Cope native Aaron Davis is seeking to help heal what he considers "America’s gun wounds," an intricately complex process the former National Rifle Association employee said is worthwhile.
Davis’ role at the NRA included leading the NRA’s Ring of Freedom donor recognition society and NRA’s fundraising for the Midwest region, but it was through his small town USA roots that he was first introduced to guns.
‘I shot almost every different type of gun’
His mother, Gwynette Pigott LaTerra, still lives in Cope. Davis’ father, who was an NRA member, is deceased.
“My family were hunters, especially the men. The older men that would have been a generation above me were hunters. Most of it revolved around hunting, not competitive shooting or AR-15s and stuff like that. I think it was just a very typical Cope, South Carolina, sort of hunting family,” Davis said.
The 39-year-old, who is mulling writing a memoir, said his stint at the NRA from 2005 to 2015 began with a temporary job after he left the education field.
“I went to school at Clemson and got a secondary education degree. Then I went to the University of South Carolina and got a master’s in special education. I worked in Swansea for a couple of years as a special education teacher. Then I lost that job and moved to Washington, D.C., where a friend had a place for me to live, and I got a temporary job at National Rifle Association, which I knew a lot about just from my upbringing,” Davis said.
“I knew what NRA was. My dad was an NRA member, and we had an NRA sticker on the truck. So I fit in pretty well at the National Rifle Association. ... The NRA building was one of the larger buildings I’ve even ever been in. Just being from Orangeburg, maybe the Orangeburg regional hospital was bigger.
“I left education, worked at the NRA and rose up through the ranks. Part of that was writing fundraising letters and making sure that the people who gave large gifts to the NRA were appropriately thanked. I probably got about five promotions in my 10 years there,” he said.
Davis added, “One of the two last jobs I got was called the Ring of Freedom manager, and the last one was called advancement officer, which means that I was responsible for major gifts fundraising in the Midwest.”
Davis spent a lot of time with NRA leadership and large donors to the nonprofit organization.
“That also gave me a chance to get involved in all of NRA’s culture. I shot almost every different type of gun you can imagine, whether with donors or other NRA staff. I could write really well as far as the whole NRA mission and what we were trying to do. So I learned to write while I was at NRA, and I got to see a lot of the country. I’d say I spent time in every region of the country with NRA donors, including Alaska,” he said.
“I would say there were not a lot of major donors in all of South Carolina and none that I was aware of in Orangeburg to the organization,” Davis said, noting that Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, California and New York were the states from where the largest donors to the NRA came.
It was exciting traveling around the country and there was a high demand on being a “top notch professional,” he said.
“So you go out and ask people for money, but you also have to be very professional on the other end to make sure that the NRA doesn’t get in trouble. And I think that would make it different than fundraising for other places because anything you said, any word you used, you had to be careful, which was, in a lot of ways, a great opportunity for me to get lessons in how the business world kind of worked,” Davis said.
Davis, who now lives in California with his wife, said the NRA has become a “polarizing organization” with which he soon became disenchanted.
“Ever since the late 1970’s, the NRA has become an increasingly leaning conservative organization. They decided in 1977 that they were going to become a political lobbying organization rather than an organization that was just focused on marksmanship, which is their original mission, along with gun safety, training and youth programs. They were going to keep those programs, but the main focus for NRA was going to change to fight battles in Congress,” Davis said.
He added, “You had a split in 1977 in Cincinnati, where a lot of the NRA board members were forced out and there was kind of a new guard that came in and put a lot more effort into lobbying, into pressuring Congress. So in the early ‘90s, Wayne LaPierre became the CEO of NRA. He has been the head of the lobbying arm of NRA and when he became head of the organization, he used the idea of free speech so that every association or organization has the legal power to say what it wants to say.”
The messaging of the organization began to take a turn that he did not necessarily agree with, Davis said.
“So (LaPierre) really perfected the messaging of NRA being one that’s based on fear of gun confiscation, gun registration and even more than that, on taking away the way of life that millions of Americans had known forever, meaning there’s always a threat they’re going to take away your guns, but not only that, they’re going to take away your culture.
“So the words he used are very incendiary. They’re apocalyptic in tone, dark, and he uses that fear-based messaging to raise money to do the work that he does on Capitol Hill,” he said.
‘A sickness of the heart’
The 2012 shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 20 children among the dead, was sort of a breaking point for Davis.
“Especially after the Sandy Hook school shooting, my journey was seeing that the organization itself had what I called a sickness of the heart because it didn’t show empathy. It didn’t take into account social problems, and it separated people into good guys and bad guys. The problem with that is that it, in my opinion, causes the people who call themselves good guys to separate themselves from all the problems of society, to not care about issues like poverty,” he said.
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Davis said he doesn’t become embroiled in the intricacies of gun policy or the NRA’s latest challenges which include accusations of lavish spending and the firing of its longtime advertising firm.
“I don’t personally get into gun policy or which guns we should have and which ones we shouldn’t. My message is NRA has a lack of empathy and that their fear-mongering creates division.
“I think that America and the Second Amendment and guns have always been about rights and regulations. I think that’s what the Second Amendment says. There’s no perfect balance between rights and regulations, but what I think the NRA has done is unknowingly create or been part of a culture that makes guns the solution to complex problems,” he said.
Davis continued, “In society, we’re now seeing that people are using guns and there’s 37,000 people a year now dying by guns because people are looking -- whether it’s inner city violence, suicide or domestic violence -- to the gun increasingly as the solution to their problems. And I think NRA has been part of that messaging, that guns are the most important right that we have. So they’ve created this culture where people find guns to be very kind of self-centered, individualistic.”
The 39-year-old old said it matters to have a healthy relationship with guns, and not just see them as the end all-be all to the nation’s problems.
“I don’t know if we can heal America’s gun wounds by going back to the Second Amendment to look for ancient wisdom. I think we’re here now, and the Supreme Court said it’s an individual right. What kind of a relationship are we going to have with guns that creates less death, that so many people aren’t dying using guns the wrong way?
“We have to have a healthy relationship with guns, and they can’t just be the solution to all of our problems. I am one who believes that if you’re going to go be involved in American communities, you have to come closer to people, not separate further away from them,” he said.
Davis believes there should be greater concern for societal issues such as mental health.
“Having been in special education, I thought any time the NRA talked about mental health, it was just lip service. They never actually wanted to figure out what to do with people who had mental illness,” Davis said.
‘I just want people to see the truth’
Davis said he looks back at his own background with guns to see how things have changed.
“When I look at my family and my friends who are in rural South Carolina, I don’t know people personally who are huge NRA members. My dad was, but I just feel like they’re getting the wool pulled over their eyes for how to be a contributing citizen for communities.
“I just want people to see the truth because I lived in that place. I lived with it and I worked for NRA, and what I saw in the NRA is not what people from my background think NRA is. I’m not against gun ownership. I just think that when organizations manipulate people by their language that they use, their power and what I would call propaganda, people need to know the truth,” he said.
“Ultimately I wish that people and communities would be more unified, and I think NRA stands between that happening.”
Davis attended Edisto High School and will be working on a podcast with his former classmate, Liz Merchant Hiller.
“She and I are working on a podcast that tells the story of growing up around guns. It’s about me and where I come from, and her being a woman who has gone through and seen kind of male-centered gun culture growing up. We’re going to do a short podcast that tells stories about Cope and the experiences we had,” he said.
His feelings about the NRA do not call for the eradication of the powerful gun lobby group.
“I’m not a person to say, ‘Look, let’s get rid of the NRA completely,’ because I think they’re exercising their freedom of speech. ...
“I think they should at least be putting effort towards thinking, ‘How can we have less gun death?’ rather than just saying, ‘Don’t take our guns.’ I think there’s a moral responsibility for all of us to see less death,” Davis said.
He added, “I think right now there’s not enough balance in that way that guns are portrayed. It’s more the extreme, and where I come from, I don’t think that’s the way guns are necessarily seen, but I think increasingly so because the messaging of the NRA has been so strong.”
Davis said his future includes being a voice for the voiceless.
“I want to be a prophetic voice that speaks truth to power, that helps bring more compassion in the world and that speaks for the underdog, the poor, the people that don’t have it all, the people with mental disabilities, just a more equitable society in a lot of ways for all people.
“Guns play a part in a lot of America’s wounds. I’m not saying gun wounds are our only problem, I just think that’s where I’m at. That’s what I’m speaking on right now,” he said.
He plans to come home for Thanksgiving and said he will never forget his roots.
“There is a sense of goodness in not always fighting for more and more money. There’s a sense of goodness in being around family, having community things like church rather than the places I’ve lived, where it’s the constant rat race and people just aren’t happy.
“There’s goodness in the Southern culture. That is not something I always believed when I’m running around the country, but it’s something I’ve come to appreciate,” he said.