The National Rifle Association: Today it is one of the most powerful and influential entities in Washington, D.C. Its CEO and Executive Vice President, Wayne LaPierre, has become the poster child and figurehead of the pro-gun movement in the post- Sandy Hook era. As a gun owner and proud supporter of the second amendment, I will freely tell you that Wayne LaPierre and the NRA do not speak for me.

As a Newtown resident, I find it difficult to express the emotions brought up by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My initial reaction, after one of horror, was the same as my neighbors’: How could this happen here? How? Like most of my fellow citizens, I never expected a tragedy like this to arise in our generally calm and quiet community. It was only after the final report was delivered that I fully understood what caused this nightmare: abuse and disregard for the privilege (yes, privilege) granted to us by the Constitution of the United States.

This is my experience with firearms: I was born and raised in a military family. I have veterans in my family who served in WWII through Vietnam. My father is a former Glenville, CT, police officer. You could say I was brought up around firearms. But my father knew better than to teach me how to shoot all by himself. During my year as a member of the Civil Air Patrol, part of recruit training was learning how to shoot a .22 rifle. My group was instructed under the guidance of the NRA. Our instructor was very professional and put great emphasis on safety. He thoroughly discussed the many potential hazards and was quick to point out and correct any safety violations the recruits made during instruction. This instilled in all of us the tremendous responsibility that comes with owning and operating a firearm. Tragically, this is something that many seem to have forgotten in recent years.

I had a tremendous sense of trust in the NRA after my initial experience of firing a rifle. They seemed to represent safety and responsibility for all gun owners and the continued support of the second amendment. But I was young and ignorant. Little did I know what was really happening behind closed doors. I had no idea of the values that Mr. LaPierre stood for. I had no idea of what his response to the tragedy in Sandy Hook would be. Most significantly of all, I had no idea what this “man” was doing to the image of responsible, law abiding gun owners in America.

Mr. LaPierre’s catch phrase, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with gun,” has become the slogan and battle cry for pro-gun extremists who have arisen in recent years. To me, that statement is a delusional fantasy that harkens back to the days of the Old West: a time when shootouts and execution by firing squad were  daily occurrences and firearms were subject to as much regulation as was prostitution. Of course, poor documentation means we can only guess at the number of people who fell victim to gun violence in those times. But today, such occurrences are far too ubiquitous and the death tolls horrendously gut wrenching.

The NRA we know today no longer stands for safety and personal responsibility, as I once thought it did. No, far from it. The NRA is a greedy corporation that feeds off paranoia of imagined mass genocide by the hands of our own government. If any of these extremists did their research or read the constitution, they would quickly learn that if the government wanted their guns, they could have and would have done so a long time ago. It is a simple matter of fact. CEO LaPierre’s average income totals $970,000 a year. This figure is a direct result of lobbying for gun and ammunition manufacturers that continue to produce increasing numbers of ever more effective war machines over conventional firearms.

It is sad enough to know that a once tried and trusted organization has been a corrupt entity that continues to strangle those who oppose its agenda. What saddens me the most, though, is how this organization has changed the American citizens’ view of the average gun owner and the dwindling number of moderates who speak out for them. Just recently I was scrolling through the comments on a recent article about the new CT gun legislation. One gentleman made this comment: “People who own guns put us all in danger. We need to do everything we can to prevent them from hurting us and themselves.” While I certainly believe we should be taking steps to prevent firearms from falling into the wrong hands, it discourages me that some people have come to view all gun owners as the same lunatics who run the NRA.

If only these people knew that in a recent poll, 85 percent of gun owners favored making gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks and that 60 percent also favored the creation of a federal government database to track all gun sales. Incredibly, these statistics also apply to a significant percentage of gun owners with NRA memberships. I only wish people like the gentleman I quoted above would come to realize there are sensible people out there who both fight for the same cause and belong to the NRA.

From what I’ve told you, you may have the impression that the NRA has become as socially and morally backward as those who fly a Confederate flag with the “Don’t Tread on Me.” rattlesnake superimposed on it. But I see that as defeatist. I believe that the NRA can redeem itself and once again become the proud organization that it was. Mr. LaPierre must come to terms with the inconvenient truth: Gun violence cannot and will not be solved with more guns. However, it can be solved if the NRA is willing to work together with all communities affected by gun violence and to fight for the cause set forth by the Newtown Action Alliance. Divided there is little we can do. But standing united, there is no limit to what we can accomplish. I hope to one day be able to tell people: “I am a member of the NRA and proud of it!”

Cole Ricciardi – Newtown CT