The National Rifle Association has gone dark since Sandy Hook.
This is not the usual refusal to comment out of respect. Nothing has been posted to their website since the killings last Friday morning in Newtown, Conn. Their last daily video news feed went up the day before. Their Facebook page has been deactivated. Their last Twitter posting ("10 Days of NRA Giveaways Enter today for a chance to win an auto emergency tool!") must have come early on Friday.
There has been nothing since, but they plan to hold a news conference on Friday.
It is being speculated that the NRA is particularly concerned about the fallout this time around and is biding its time. This may be true, but I think there is a second reason that lies closer to home.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry's trade and lobbying organization, has gone dark as well. The foundation's headquarters is also in Newtown; Google Maps places it just 3.2 miles and a seven-minute drive from Sandy Hook Elementary School. I once traveled there to interview the foundation's president. The small town about 28,000 people in 2011 was wooded and cozy, seemingly worlds away from the threat of violence. The headquarters of the foundation, at the time, felt as much like a lodge as an office building.
Just based on proximity, it's beyond likely that children or grandchildren of foundation employees, let alone those of their family and friends, were at Sandy Hook last Friday morning. The National Shooting Sports Foundation has had nothing to say to the public about the murders. But they did comment in their weekly newsletter for members and the industry, "Bullet Points," which was posted Monday. Under the heading "Sorrow in Newtown," they wrote that "there are not many degrees of separation in small communities like Newtown, and so, not surprisingly, we had family, friends and acquaintances that were affected. We are weighed down by their heartbreaking stories."
Firearm makers have been in Connecticut for well over 250 years. Back when manufacturing was water-powered, the Connecticut River was that water, and there were manufacturers from New Haven (Marlin, Winchester) up to Hartford (Colt) and on to Springfield, Massachusetts (Smith & Wesson). The whole region was known, with pride, as "Gun Valley." Modern industry generally, not just the firearm industry, was born there. Eli Whitney was a New Haven man; his interchangeable parts were musket parts.
Newer companies didn't need the river but needed the resident expertise. Sturm Ruger set up shop in Southport, 26 miles from Newtown, in the 1940s. Twenty-odd years ago, you could get Bill Ruger's home address from Who's Who in America, his home number from the phone book. Worlds away, indeed.
Today the industry has diversified, geographically and in other ways, but Connecticut remains its historical home, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation represents its interests. To do that job, the foundation must be in frequent contact with executives and management throughout the industry and, no doubt, with the leadership of the NRA.
What does it mean if most or all of the decision-makers in the firearm industry are just a few degrees of separation away from a child or an educator who was murdered at Sandy Hook?
It reminds us of the terrible reach of firearm violence, which destroys many more lives than it takes. It may help explain the industry's uncharacteristic silence. But perhaps it also presents an opportunity. We are united in grief this week. Perhaps we can also find some common ground as we seek to memorialize this awful tragedy and create a legacy worthy of the people whose lives have been lost.
Several potential policy reforms, such as requiring background checks for all firearm purchases and broadening the criteria for denial of firearm purchase, have already been implemented at the state level, including in California. They have been shown to be effective and are supported by a majority of firearm owners, let alone the general public.
After 30 years of working on this issue and watching the national debate grow ever more polarized, I know that the traditional positions are far apart and well defended. Some would have them remain that way. But we Americans do our best work together. Perhaps now is the time to reach out directly to those we might otherwise see as opponents and see what, in this sad time, our work together might be.