NRA's "really big problem": Why it's dependent on a dwindling fringe

Gun lobby is now reliant on an increasingly radical right-wing sect -- and that spells trouble, an expert explains

Published June 13, 2014 6:41PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Steve Marcus/AP/Evan Vucci)
(Reuters/Steve Marcus/AP/Evan Vucci)

During a Tumblr Q&A earlier this week, President Obama said that one of his biggest frustrations since entering the White House has been how "this society has not been willing to take some basic steps" in order to prevent the kinds of mass shootings that have become so horribly prominent as of late. "We're the only developed country on Earth where this happens," Obama continued. Speaking of Congress' inability to buck the NRA and pass even a meager background check bill, Obama said lawmakers should "be ashamed."

The source of lawmakers' fear is, of course, the NRA and its massively influential, and feared, lobbying apparatus. Indeed, it's likely that no organization is as feared in Washington as the NRA, despite the fact that its views — as embodied by the odious Wayne LaPierre — are clearly outside the mainstream and far too close to those usually associated with the kind of right-wing terrorists who recently murdered three people in Las Vegas. Put simply, the NRA is not only abnormally influential, but abnormally extreme, too.

Hoping to learn more about how the NRA has managed to associate itself with dangerous right-wing extremists like the Las Vegas shooters, Salon called up Josh Sugarmann, executive director and founder of the Violence Policy Center, a pro-gun safety nonprofit that has done extensive work toward exposing the NRA's diseased politics and the cynical business model that undergirds them. Our conversation can be found below, and has been edited for clarity and length.

What's your reaction to the recent shootings in Las Vegas as well as Oregon?

I think right now we’re living in America that most people really could not imagine, and the fact that what were once rare events in this country — mass shootings in public spaces — are becoming increasingly common. I think when you look at these issues and you look at the gun debate in this country, we’re reaching a tipping point where to remain a civilized society, we have to do something.

Like what?

Well, I think the first thing that has to be done is we have to take a step back, we have to take a long view to see the changes that have occurred in the gun industry, in the NRA, in how guns are used in our country, and not try and fit short-term solutions to specific shootings. We have to take a step back, look at the changes in the gun industry, changes in gun ownership in this country, changes in how guns are marketed, and from that start constructing a policy that really would have a real effect on gun death and injury in this country. One of the most striking things and one of the most unique about the gun industry is that it’s the only manufacturer of consumer products that is not regulated for health and safety by a federal agency.

You say there have been changes in how the NRA and manufacturers are marketing guns. What kind of changes?

All this occurs against a backdrop that, when the industry and the NRA talk amongst themselves, they’re very open about, but rarely do they concede it when making public statements. And that’s a fact that gun ownership in the U.S. is on a steady decline. In 1977, 54 percent of American households had a gun in them. By 2012, that number had dropped to 34 percent. (And this comes from the general social survey that’s done by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. It’s the most cited social survey in the country. It’s the only survey that has consistently looked at this issue.) So what the industry is faced with is the fact that gun owners are aging; they’re dying off. And the constant pressure [the NRA] faces is two-fold. One is, how do you resell current gun owners? And the second is, how do you market to, for lack of a better phrase, "replacement shooters"? Just like the tobacco industry [has "replacement smokers"].

So, for current gun owners, lethality has been the [marketers'] focus. And this starts from marketing high-capacity semi-auto pistols through assault weapons to new-generation what you call "pocket rocket pistols": smaller in size, greater in capacity to, today, [a] new generation of assault pistols and then literal crossover military technology, like 50 caliber sniper rifles. The other marketing focus today, looking at the current gun-owning population, is concealed carry. The concealed carry wasn’t viewed solely in a political context, but in fact it represents one of the last great marketing efforts by the industry. The fact is that not only can you sell people more handguns; you can sell them all the accessories, the training, everything that goes along with it, down to clothing. There’s a fairly famous quote that Tanya Metaksa, who was the NRA’s former top lobbyist, offered in 1996 in sort of a burst of honesty, when she told the Wall Street Journal as the NRA launched the concealed carry campaign, "The gun industry should send me a basket of fruit" because [she] created a whole new market for them. The other issue is [an] attempt to market to women, [an] attempt to market to young people, including children, and that’s been an ongoing effort...

Do you think the Millers, the couple who killed those people and themselves in Las Vegas — and who reportedly bragged about how many weapons they owned — are the kind of fringier, more radical gun enthusiasts the NRA is now marketing to?

The NRA has a really big problem — and that’s being the NRA. They can no longer rely on increased gun sales [and] increased gun ownership as a whole for new members. So, what we’ve seen is they’ve taken for the most part two approaches. The first is that ... they’ve basically cemented their relationship with the gun industry. Back in 1967, in the NRA’s official history, they bragged or just stated that they accepted no money [from and] had no relationship with gun manufacturers, distributors, jobbers. [There] was a complete bright line between the two. By 2013, soon after the Newtown shooting, the president of the NRA, then-president David Keene, said when asked this question about the relationship between NRA and the industry ... said, "We get some" — and basically, to paraphrase it — "and we’d like to get more!" [T]he first shift is that the NRA and industry are working together to market guns. If you go to the NRA’s website, it is almost awash in sponsorships from the gun industry, from specific manufacturers ... The head of Smith & Wesson, James Debney, basically has said, "The NRA" — this is a quote — "is our voice."

The second [change] is because of the shift we’ve seen in the demographics of gun ownership, the NRA has reached out, and reached out to a segment of gun owners, they know is very, very engaged, and basically [in order] to engage that segment of gun owners, they’ve relied upon paranoia and fear and [hyping] anti-gun rhetoric. This can be traced back during the Clinton administration to some high-profile events: Waco, Ruby Ridge. But when Clinton came in, the NRA said, this was one of their covers, "The final war has begun." And there was a complete attack on [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], the FBI, and really, putting out there, the idea that the government is the enemy, and not only are you at risk in a political sense from, say, gun laws, but your personal safety is at risk. The thing that’s most important about this is: The NRA plays a validating role for people’s fear and suspicion and anger. You know, they can think the government’s the enemy; they can think law enforcement is the enemy. But it's the NRA that basically validates it and helps feed this fear and feed this anger ... The first time that this kind of broke into the public consciousness was the Oklahoma City bombing, where ... the NRA said "The final war has begun" and [Timothy] McVeigh set the date.

After that, the NRA reacted. They basically ratcheted down their rhetoric. They brought on Charlton Heston, whom they viewed as sort of a soft face for the organization, and the final war that had been sort of been the centerpiece under Tanya Metaksa and other NRA leadership members turned into Charlton Heston’s culture war, and that was sort of a softer focus for much of the same language but without the confrontational aspect. Since then, the NRA recognized that they have to appeal to — I mean, hunting, hunting as an activity is fading away — so what you’re finding is that the activists ... the NRA relies upon are those who buy into its paranoid language and truly believe the government is the enemy ... [W]hen the NRA is criticized for this or confronted with their own language, they fall into this excuse of  "it’s just direct mail rhetoric; it’s just articles to engage our membership. It really is a risk-free activity," and what we’re seeing is, that’s not the case. It’s not risk-free activity. The NRA’s validating role cannot be matched by any other organization, and most importantly — and this is where it all comes full circle — the NRA’s the organization assured that those who want to live out these wild fantasies have the exact tools to accomplish it.

And that’s what brings us to the shooting in Las Vegas, where you had a couple that, you know, on their Facebook, liked the NRA, loved guns and hated the government and [reached] the point of draping the Gadsden Flag — which is something the NRA embraced in 2010 — on their victims’ bodies. They brought the Gadsden Flag emblem into their line of clothing to appeal to, at best, Tea Party members; at worst, people like the Las Vegas shooters. And that’s where we are today. [T]he deadly combination of the anger the NRA validates and the ability, and their working to make sure they have the tools to act on it is what many of, is what is leading us down this lethal path.

Besides embracing the Gadsden flag, what are some other dog-whistles and other subtle nods to extremist views that the NRA engages in?

When they talk to this segment of their membership, the cues are the United Nations, the Obama administration, government as a whole, various arms of government (like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), foreign countries, and really, it gets down to you start with that and you work your way down to institutions like the news media, foundations—basically, everybody who’s not the NRA, one or the other ends up on the NRA’s enemies list. It really is a concerted attempt to personalize the threat that you face according to the National Rifle Association, and the answer to whatever the threat is, you know, is going to be a gun. I was doing a presentation the other day, and I was just looking at the NRA’s cover of the Americans’ First Freedom Magazine, and just some examples, sort of, as I mentioned earlier, of fueling the paranoia. There’s a cover with the UN. There’s "Gun Owners Under Siege." There’s Barack Obama. There’s the state of Connecticut. There’s Michael Bloomberg ... [I]t’s this effort to create a world not just that you should be fearful of, but that’s actually out to get you, such as it concerns the federal government.

You mentioned that the NRA announced the launch of the "final" war during the Clinton presidency and that Obama, himself, is a popular hate-figure for NRA members. So how much do partisan politics play into this? Are there more mass shootings under Democratic presidents?

don’t know the answer to that. I’d have to go back and look at the numbers. I mean, overall, we have seen a decrease in gun deaths in this country over the past decade or so. I think certainly — and there are experts in the field who know much more than I do — that we do see a dramatic increase in this anti-government rhetoric, the power of say, the Patriot Movement, the engagement of these groups, when there are Democratic presidents. Certainly the NRA, which is driven not by political need but financial needs, does everything it can to fundraise off of any Democratic president ...

I'd like to return to what we spoke of earlier and talk about what specific remedies lawmakers can embrace that would take into consideration how the NRA has changed and how the market for guns has changed.

The first thing that needs to be done is we need to recognize that the common thread that runs through mass shootings and that really shapes gun violence as we know it today is a combination of semi-auto firearms, detachable ammunition magazines, and it ranges from high-capacity pistols to semi-automatic assault rifles. The first thing we have to do is recognize changes we’ve seen in the industry to help feed this violence. The second thing we have to do is bring the industry into the gun debate and basically expose what they’ve become ... If you make a gun that’s 50 caliber or less and it’s semi-auto and has a barrel of a certain length, you can make anything you want. And they’ve taken grotesque advantage of that with the application of military technology to the civilian marketplace.

I think most Americans would be shocked at the gun industry has become. I think they view it through this lens of the guns that their parents or their grandparents had. You know, hunting rifles and shotguns and six-shot revolvers. That gun industry doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been replaced by one that embraces lethality as measured by firepower and capacity. The first thing is to bring industry into the debate to reveal what they’ve become. Second, we need to ratchet down the firepower in civilian hands. We need to get assault weapons off our streets and off the gun store shelves ... We should ban handguns ... if we have the opportunity to do it under the Supreme Court’s rulings, we should look at that issue and have an honest debate about it. And finally, I think that short of that, we need to look at what policy would be put in place that would limit the availability of increased firepower in the civilian population and make sure that, with those who do buy firearms, we do the best that we can to make sure that they fall outside of restricted categories that are contained in federal law.

How optimistic are you that any of this may be accomplished soon? Do you think we're reaching a kind of tipping point in terms of these spectacular, public acts of gun violence?

I think if we do nothing, we’re going to continue down a path that will change the way we live as a nation. I don’t believe that we’re going to become so numb to gun violence that events that we’ve seen in the past ... are going to become acceptable to us. So I think I am optimistic and have the faith in the American people that at some point, parents, employers, communities are going to rise up and say, "Enough is enough."

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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