however, are exactly those Americans should welcome, and most need.
Just last week, the NRA opposed a House bill to fund state programs that would have identified and disarmed gun owners who have been deemed mentally ill or have committed a serious crime. In 2009, it opposed a bill empowering the U.S. attorney general to block weapons sales to anyone whose name appears on the government's terrorist watch list. It even opposes a treaty, being negotiated at the United Nations this week, to track international arms sales. This is all in addition to the NRA's insistence that background check data be destroyed — and its fierce opposition to any kind of data that can illuminate gun violence or what can be done to mitigate it.
The NRA's fear is ahistorical as well as irrational. American history is filled with gun regulations, including government surveys of gun ownership. During the Revolutionary era, writes UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler, the founders not only required able men to arm themselves for military service, but also inspected their guns and listed the firearms on public rolls. New Hampshire and Rhode Island conducted door-to-door surveys of gun ownership.
Later, as the nation expanded westward, frontier towns required newcomers to turn in their guns to the sheriff in exchange for a token, the way a "restaurant today handles overcoats in winter," Winkler writes. In other words, the authorities not only knew who had a gun — they safeguarded it.
Nothing of the sort is possible, much less being contemplated, today. The most ardent proponents of gun control are currently struggling to pass, over NRA objections, legislation requiring background checks to prohibit criminals and the mentally ill from purchasing firearms. The specter of "jack-booted government thugs" entering the nation's 100 million households to confiscate private guns is a feat of NRA marketing; the industry's sales and the gun lobby's power both correlate closely with fear.
The question is not whether Americans should be allowed to have guns, or whether guns will maintain their place in American culture. The question is whether having the developed world's most unfettered access to guns is worth the price — 30,000 people dead — the United States pays in gun violence each year.
The NRA offers only one answer: to make more guns more accessible to more people in more places. That's no doubt a good policy if your mission is to maximize profits for the gun industry. For the rest of us, however, including lawmakers on Capitol Hill, treating the NRA as a good-faith participant in the nation's gun debate may be an indulgence we can no longer afford.