ITHACA, NEW YORK — Larry Pratt, founder of Gun Owners of America and a lobbyist that Rolling Stone describes as “the gun lobby’s secret weapon,” was met with protests Thursday when he spoke at Ithaca College against gun control and for unrestricted access to firearms. The event came just days after a mass shooting in Sutherland, Texas, in which a man shot and killed 26 people and injured about 20 more in a Baptist church.
Pratt’s speech was sponsored by the Ithaca College Republicans, Ithaca College Young Americans For Liberty (YAL), and The Leadership Institute — a conservative think tank.
A group of more than 50 students participated in a silent action before Pratt’s speech, holding up posters with the names of victims of gun violence throughout 2017. Once the event began, the majority of the student protesters held a teach-in on gun violence at a different location.
Ithaca College senior Natalie Shanklin, who helped organize the protest and the teach-in, said it was important to stand against Pratt’s extremist views.
“We couldn’t just let this guy come and talk just four days after a terrible mass shooting without demonstrating our opposition to his views and to his being brought here to campus,” she told ThinkProgress.
Senior Elizabeth Alexander, who participated in the student protest, said she is alarmed by the frequency of mass shootings. She felt the protest and the teach-in were effective ways to counter Pratt’s presence.
“Creating our own space and fostering more productive, positive energy [rather] than walking into a space that isn’t conducive to dialogue is a good move,” she said.
Many students chose to attend the alternative event because of Pratt’s radical views on guns. He has long been at the forefront of opposing efforts to regulate firearms and led Gun Owners of America to lobby against stronger gun control regulations. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Pratt as a right wing extremist and a “pivotal figure in the militia movement.”
Pratt has also made a number of conspiratorial statements. After the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, he argued that the attack may have been an inside job. He has also compared attempts to regulate guns to government policies in Nazi Germany, and once blamed the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on gun-free school zones and gun control advocates.
During the speech, Pratt opened with an argument — which members of the media were told not to record — in which he connected the importance of gun rights in the United States today to the use of firearms in the American Revolution to overthrow the British. He then transitioned to talking about firearms in modern times, and, at one point, argued that gun control laws are ineffective because places with stringent firearm regulations still experience a lot of gun violence.
“Where we have our strictest gun control in our country, and I think we can rightfully single out Chicago as probably being the most severe, those are the places where the crime is way out of control,” Pratt said.
Pointing to violence in Chicago is a common argument against gun regulation made by opponents of gun control. However, what Pratt and others fail to mention is that one reason gun control laws in Chicago aren’t stopping gun violence is that the neighboring states of Indiana and Wisconsin have weak gun control laws, allowing firearms to be smuggled into the city from those states.
One audience member pointed out that the United States has a gun homicide rate that is 20 times higher than any developed nation (a 2011 study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the UCLA School of Public Health found that U.S. gun homicide rates are 19.5 times higher than high-income countries). When pressed on his response to this point, Pratt called the statistic “simply not true.”
Pratt also brought up a favorite talking point of the gun lobby: The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Pratt was referring to news reports that the gunman in the recent Texas mass shooting was shot by an NRA member. Pratt failed to mention that the shooter was still able to kill 26 people. In addition, data shows that guns are rarely used to stop violence.
Caleb Slater, an Ithaca College senior and the president of IC Republicans, praised Pratt as a valuable voice in the gun debate. However, Slater also rebuked Pratt over his conspiracy theories and controversial statements, asking whether Pratt believed he was contributing to polarization in the country. Pratt answered that the country has already become polarized and did not address Slater’s critique.
After the event, Slater defended his organization’s decision to invite someone to the college who has spread conspiracy theories.
“Part of our mission is to educate people on the various tenets that are within the Republican Party,” he said. “Very rarely do you get the opportunity to challenge someone who you have disagreements with within your movement.”
However, Ithaca College freshman Caroline Wolinsky said she was not impressed by the Pratt event.
“I thought [there] was a lot of fearmongering on the part of the speaker,” she said. “He was definitely really radical.”
Meanwhile, a group of about 50 students, faculty, staff, and Ithaca community members attended a teach-in on gun violence during the speech. Students and faculty attendees who chose to participate addressed myriad issues connected to guns, such as the underlying societal catalysts of America’s gun culture, the lobbying power of the NRA, and what concrete steps can be taken to address gun violence in the United States.
Junior Anna Gardner, who co-organized the teach-in said the group chose to hold the event as a response to Pratt partly because they did not believe that Pratt’s speech would facilitate meaningful and constructive dialogue.
“We did want to offer up a different space,” Gardner said. “It’s all of us together talking, that way it feels more like a collaborative space than having one person have all the power at the front of the room.”
Shanklin added that Pratt’s penchant for believing in certain conspiracy theories and spreading falsehoods about gun violence further drove the group away from attending his talk and toward hosting a teach-in instead.
“I think it’s a better use of our time to have an educated discussion about this issue and try to take attention away from him, take power away from him by having an alternative space and event,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated a student’s grade level. The student, Anna Gardner, is a junior.