The National Rifle Association has been holding its annual meeting in Pittsburgh for the past few days, heralded with billboards promising "acres of guns and gear."
Here's a billboard you didn't see, but would have if the group was honest about its mission to paint even the most sensible gun laws as a step toward tyranny: "The NRA: Because if Richard Poplawski can't have an arsenal, neither can you."
Mr. Poplawski, of course, was one of those "law-abiding" citizens whose right to bear arms the NRA claims to be protecting. Unfortunately, he ceased to be law abiding on April 4, 2009, the date on which he's accused of gunning down three Pittsburgh police officers in Stanton Heights after they answered his mother's call about a dispute she was having with him.
Mr. Poplawski, then 22, didn't have one gun that day. He had several, including an AK-47 assault-style rifle and enough ammunition to hold off police for four hours, putting at risk the other officers who tried to save their fallen comrades, not to mention the entire neighborhood. Soon he'll be standing trial for killing officers Eric Kelly, 41, Stephen Mayhle, 29, and Paul Sciullo III, 37. The prosecution is seeking the death penalty.
It appears that Mr. Poplawski got his weapons legally. Somehow I doubt that's any comfort to the widows and children of these three officers, since their loved ones would be just as dead either way.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Poplawski turned out to have a troubled past -- kicked out of the military for assaulting an officer, attacking his girlfriend, prowling white supremacist and anti-Semitic websites, nursing a growing paranoia that President Obama was going to take away his weapons. That's a delusion if ever there were one, what with the gun lobby's stranglehold on statehouses, Congress and the Supreme Court. But it's one that the NRA finds useful in its fundraising efforts, as do conservatives looking to fire up their base.
Apparently, none of these problems created the kind of criminal record that would have barred Mr. Poplawski from legally purchasing firearms. But even if he had such a record, he easily could have vaulted that barrier because of the loophole that exempts gun show dealers from doing background checks -- and 40 percent of the gun sales in this country are conducted at gun shows.
Then again, why bother with a gun show? This country is awash in weapons, drowning in them. High school kids can get hold of them, so why not a disturbed guy who thinks everyone's against him and wants to make them pay?
Using Mr. Poplawski as a poster boy for gun rights might not go over well in these parts, so of course the NRA did not mention him in its sales pitch for the firearms industry. But when you get beyond its jingoistic "celebration of American values," that's what the NRA is really saying -- that noncriminals should have access to as much firepower as they want, even if it leaves local law enforcement agencies completely outgunned, and if some of those folks wind up using their weapons for murder and mayhem or taking out innocent victims, well, that's not the fault of the guns, and unfortunate tragedies are the price we pay for a free society.
In fairness, similar arguments are made in defense of free expression. The American Civil Liberties Union protects even the vilest hate speech because nobody wants the government deciding which ideas are permissible and which are not. If it can ban "Mein Kampf" or silence Glenn Beck, it can ban Alan Dershowitz's books and muzzle Rachel Maddow.
Far better to let people decide for themselves what they want to hear and believe. We can only hope consumers will weed out the crackpots, but often they don't and we just have to suffer through. When the president of the United States is reduced to releasing his birth certificate because so many racists and wing nuts insist he was born in the alternative universe they themselves inhabit, well, that's one of the consequences of free speech.
But free speech is not absolute. You can't yell fire in a crowded theater unless there really is a fire because people could get hurt in the stampede.
There's also the argument that guns are lethal, whereas speech is not. Not directly, anyway. True, preachers of hate and paranoia can rile up their followers to a dangerous state. But inciting to riot is against the law -- another limit on free expression -- whereas stockpiling weapons in preparation for Judgment Day is perfectly legal for those with criminal records in their future, but not their past.
Absent a crystal ball, how are we to know who is likely to cross that line, or when? You can't ban all guns because some might lead to mass murder, any more than you can ban all speech because some might lead to Donald Trump. But we could ban the most dangerous weapons, just as we do inciting to riot, if only to cut down on the number of bodies. And we could certainly close the gun show loophole.
Assault rifles exist for only one purpose, and it's not squirrel hunting. It's killing and maiming as many people as fast as possible. But thanks to the lobbying of the NRA, owning assault weapons is considered a constitutional right.
Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword never faced down a disturbed person with enough firepower to drop a rhino.
Once again, it bears pondering whether the founding fathers would have changed the wording of the Second Amendment if they'd foreseen the advent of semi-automatic weapons that could spray an entire crowd with bullets at one touch. I think they would have, but you can't go by me. I actually believe the president was born in Hawaii.
Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412 263-1610).