CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Anyone who grew up in West Virginia knows how deeply guns are embedded in American rural tradition. Their symbolism is sacrosanct. They were the revered companions of our forefathers who, "destined by God," made this country "the land of the free and home of the brave." The American hero, gun strapped on his side, has long embodied the rugged individualism and go-it-alone toughness that celebrate "American exceptionalism."
Today, however, the powerful gun industry and its connection to the dark side of the gun culture can no longer be ignored. Our relationship with guns has become manifestly pathological.
A radicalized National Rifle Association is now a leader in the fight against any rational effort to curb gun violence. We need only to be reminded of the old NRA to know how radical it has become.
In the 1920s, NRA leaders helped draft legislation to restrict firearms in public. In 1934, the NRA endorsed the first major gun control law imposing restrictions on "gangster" weapons. Then NRA President Karl Fredrick said, "I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. ... I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses."
After President Kennedy was killed, NRA Executive Vice President Frank Orth told Congress, "We do not think that any sane American ... can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States."
In 1977, the NRA changed. Hardliner gun proponents staged a coup and committed the group to political advocacy -- exerting a chokehold on Congress and promoting fear of the federal government. Today, the NRA is known for its anti-government rhetoric and is aligned with the most radical gun proponents in the country. Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who called federal law enforcement officials "a jackbooted group of fascists," advocates putting armed guards in public schools and urges all Americans to procure arms to protect themselves from a tyrannical government.
Not to be missed here is that such hysteria results in massive profits for the NRA and the gun industry.
Scores of bellicose public voices and a growing number of "militia" hate groups have joined the fray. Radio shock talkers are roundly promoting armed resistance to "a looming civil war." To witness the unhinged rage that's driving the movement, one needs only to see the Piers Morgan interview with radio host Alex Jones. Shouting and threatening throughout, Jones, at one point, thrusts his finger in the air and bellows, "1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!"
Patriot/militia groups, fueled by a visceral hatred of President Obama, are now in every state except Hawaii. Growing 755 percent the first three years of the Obama administration, there are now over 1,000 such groups nationwide. They stash weapons and practice military drills in preparation for armed resistance.
In the shadow of this tribal madness stands the ghosts of 20 dead children. But, for the true believers, it's no time for sober reflection. A new wave of madness has been launched -- claiming the murder of these children was either staged or an inside job -- by some accounts perpetrated by Obama to promote gun control.
The rational side of this debate knows it's not about losing the right to bear arms. And it's surely is not about defending ourselves against our own government. But a corrosive paranoia is taking root in a frightened population -- stoked by hate groups on the extreme side of the political divide and by those who enjoy massive profits from the insanity that's driving the opposition to gun control. More than 5 million guns have been legally sold since Sandy Hook, and dealers are running out of stock.
We must get a grip! We're the outlier among nations -- 87 percent of children killed by guns in high-income countries live in the United States. Requiring background checks and banning assault weapons are both civilized and reasonable. We can no longer allow mentally unstable people to buy military-style weapons from the trunk of a car. And we cannot allow Ted Nugent to be a voice from America that's sent around the world. By any standard of decency, the classroom slaughter of 20 small children must change the soul of our country.
Knapp is a member of Seneca2, a group of women who work to inform the public on important issues.