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PBS' 'Frontline' Focuses Its Lens On the Gun Lobby in 'NRA Under Fire'
March 24, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments

Pandemics come and go — one hopes — but one issue that remains a constant, and will continue to be divisive in many states in November's elections, is guns and what, if anything, to do about them.
We're living in strange days. A viral photo making the rounds last weekend on social media showed a long, ragged line of people lining up outside a store in Los Angeles — not to buy toilet paper or face masks or even hand sanitizer, all likely to be out of stock anyway — but guns. 
The nation's curious fixation on guns is under the spotlight in Tuesday's Frontline program NRA Under Fire (PBS, 10 p.m. ET, check local listings), and the timing seems oddly apt. People who show early signs of having coronavirus are being asked to stay home and "self-isolate," out of harm's way — to themselves and others. Perhaps stocking up on guns is one person's way of looking after their own.
However one cares to look at it, the image of people lining up around the block to buy guns in the middle of a pandemic shows the continuing influence of the NRA and why, despite more vocal support for some kind of gun registration, especially in crowded, densely packed urban areas, the gun lobby wields such outsized influence.
Frontline producer Gabrielle Schonder, working for the Kirk Documentary Group, makers of the recent Frontline program America's Great Divide: From Obama to Trump, has a tough case to prove in NRA Under Fire. That case is that the NRA, an organization of once unrivaled political power, is facing challenges from all sides, and the cracks are beginning to show.
That line of people lining up last weekend outside a store in Los Angeles to buy guns in the middle of a pandemic may say otherwise, but it may well be that the school shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, little more than two years ago to the day, had more of an effect on the public conversation than many realized at the time. It may be that the names of student activists Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, teenage survivors from that day and passionate voices for gun legislation, will yet be written in history, in a good way — good, that is, to anyone who insists that some kind of gun control is needed, even if it's something as basic as universal background checks for anyone who wants to buy one. The NRA, naturally, is having none of that, and that's where the Frontline program picks up.
It's hard for anyone who wasn't there to truly imagine what happened during those six minutes, but Frontlineplaces the viewer in those hallways in the program's opening seconds, with shaky handheld cellphone footage of crowded, panic-stricken school hallways and stairwells, with voiceovers from young survivors today, still shaken by what they witnessed and experienced during those six minutes, all this time later. Banging on doors — is it the gunman or rescuers? — kids lying down on their classroom floors, both terrified and wondering what's going on. Fifteen students died that day in Broward County, South Florida — the 115th school shooting in the continental US, and Frontline does a terrifying and effective job in pulling the viewer in from the outset.
Yes, it sounds like a manipulative way to open a program that's meant to be a dissection of the NRA and where it stands today, and it is. But it's also poignant, and to the point: These weren't just students but kids, their entire futures in front of them, snuffed out in an instant.
This one was different. There's a palpable anger in NRA Under Fire's early minutes, the anger of young people who know they're on the right side of history and who, as New York Times congressional correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg says in the program's early minutes, "are everything the NRA is not."
This is not a new issue. Following a spate of high-profile political shootings and assassinations in 1968 — Martin Luther King in April, and Robert F. Kennedy in June — then-President Lyndon Johnson is shown arguing for "effective gun control."
For the NRA, Frontline notes, such talk was a call to arms. The lobby group told Johnson that he had more urgent issues facing the nation, and to leave well enough alone when it came to any talk of gun control. NRA Under Fire dives into more recent years in the gun debate, and how seemingly tough legislation passed under President Bill Clinton had unintended consequences, by galvanizing and consolidating NRA members irked by the "extreme radicalism of the anti-gun left-wingers" ("I call them regressives, not progressives," one former NRA executive says in the program).
The 1999 Columbine school shootings posed a direct threat to America's gun culture, but the effect proved short-lived. Sandy Hook, little more than 14 years later, proved much the same, despite the tender age of the child victims. "It doesn't have anything to do with guns," one gun advocate says in the program, "but freedom."
Parkland, though, might be the one that changes the debate.
As a news program, Frontline can sometimes seem dry and tilted, despite those naysayers on the right who dismiss it as a mouthpiece for the left. But what some viewers might perceive as slow and pedantic is research and background that provides a much-needed perspective on divisive issues. NRA Under Fire is about how the Parkland school shootings have changed the debate, possibly for good, but the long section at the beginning of the program, about the 1981 shooting of then-President Ronald Reagan and the origins of the Brady Bill; gun advocate and movie star Charlton Heston's public feud with gun-registration advocate Al Gore; and the 2000 election — with NRA backing — of George W. Bush lay the ground for where the debate is today.
For me, the 2012 school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut — six- and seven-year-olds — were as harrowing a news event I've ever had to witness from afar in a lifetime of covering news in my home town.
Then-President Barack Obama, visibly shaken, vowed to pick up where Bill Clinton left off and handed off the task to his vice president, Joe Biden.
And yet…nothing.
Enter Parkland. All of a sudden, the refrain, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," rings hollow.
To the NRA, the c-word — compromise — remains a non-starter, but the conversation has decidedly changed. The societal ripple effects of the Parkland school shootings anchor the final 15 minutes of NRA Under Fire. Watching school-age students demonstrate in the streets of Washington, DC, in vast numbers, it's hard not to draw a parallel between this new student-led movement and the massive climate protests led by Greta Thunberg and other teenagers.
Frontline still has a number of stylistic issues: the computer-generated, monotonous background music that never stops, for example. But as straight news and information programming, though, Frontline remains at the front of the line. NRA Under Fire takes on a contentious and divisive issue that isn't going away any time soon, but the tone of the conversation may have changed.
There's something happening here, and what it is is becoming increasingly clear.

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Jan 27, 2023   |  Reply
NYTimes just reporting that NRA Lobbyists are working on Senators to have Gun Sales included in list of "Essential Services" --
Mar 24, 2020   |  Reply
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