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New Orleans on Sept. 14, 2005, two weeks after the levees failed.

Commentary

The NRA Twisted a Tiny Part of the Katrina Disaster to Fit Its Bigger Agenda

Only a small percentage of New Orleans's guns were collected by authorities, but that hasn't stopped the group's mythmakers.

Officials in New Orleans and Washington might not have been adequately prepared for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but the National Rifle Association sure was. As government responders floundered for weeks — treating horrified American spectators to images of homeowners stranded above flood waters on roofs, disorder inside the Superdome, and martial law on the streets — the gun lobby group had dispatched its camera crews to the Big Easy to document what it considered the greatest of all these horrors: The disarmament of the citizenry of New Orleans.

In the 10 years since, as the rest of the country has wrestled with the causes and consequences of a historic natural and man-worsened disaster, a segment of the gun-rights world has nurtured its own narrative of the storm and its portents of future widespread weapons confiscation. “[T]he measures taken to disarm law-abiding firearm owners in Katrina’s wake should serve as a testament to why gun owners guard our right to bear arms so vigilantly,” the NRA wrote in a post last week for the conservative Daily Caller, commemorating the storm’s 10-year anniversary.

This much is true: Among the flailing, ineffective, often extrajudicial responses New Orleans authorities mounted after Katrina’s landfall, one was to attempt to keep guns, legal or otherwise, off the streets. It started as disorder spread two days after the hurricane slammed Louisiana, when an AP reporter witnessed police asking fleeing residents “to give up any guns they had before they boarded buses and trucks because police desperately needed the firepower.” A week later, New Orleans police superintendent Edwin P. Compass III earned infamy with a widely publicized call for blanket confiscation. “Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons,” he decreed, a policy formed and carried out incompetently, with little regard for legal implications in the storm-blown leadership vacuum.

It was also a policy that led years later to apologies, reforms, and payouts. And it was not nearly as cut-and-dried or widespread as gun lobbyists and conspiracy aficionados claim. Their narrative distorts what the storm revealed about government power and embraces a kind of paranoia that places gun owners always at the center of attention. The result is an imaginative, self-centered rumor mill of misremembered Katrina history and nonsensical dystopian futures.

The Battle to Describe the Battle of New Orleans

Brannon LeBouef, a shooting instructor and security consultant, was a New Orleans Marine veteran and reserve police officer who participated in the storm response. By 2013, he’d heard so many fantastical Katrina rumors that it was time to set the record straight. “There was NOT widespread gun confiscation in New Orleans,” he wrote on the Bang Switch, a pro-gun blog sympathetic to the Oath Keepers (current and former military and law enforcement officers who vow to disobey government orders that violate civil rights) and the NRA. Gun-grabbing “was nowhere near as widespread as some would have you believe,” and the confiscations LeBoeuf could confirm “were isolated incidents” done largely by “out of town” cops and soldiers, part of an alphabet soup of agencies without clear missions or lines of responsibility:

I know I encountered countless people with firearms and did not confiscate a single one, neither did any officer I knew or worked with. The only time firearms were seized were when someone was arrested for a crime — no different than before the rain.

In fact, LeBouef wrote, he and 200 other federal officers from an array of agencies were given clear briefing instructions that included an order not to take firearms except as criminal evidence or as part of arrest procedures.

LeBouef’s recollections track with New Orleans police records. Shortly after the storm, the NRA and other gun groups sued the city police department, eventually reaching a court-brokered settlement that required the police to return confiscated guns to their rightful owners. The department revealed it had taken 552 guns into custody. Gordon Hutchinson, part of the legal team that tried to inventory the confiscated weapons, estimated that police had collected several thousand more guns before a federal court halted the seizures on September 23. But whether by theft or incompetence, most weapons — the more desirable and valuable ones — had never made it into the department’s coffers; the 552 that remained to be claimed by their owners were mostly inoperable junk guns. Either way, in a city of nearly half a million, where gun possession had always been popular (and exploded after the storm), that doesn’t amount to a totalitarian power grab.

Of course, as LeBouef writes, “one illegal gun confiscation is one too many.” But, he adds, it’s vital to “look at what really happened and attempt to view the incidents in context.” The context suggests that Katrina was an outlier in myriad ways. Hutchinson has gathered scads of stories from gun owners alleging that even before Katrina, they had had their legal guns taken, usually without receipts or records, by New Orleans police in routine stops — a practice one attorney called “armed robbery by cop.”

It was part of a pattern of corruption and violation of civil rights by police that the U.S. Justice Department cited in a blistering 2011 report on breakdowns that led to law enforcement’s uneven response during Katrina. “For too long, the [New Orleans police] department has been largely indifferent to widespread violations of law and policy by its officers,” that report concluded. For all the excesses attributed to law enforcement in recent years, few agencies could have been as blasé about violating citizens’ Second, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights as New Orleans was before and during the floods.

Ad hoc gun seizures are also unlikely to happen there, or anywhere else, again. On the heels of that DOJ investigation, the city’s police department made sweeping reforms. President Bush signed bipartisan legislation “to prohibit the confiscation of a firearm during an emergency or major disaster,” except temporarily “as a condition for entry into any mode of transportation used for rescue or evacuation.” And Compass, the NOPD superintendent who’d ordered the gun confiscation, is long gone. He resigned less than three weeks after issuing his fateful order.

The looming threat of bigger gun-grabs relies on the existence of supremely competent, and supremely malign, government forces working in perfect lockstep. They simply do not exist, and Katrina is the surest proof.

Beyond the unique incompetence and malice of local authorities, the NRA’s narrative on Katrina also elides the new and unusual public-policy dilemmas that the storm posed to authorities. In one sense, the gun controversies were a product of another ill-advised decision: the call to evacuate New Orleans entirely and by force. In most parts of the country, possession of a gun in the home without any registration is legal and uncontroversial, but the carry of those same weapons in public places is subject to some restrictions. Louisiana permits only properly licensed gun owners to carry concealed handguns outside of their houses. So when an unlicensed gun owner is forced out of his home, should he tuck his weapons in his bag or into his waistband, or leave them behind where they might be swept away by flood waters or stolen? The question becomes even muddier when evacuees are sent to public shelters, where it’s legal — and understandable — for authorities to bar individuals from carrying firearms.

In response to these issues, the NRA has pushed legislation in some states, like hurricane-wary Florida, to temporarily waive carry restrictions during mandatory evacuations. This helps gun owners from running afoul of carry laws, but it can also complicate law enforcement’s job in differentiating those owners from armed criminals taking advantage of the emergency. The inherent tensions between individual rights and public safety are heightened in unusual crisis situations, but at least the ambiguities are now being debated and legislated; before Katrina, few thought to even have these discussions.

The Waters Recede, and the Sky Is Falling

None of this is to say another mass civil breakdown couldn’t expose a similar state of disorder, corruption, and incompetence as we saw in New Orleans a decade ago. But it’s highly unlikely — almost as unlikely as the possibility of a mass gun-grab. That’s because most of the scenarios dreamed up by confiscation-fearing gun advocates in the years since rely on a vision of supreme government power that’s completely contrary to what happened during Katrina. At critical points during the storm, there was no functioning state, no coordination of efforts — much less a grand plan. But the looming threat of bigger gun-grabs relies on the existence of supremely competent, and supremely malign, government forces working in perfect lockstep. They simply do not exist, and Katrina is the surest proof.

But to the people peddling confiscation fears, totalitarian-minded Washington is really good at pretending to be incompetent. As Sandy bore down on the Northeast in 2012, David Liberman warned at The Truth About Guns:

Considering the population density in Sandy’s path, gun confiscation is sure to be proposed in at least some of the areas depending on the level of damage. The public-facing mouth of authority will again call for a firearms grab in an effort to reduce violence and civil disobedience.

Cam Edwards, an NRA News host, went on Glenn Beck’s television show to make a similar case as the storm barreled for land. Further out on the fringe, some went as far as to claim that Sandy was created by a military-run ionospheric soundwave disruptor expressly to trigger martial law. The only bizarro world turned out to be the one in Liberman’s and Edwards’s minds: There was no “gun grab” in the wake of Sandy — though one man in Queens was arrested for waving a gun to cut a line at a crowded gas station, and NRA frontman Wayne LaPierre did claim (falsely) that New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg refused National Guard aid “because Guardsmen carry guns!” LaPierre also wrote a long Daily Caller piece claiming that looting and violence were rampant in relatively gun-free Brooklyn after Sandy blew through. But as New York magazine noted, “most of the looting cases were thrown out and, for a few days, not a single person was murdered.”

The total wrongness of Sandy predictions, and the inaptness of Katrina comparisons, has not deterred a subsequent host of more byzantine conspiracy theories. There was the recent furor over Jade Helm, an annual U.S. military exercise held across the American South and West, which this year struck special terror in conspiracy theorists’ hearts when rumors abounded that President Obama would use it as an excuse to invade and occupy Texas. (At one point, an estimated 45 percent of Americans expressed concern that it might be a pretext for totalitarian occupation and gun-grabbing.) There is the perennial rumor that President Obama is planning to engineer an epic natural disaster in order to declare martial law and place freedom-loving resisters in FEMA-run concentration camps … or FEMA-owned coffins.

All of these bizarre, empirically falsifiable theories end up justified in much the same way. When the conspiracy site Intellihub asked “Is Texas being attacked with weather manipulation technology in advance of Jade Helm?” this summer, it quoted a theorist whose elaborate conjectures tottered on this sliver of reality: “Remember what happened to New Orleans residents after Katrina: Gun confiscation there is a proven fact.”

That echoes a message LaPierre first advanced while the cleanup was fresh in New Orleans. In 2005, LaPierre told NPR:

“I mean, the truth is never again can some politician look you in the eye and say with a straight face, `You don’t need a firearm because the government is going to be there to protect you,’ All you have to say is, `Remember New Orleans.’ You know, is the Second Amendment really relevant in the 21st century? ‘Remember New Orleans!’

In 2015, the message is unchanged. As Americans gather to remember the tragedies of a decade ago — the lives and liberties lost, the refugees created, the great city still seeking a way out of storm-worsened poverty and corruption, the need to prevent similar dysfunction in the future — the NRA’s ceaseless Katrina-related self-absorption is out of step with reality.

Never mind that New Orleans was a terrible one-off, a cautionary tale that led to reforms on every level. Never mind that even witnesses sympathetic to the NRA say gun confiscation in New Orleans was overblown. Never mind that time and again since Katrina, the NRA has been exposed as crying wolf. Digesting facts is less important to LaPierre than instilling fear — of the government, of lawlessness, of chaos and evil that are always out to get the defenseless gun owner. When it comes to bogeymen, the NRA conjures multitudes. Last week, it was the UN; this week, it is the weather. Again.

[Photo: Flickr user Kelly Garbato,  Bob McMillan/FEMA Photo]