How the NRA got what it wanted

We mocked it. But it stood strong, shifted the guns debate and won itself a sweet deal. Now who’s laughing?

Published April 13, 2013 1:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)
(Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

It’s hard to remember now, but in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., this country seemed serious about gun safety reform. President Obama visited the community and tearfully invoked Scripture and vowed real action. Hunting enthusiast and senator Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) suggested he’d consider supporting an assault weapons ban. And National Rifle Association foe Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) called the organization “enablers of mass murderers” and vowed to wage war on it -- and few rushed to its defense.

Then, somehow, things seemed to get even worse for the NRA. After a full week of silence after the tragedy, it held a press conference in Washington, D.C., in which its leader, Wayne LaPierre, inspired laughter and ridicule by supporting zero reforms to guns, aside from a call for more of them (arm teachers!).

But for all the mockery LaPierre’s speech elicited (and maybe even deserved), history may well show it to be a canny political maneuver. By effectively shifting the conversation far to the right, he also shifted rightward what constituted a “compromise” in the gun discussion. And ultimately, against all odds, his organization would emerge with a deal it could more than live with -- in fact, one it had once publicly proposed, itself.

In other words, it is Wayne LaPierre who will get the last laugh.

The first thing to remember when it comes to the NRA and its goals is that -- despite its carefully cultivated image as a hobbyist group for hunters and sportsmen -- it’s far more like a trade or lobbying group for gun manufacturers. It’s the gun companies, after all, who largely fund the group. This is relevant because the imperatives of weapons producers are different from those of consumers. While polls show that gun owners -- and even members of the NRA – are willing to support certain restrictions on gun ownership, these are not the opinions that matter. If the manufacturers (i.e., the funders of the group) will stand to lose massive profits from a given initiative, logic dictates that averting said measure will be fought by the NRA with brute force.

This is why bans on merchandise like assault weapons and high-capacity magazines will always be opposed so intensely by the NRA (though, in fairness, there are many gun owners who share the group’s vim in opposing these measures). It's difficult to estimate just how much gun manufacturers stand to lose by having to stop manufacturing a chunk of their catalogue, but it’s self-evident to assume the number is not negligible.

By contrast, background checks (particularly the watered-down version now being debated) may be an inconvenience -- and cost companies some questionable customers who get barred from legally buying the weapons – but it isn’t going to shut down production of anything. This is why the NRA actually supported background checks a decade ago. Not because it wanted to, of course, but the political pressure after Columbine was such that it needed to seem reasonable and give on something. Indeed, this was actually the motto it used in announcing its support of the checks: Be reasonable.

But this time around, being -- or appearing -- reasonable was not so much the strategy. Now, the NRA would be against background checks. It would, of course, continue to be against bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. It would be against anything and everything that might impede gun manufacturers’ ability to make money hand over fist. Its official position: Get people more guns so they can kill bad guys, and crack down on video games.

While this resulted in mockery for LaPierre, it also did something else. Joseph Overton, the late conservative think-tank executive, posited that there’s only a small window of positions considered "mainstream" on any given topic. If an idea is considered politically and publicly acceptable, it’s in the Overton Window. If it isn’t, one can make the statement or policy no longer seem controversial, by shifting the window closer to that given policy. But how to move the goalposts so your position seems more mainstream? By proposing something even further to the extreme, the initial desired policy appears more like a "compromise."

By calling for armed guards in schools, the post-Newtown gun safety debate went from being about bans and background checks, to one of bans versus even more guns. And within that new Overton window, suddenly, background checks -- the measure that would comparatively cost the gun manufacturers little, and which the NRA once supported as “reasonable” – became the accepted compromise position.

Of course, this wasn't the only factor in why checks became the "sweet spot" for compromise. From a political perspective (e.g., vote counts, 2014 ambitions, etc), an assault weapons ban was always far from a sure thing, with or without the NRA's approach. But in the face of increasing (and majority) public support for the prohibition, the group's refusal to back down deprived friendly politicians cover to back the dreaded bans.

It wasn’t just the NRA’s obduracy that shifted the Overton window. Had the gun safety reform movement executed similar messaging tactics, it might have tugged the discussion in the other direction. And indeed, it had its chance.

In January, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced an aggressive bill to not only ban assault weapons, but 150 named firearms, as well as high-capacity magazines holding more than ten rounds. In addition, it would bolster the 1994 ban by requiring a gun to have just one characteristic, rather than two, in order to be classified as an assault weapon.

But rather than stand behind her, the gun safety movement blinked, and Democrats actually distanced themselves from the bill. Yes, that bill would never have passed. But had the proposal been established as the position of the gun safety movement -- especially among organizations, who (unlike members of Congress) wouldn’t face political recriminations for staking out a hard line -- the other side of the gun safety debate might have tugged farther away from the NRA.

“While the NRA was pushing the debate all the way to one side, Feinstein’s supposed allies left her hanging,” one national gun safety expert told Salon. In fairness, it’s debatable whether an assault weapons ban would have ever been achievable, given the composition of Congress. But in those early days after the tragedy, public messaging, sympathy, and momentum were all on the side of the safety reformers.

And, the source speculated, “a much stronger background check” than the one currently being proposed may well have been possible. (The current version -- which is yet to reflect possible amendments that could be proposed next week -- contains several exemptions, such as for family members and neighbors).

In the end, it’s not that the NRA wants background checks. It would obviously prefer not to have them. And it will continue to outwardly fight them, and express disappointment if they're passed. But days after the Newtown mass shooting, the group was being likened to mass murderers and being stared down by a popular, newly elected president. Even its financial advantage on the political battlefield was threatened, as billionaire Michael Bloomberg pledged to defeat it. At the time, the conversation was about bans. In spite of the aforementioned challenges, now it's about checks. That's a victory.

While only the NRA itself can know whether LaPierre’s armed guards proposal was designed specifically to yield a “compromise” that resulted in background checks, one fact is indisputable: Since this debate began, the group started strong and never backed down from its position.

There are leaders and groups in Washington who enter public negotiations by offering concessions up front, an approach that may win them praise among Beltway wise men for being reasonable. But it also guarantees that any deal they get is, at best, half a loaf. By contrast, Wayne LaPierre didn’t get to be called reasonable this time, but considering the circumstances, he won his organization a pretty sweet deal. Which outcome would you prefer?

By Blake Zeff

Blake Zeff is the former politics editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

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