The controversy last week over discussion of gun violence at the annual Country Music Awards shows how dark and dangerous it can be for those who find themselves in the shadow of the NRA and the extremist-right media that abets it.
Like it or not, and often without having a choice in the matter, country performers have a relationship with the NRA. Many NRA members identify as country music fans, so performers risk losing popularity and sales if they cross the gun-rights organization. In addition, the NRA operates a “lifestyle” arm called NRA Country, which promotes country performers.
So when CMA co-host Brad Paisley and others criticized a directive by the event’s organizers to make guns an off-limits topic to reporters covering the awards, it was a commendable act. Just how commendable became clear later, as industry observers revealed the extent to which the threat of intimidation by the NRA and the extremist right has kept performers from discussing their views on gun control.
As Belmont University country music historian and professor Don Cusic told The Washington Post, “The NRA can make your life miserable. And they would.”
Welcome to another revolting and un-American aspect of the NRA and the extremist right. Their aggressive intimidation — their willingness to lash out and destroy careers of those who aren’t pure in adhering to their dogma and theirs alone — is stuff worthy of the Taliban.
Worse yet, gun-rights extremists apply the same bullying tactics to elected leaders at both the state and national levels. For those leaders, stepping out of line can lead to loss of funding, loss of votes and loss of office.
This goes well beyond guns, too. The extremist right takes a militant stance on any number of issues — destroying the Affordable Care Act instead of repairing it, eliminating environmental protections, cutting federal funding for Planned Parenthood and many more — and it attacks anyone of moderate sensibilities. It vilifies those wanting to talk with the other side about compromise.
These extremists are the reason Americans are stuck with a Congress that can’t govern and an unhinged, divisive president. And they will forgive any kind of behavior — Roy Moore, anyone? — if it advances their causes.
In grinding leaders under their boot-heels and silencing anyone over whom they have leverage, the extremists have made compromise and constructive discussion on gun violence impossible. And as result, regulations that a majority of Americans and even many NRA members support — a ban on high-capacity magazines, universal background checks on weapon purchases and a ban on bump stocks, the aftermarket accessories that allowed Stephen Paddock to fire his semiautomatic rifles like machine guns — go nowhere.
Meanwhile, the epidemic of mass shootings and daily gun violence grows more severe.
Keep in mind, too, that all of this is being driven by an organization with an estimated 5 million to 6 million members, which translates to about 2.5 percent of the adult population in the U.S. So an extreme minority group is driving reckless policies that are putting all Americans in extreme danger.
All of which is why the CMA performers who bucked the NRA and pressured the event organizers to lift their gag order on guns are worthy of a salute, as are other Americans who are engaging in good-faith discussion on gun violence.
The performers faced dire consequences in stepping up, so much so that there’s even a term in the industry for the risk involved in antagonizing the right — getting “Dixie Chick-ed.” That’s a reference to the group that faced institutional backlash, including radio stations banning their songs, after expressing opposition to the Iraq War and criticizing President George W. Bush in 2003. (It’s worth noting that a large portion of the country audience agreed with the group then, and that the right has since come to agree that the Iraq War was a mistake.) Here’s hoping the performers who spoke out last week keep focusing on the topic. Superstars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill took a praise-worthy step in that direction Friday when they issued a public demand for “common sense” gun control.
“Military weapons should not be in the hands of civilians,” Hill said. “It’s everyone’s responsibility, including the government and the National Rifle Association, to tell the truth. We all want a safe country.”
The influence of stars like Hill, McGraw and Paisley could go a long way in persuading more gun owners to see the value in regulations aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and reducing the amount of firepower available to civilian gun buyers.
Unfortunately, the CMA event itself did little to move the ball forward. Beyond a montage showing the victims of the Oct. 1 shooting, there was no discussion of gun issues.
But in refusing to be silent — and, at least so far, not appearing to suffer dire consequences for it — country’s stars offered hope that Americans can break the NRA’s grip on the gun safety issue.