As America’s 41st president is laid to rest, it is important to remember what he stood for.
George H.W. Bush — a man who lived his life in service to the ideals of duty, honor and country — will be remembered for taking many stands over his long career. But one of the more important stands he took was in opposition to the National Rifle Association.
As a fellow veteran, there is much about President Bush that I admire. Despite growing up with wealth and privilege, he enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday. He flew 58 combat missions in World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and (very narrowly) escaping death when his plane was shot down.
When later his political advisors pushed him to talk about his service during that time, he frequently refused — much to their aggravation. His stubborn humility might have vexed his staff but makes him all the more admirable in today’s era of presidential self-congratulation.
This man who sometimes seemed constitutionally incapable of talking about himself and who was raised to avoid public displays of emotion chose to reject the NRA in the most public manner.
And yet, this man who sometimes seemed constitutionally incapable of talking about himself and who was raised to avoid public displays of emotion chose to reject the NRA in the most public manner.
Bush, an avid hunter, had been a lifetime member of the NRA. Like many of his generation, the NRA to him was an organization dedicated to the promotion of hunting and firearm training. But during his political rise, that version of the NRA fundamentally changed, and Bush was wise enough to see it.
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Just days before the deadly Oklahoma City bombing, where a domestic terrorist targeted federal agents and killed 168 people, the NRA sent out a fundraising letter in which NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre referred to federal agents as “armed terrorists dressed in Ninja black … jack-booted thugs armed to the teeth who break down doors, open fire with automatic weapons and kill law-abiding citizens.”
The “jack-booted thugs” imagery has long been associated with Nazi storm troopers. The letter showed just how far the NRA was sliding into lunatic conspiracy territory, but the organization’s refusal to recant LaPierre’s words in the wake of the bombing six days later seemed to be the last straw for Bush. He reacted by publicly resigning his membership.
His letter to the organization stated that “your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.”
Bush was of an era where it was important to recognize who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. Comparing U.S. law enforcement to Nazis while advocating for irresponsible gun policy would have been tough for a guy like Bush to swallow. So he didn’t.
That awareness of good and evil also led Bush to stand in opposition to the regime in Moscow, which at the time restricted peoples’ access to free markets, free press and individual liberties. And while not much has changed in terms of Moscow’s hostility to those ideals, one thing absolutely has changed: Vladimir Putin’s Russia loves America’s NRA.
This is not at all surprising when you look at the past few decades. The NRA is clearly determined to march toward the fringe. How else could the NRA could be so easily played for chumps by a 29-year-old Russian billing herself as a “gun rights activist.” Perhaps Wayne LaPierre, Dana Loesch and company think it’s easier to be nimble if they’re unencumbered by inquiry.
Public support for universal background checks is 96 percent, so naturally the NRA is siding with the remaining 4 percent, because that’s what organizations that cater to the fringe do.
It’s not particularly difficult to guess what Bush must have thought about all of this. I’m sure he was disappointed that he couldn’t rip up his NRA membership card multiple times.
My own military service encompassed Desert Storm, a war that had the unmistakable imprint of the Bush patriarch: prudent strategy, broad international cooperation, rigorous planning and precise execution. And while the word “prudent” was the key word in Dana Carvey’s excellent Bush impersonations, it also describes how the military approaches the use of guns.
Today’s NRA is anything but prudent. Public support for universal background checks is 96 percent, so naturally the NRA is siding with the remaining 4 percent, because that’s what organizations that cater to the fringe do.
A lifetime commitment to “duty, honor, country” might seem lofty, but Bush’s life story shows how they can actually serve as a compass for daily decisions and public priorities. The phrase “protecting women from domestic abusers through strengthened background checks” might seem distant and theoretical in the public sphere, but in homes and communities across America it is real and urgent.
The NRA of earlier years wouldn’t have been caught dead defending domestic abusers, cooperating with hostile foreign intelligence agencies, or pushing for handgun sales to teachers in classrooms. Today, what is left of a once-proud organization stands as a warning to any group that loses their bearings.
George H.W. Bush remained true to the values he championed, and he will be well remembered by history for it.