How the NRA Defeats National Tragedies

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 17 2012 4:07 PM

How the NRA Defeats National Tragedies

First it scares people into thinking the government is coming for their guns. Then it quietly asks the public to pray for the victims of the next rampage.

National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre
National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre addresses the NRA Leadership Forum on April 13, 2012, in St. Louis

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images.

You might think that “spokesman for the National Rifle Association” is the toughest job in PR. You might be wrong. At least once a year, and several times in bad years, reporters reach out to the NRA’s Andrew Arulanandam and ask him whether the gun lobby has anything to say about the latest massacre. Arulanandam says basically the same thing, every time.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

After the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech shootings that killed 32 people: “The NRA joins the entire country in expressing our deepest condolences to the families of Virginia Tech University and everyone else affected by this horrible tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families.”

After the Feb. 14, 2008, shootings at Northern Illinois University that killed six: “We think it is poor form for a politician or a special interest group to try to push a legislative agenda on the back of any tragedy. Now is the time for the Northern Illinois University community to grieve and to heal. We believe there is adequate time down the road to debate policy and politics."

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After the April 3, 2009, massacre at a Binghamton, N.Y., immigration center that killed 13: “Now is not the time to debate politics or discuss policy. It's time for the families and communities to grieve.”

After the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting spree that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six: “At this time, anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate.”

After the July 20, 2012, massacre at an Aurora, Colo., theater that left 12 dead and 58 wounded: “We believe that now is the time for families to grieve and for the community to heal. There will be an appropriate time down the road to engage in political and policy discussions.”

The “appropriate time” never arrives. It’s an ingenious communications strategy, one that removes the NRA from stories about the latest national outrages. When the outrage fades, the NRA returns in full flush. Just a week before the Newtown, Conn., shootings, Arulanandam told a reporter that the NRA was “planning for the worst” and had “told people to plan for gun bans and a Supreme Court stacked with anti-gun judges.”

This was more honest. The gun lobby hasn’t faced a serious legislative defeat since the 1994 passage of the Assault Weapons Ban. At the time, 62 percent of Americans were telling the Gallup Poll that they wanted stricter laws on firearm sales, and 57 percent favored the semi-automatic gun ban. In 2011, support for both of those concepts had fallen to 43 percent. (According to a new Washington Post poll, support for these proposals has grown, but they still haven’t reach 1990s levels.) The NRA hasn’t lost any kind of vote on gun legislation since 1999, in the months after Columbine, when a background check bill got 50 votes in the Senate. The five Republicans who voted “aye” are all gone, and Al Gore’s tiebreaking “aye” became a focus of the NRA’s campaign against him.

The gun lobby took two lessons from that vote. One: They couldn’t lose unless a mass killing started a backlash and months-long discussion of new gun laws. Two: Gun owners fear those backlashes and respond to them by buying more guns and demanding to be permitted to carry them in more places.

Those insights have resulted in more than a decade of untrammeled gun lobby influence, based on some misconceptions and fueled by all-American paranoia. The moment that gun enthusiasts become aware of a massacre, they make the leap: This is the way our firearms will be ripped from our warm, live hands. On Friday, it took only a few minutes for participants on the Indiana Gun Owners forums to speculate about a coming ban.

“Wasn't something like this the last straw in England that caused a near total ban of firearms?” asked a poster named Mosinguy.

“Twitter is blowing up with people bashing the NRA,” wrote Lammchop93. “#GunControlNow is also trending. This just makes me sick that people are blaming the guns.”

“Hold on tight brothers and sisters to your guns and your gods,” wrote hardwarhox. “We will need them to make it thru the year.”

Some gun owners skipped the sentiment and headed to the store. The pattern repeats after every massacre and after every election of a Democratic president—sales of firearms and ammunition surge before the liberals can supposedly engineer their inevitable bans. Anyone who’s been to a gun show since 2008 has seen the rising prices and the religious certitude that President Obama will make a run at the Second Amendment, just like Illinois state Sen. Obama did in the 1990s.

The irony of the Great Ammo Panic: Liberals have failed to restrict sales, even as the interstate and online purchase of ammo has become easier. One of the NRA’s greatest legislative successes, the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, let dealers sell ammo without recording vital information about the buyers. That law eventually facilitated the online ammo market, which allows sites like CheaperThanDirt to sell 30-round extended clips for $8.99.

That’s a huge market, one that might come under threat if momentum for new gun-control laws builds. That’s one reason why paranoia about massacres, and their possible legislative responses, has grown with every attack. Shortly after the Newtown story broke, the radio talker and Internet news pioneer Alex Jones warned listeners that it might have been a false flag attack to build anti-gun sentiment. “They could use a drill to bring in a patsy,” he said in a video that was linked to quickly by the Drudge Report.

It would have come off as pure fringe talk, but the NRA itself has started to endorse theories that would-be gun-grabbers are creating crises to bring the public around. That was an argument made by NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre again and again in 2011, as Congress investigated the botched “Fast and Furious” scheme that gave illegal guns to Mexican cartels on the hope that the cartels could be tracked. Had the scheme worked, according to LaPierre, “the attorney general and the secretary of state would all be running around going ‘90 percent of the guns come from America’ in an attempt to seek political advantage and in an attempt to enact more gun-control laws on honest American citizens and use this whole issue politically against the Second Amendment of the United States.”

LaPierre’s riff was derided by every liberal with a keyboard. It probably seemed necessary. There’s no easy way for the gun lobby to pre-empt the post-massacre backlash. In slow months, when the massacres have fallen out of the news, they typically roll out a spokesman—LaPierre in particular—to put the onus on the government gun-grabbers. At the 2011 Conservative Political Action conference, about a month after the Giffords shooting, LaPierre shifted the blame for gun crimes onto liberals who “exploited” them:

At Virginia Tech, at Northern Illinois University, at Fort Hood, at a high school, and at a grade school—these were the victims of five deranged killers. And those five mass killers all had the same decisive advantage: “Gun Free Zones” and anti-self-defense laws that protected the safety of no one except the killers and condemned the victims to death without so much as a prayer. Let me say that again. Our own policies gave more protection to the killers than to the innocent.

That was the time to talk about politics.

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