Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Barbershop: NRA's Annual Meeting


Now we go to the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Today, as we mentioned earlier in the program, the NRA's hosting its annual meeting in Dallas. Now, we don't know how many people actually belong to the NRA. It's a private organization. They don't have to tell anybody. But it's a sure bet that millions of people own guns in the U.S. or use guns in the U.S. who are not members or who don't go to conventions. So we decided to gather a group of people who own guns or who have thought a lot about them who didn't make it to Dallas. Our hope for this conversation is that, maybe getting together this way, we could get away from some of the bumper sticker slogans and even some of the vitriol that seems to take over when like-minded people get together.

So Joe Plenzler is here with us. He's a 20-year Marine Corps combat veteran and avid shooter. Thank you for your service, if I may.

JOE PLENZLER: Hey, thanks.

MARTIN: He actually told us that he gave up his lifetime NRA membership last year, and he's going to tell us why. Beth Alcazar is a competitive shooter. She teaches firearms classes for women near her home in Alabama. She's a lifetime member of the NRA. Beth, good to have you with us.

BETH ALCAZAR: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Charles E. Cobb Jr. is the author of "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible." He's also a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he's with us from the studios of Rhode Island Public Radio. Charlie Cobb, thank you so much for joining us as well.

CHARLES E COBB JR: Thank you, Michel. Hello.

MARTIN: So let me just apologize in advance because actually, we could talk with each of you for an hour, you know, about all of these issues. So we're only going to able to scratch the surface. But I'm going to start with you, Joe. You're a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. You've been an avid shooter for, you know, most of your life, since you were kind of old enough to...


MARTIN: ...Pick up a gun. And you told us that you decided to give up your NRA membership last year after this NRA recruitment video that got a lot of attention. Let me just play a little bit of it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance.

MARTIN: Well, their ex-president kind of caught my attention. But...


MARTIN: What got your attention? What was it that crossed the line for you?

PLENZLER: Yeah. I mean, I remember when a friend of mine showed me that video and draw my attention to it on Facebook. And my first reaction was, you know, what the everlasting F. And, at that point, you know, I just looked at it.

I've been doing, you know, PR and propaganda, counterpropaganda stuff for the Marine Corps for a long time - you know, deconstructing enemy propaganda, things like that. And when I saw it, it immediately struck me. I'm, like, holy smokes. They're using the exact same techniques that most authoritarian regimes have been using around the world, you know, for many, many decades now. And just the fact that it starts with the unnamed they - I mean, that is the bucket which everyone who's afraid can put their worst bogeyman into and start to hate.

So, I mean, you know, we could go way down the rabbit hole on all the techniques they use. But it was pretty much a straight-up propaganda effort trying to cause fear, to raise money, increase membership to fund more gun lobbying.

MARTIN: But tell me exactly why - because a lot of people would just say, oh, I'll ignore it.


MARTIN: It's not aimed at you, so just ignore it. But you felt you had to affirmatively say something. And actually, you wrote a piece for The Daily Beast along with a couple of other vets...


MARTIN: ...About it. It obviously pushed your buttons. So you felt because why? What was the tipping point for you?

PLENZLER: Yeah. Because, I mean, they try to paint, you know, being an American into one of two buckets, and either you're for us or against us. And there was really - it's an extremist position. You know, it's just as extreme as the people that want to ban all guns. And it really doesn't leave any room for discourse in the middle. And, you know, I've been - you know, the NRA logo's one of the first brands I can remember as a kid when I'd - you'd go shooting with my Korean War veteran uncle. And, you know, when I saw that, and they were demonizing the media and our democratic institutions and, you know, really conflating the First Amendment with the Second Amendment and pitting one against the other.

You know, I thought about the 125 reporters I took across the Kuwaiti border into battle all the way up to Baghdad. And I'm, like, the media is the enemy of the American people? And I was, like, no. At that point, it was, like, I have friends in the media who have left pieces of their body on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, I mean, that was a...

MARTIN: That was it.


MARTIN: Beth, you're a lifetime member of the NRA. What brought you to the organization, and what do they do right? And if - is there anything that they don't do right in your view?

ALCAZAR: Oh, gosh. There's plenty that they don't do right. But honestly, I joined in the first place just because they're still the most widely recognized and accepted body of educational purposes, really. If you look at what the states require for concealed carry permits, the NRA is still up there at the top. And honestly, until other organizations like the USCCA can change that, I'm afraid a lot of people are still going to go to the NRA because they're still the most widely recognized. Even if they have bodies like the ILA that are doing kind of their own thing politically, they still do have that foot and that foundation in the educational side.

MARTIN: Did - has anything changed for you after Parkland, Beth?

ALCAZAR: For me personally, I think it's just become even more important to get the word out there about firearms and get rid of the misnomers, get rid of the misunderstandings. A lot of people don't quite understand what they're talking about. And that can make the conversation extraordinarily difficult because we're not even talking about the same thing.

MARTIN: OK. Charlie, let's go to you. You've been part of one of the greatest nonviolent movements in history - the U.S. civil rights movement. Yet you've got a deep respect for how - let's say the threat of violence - can equal the playing field, if I could kind of put it that way. You wrote a whole book about that, which I know was kind of eye-opening for many people. What's your take on this? I mean, where are you in this?

COBB: I do not think that guns are central to gun violence, to put it simply and somewhat controversially, I've discovered. You know, there are, what, over 300 million guns in private hands in this country. There are roughly 30,000 or perhaps a little more deaths by guns. One question is, why aren't there more deaths if there is a real connection between possession of guns and gun violence? Although it's not to minimize 30,000 as a large number. But remember, 300 million guns are in people's hands. So I don't see, really, the connection between guns and gun violence.

And then a lot of that grows out of my experience in the Deep South, Mississippi in particular, where the guns we worried about were the guns in the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. The guns we were happy that people had were the guns in the hands of people in whose houses we were living.

MARTIN: What about - I don't know, same question that I asked Beth, Charles. I mean, did - is the NRA - does the NRA do something right? Is the NRA doing anything wrong in your view?

COBB: Well, I think there's been a shift in the NRA since 1977 when there was what might be called the revolt in Cincinnati, and gun rights extremists wearing orange hunting caps basically took over the organization. And the NRA changed from a largely non-political organization primarily focused on gun safety, hunting, conservation and marksmanship to the lobbying organization it is now - almost absolutist in its advocacy of Second Amendment rights. And I don't happen to feel or think that Second Amendment rights are being threatened at all.

MARTIN: So, Joe, what about you? Do you think that the NRA is in touch with gun - the average gun owner to the degree that you feel like you can say - and I'm also curious to know if there's anything they could do to bring you back?

PLENZLER: Yeah - no, absolutely. I think they're not because the majority of gun owners in the United States don't belong to the NRA. And so, you know, if they're touting 5 million members, which I'd like to see their books to have them prove that, the majority - that - right off the bat, the majority of gun owners don't belong to the organization. And I think there's a reason for that. And it - you know, I mean, the Second Amendment is - you know, existed for a hundred years before the NRA and, you know, really for 200 years before they even started doing all this kooky stuff, you know, going down really extreme partisan radicals.

So, at this point, no. I mean, I think their heyday was when they were - like Charles said, when they were focusing on marksmanship and safety and conservation. But at this point, I think they've really burned a bridge with a lot of gun owners and with a lot of veterans, too.

MARTIN: Beth, does any of the other research that you see out here persuade you of anything in any way? And it has to be said that there isn't as isn't as much research as some people would like about what the correlation is between gun ownership, gun presence in the home and safety, in part because of political stuff that we've all, you know, heard a lot about, which we don't have time to go into.

But there - but, you know, a lot of people make the point that there are a lot of countries that are very similar to the U.S. in a lot of ways, but they don't have the level of violence that the United States has. They certainly have as much mental - probably have as much mental illness as this country has, but they don't have the same level of suicide and homicide that we have. Does any of that give you pause?

ALCAZAR: I think it goes back to something that was just mentioned about I don't really think it's gun violence at all. It's not the guns that are really the problem. We give this whole - it's like personification of the inanimate object. We're giving guns all this responsibility, and it's not the gun itself at all. It's the person. It's the violence. It's the gang member. It's the mentally ill person. So I think that's going to be key in this conversation moving forward.

MARTIN: We'll get - Beth, stay on that for a second. What would make a difference for you? Is there anything you would like to see changed? Because, I mean, I'm just - even using Parkland as an example. I mean, because I don't know that - there's nobody who I could think of who thinks that what happened there was acceptable. The question is what should happen now? So what do you think should happen now?

ALCAZAR: One of the things that's always been important to me is educating children. I mean, it's not isolating them from these different aspects of firearm safety - what to do, what not to do. It's introducing them. So it's education, not isolation. I think we've lost that as a country. I think it was part of our heritage, part of our culture, and it's gone now. And I think that could potentially be life-saving if people really understood, whether they choose to have guns in their home or not. If they were at least exposed to, you know, what they need to do if they find one, I think we would have a better situation across the board.

MARTIN: Charles Cobb, what about you?

COBB: I think...

MARTIN: What do you think should happen now?

COBB: I think there should - I think the idea of reasonable gun controls should be disconnected from the idea that the Second Amendment is under assault. I think it's possible to have a discussion about reasonable gun control. I mean - and the idea that the Second Amendment is under assault is a relatively new idea. It really doesn't appear in the political rhetoric of this country until the 1970s.

And we don't have time to go into the reasons why for that. I think - I want to say very quickly that this country is unique in the way guns and gun violence has been romanticized. And I don't have real good ideas about how you beat back such a culture. But there's no other country in the world that romanticizes guns and gun violence the way this country has done.

MARTIN: Joe, can I ask you if you still own a gun?


MARTIN: You do?

PLENZLER: Several.


PLENZLER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So Joe, you still own a gun.


MARTIN: OK. Final thought - you have about 30 seconds. What do you think should happen now?

PLENZLER: Yeah. I'd like to have a discussion about universal background checks for every sale or transfer of firearms in the United States. I'd like to see increased red flag laws with people who have mental illnesses where their families can go to a - you know, the police and the federal magistrates to have their gun ownership temporarily suspended. And I would like to see a national discussion on why we have weapons of war - I mean, AR-15s, which is the same thing as an M-16 - on the streets of America.

MARTIN: That is former Marine Corps - that's Marine Corps veteran and former NRA member Joe Plenzler. He was here with me in Washington, D.C. Beth Alcazar is a competitive shooter and lifetime NRA member with us via Skype. And Charles E. Cobb Jr. is the author of "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible." Thank you all so much for having a civil conversation, which we don't always have around this topic.

PLENZLER: So refreshing.

MARTIN: I really appreciate it.

ALCAZAR: Thank you.

COBB: Thank you, Michel.


(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "BARALKU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.