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 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.
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."
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.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.