If there's anyone who can be counted on to "out-Trump" Donald Trump, it's Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. LaPierre's speech on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference was a masterpiece of conspiracy theory-style paranoia, race baiting and horrific fantasies, painting the American landscape as a war zone of crime and terror that can be survived only by those who armor up like they're going to war.
And, of course, all this pointed to one inescapable conclusion for the conservative CPAC audience, the conclusion to which all NRA gun marketing, er, Second Amendment defenses must point: Buy more guns.
Hearing LaPierre's speech, you'd think that the CPAC attendees were going to have to shoot their way out of the convention like the survivors in a zombie apocalypse movie. He painted a dark picture of the country, where the "leftist media" and the "violent left" are in bed with criminals, drug dealers and terrorists to intimidate patriotic conservatives. Of course, the only way for conservatives to be safe is to hand over more money to gun manufacturers.
"The truth is, the far left — they’ve turned protesting into what seems like a full-time profession," said LaPierre. "Seriously, you would think that for $1,500 a week, they would at least know what they are protesting," he added, referencing the current right-wing hypothesis that anti-Trump protesters can only be paid provocateurs. "Folks, our long nightmare — it may not be over. The fact is, it may be just beginning. Right now, we face a gathering of forces that are willing to use violence against us."
The NRA spent more than $50 million on last year's elections, and that amounted to 96 percent of its outside spending. Most of that, more than $30 million, went to back Trump's campaign. All this investment seemingly paid off, with the election of Trump and almost every other Republican candidate backed by the gun lobby. But LaPierre is not happy. Instead, he argued in his CPAC speech that things are somehow worsening for right-wing America, which now supposedly faces mortal danger.
Perhaps LaPierre is really pissing in his pants, afraid of leftist protesters. But the gun-safety advocates I spoke with took a more cynical view, arguing that LaPierre's be-afraid-buy-guns speech is better understood as a marketing move.
“This is not rhetoric based in fact or truth," said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, in a phone conversation. "It is rhetoric meant to sell more guns and put them in more places," added Watts, whose group is part of the Everytown for Gun Safety, a broad coalition fighting on multiple levels to reduce gun violence in the U.S.
As Watts noted, the number of Americans who own guns has been declining for years, creating a serious marketing problem for the gun industry. With fewer owners out there, the gun industry has to convince the people who do own then to buy more and ideally build up a massive and expensive stockpile of weaponry. The best way to do that is to convince gun owners that they are under siege and need to gear up like action heroes in order to fight the supposed war for civilization that's coming any day now.
"At the end of the day," said Watts, the NRA is "beholden to the gun manufacturers," who look to the powerful lobby "to protect their profits."
It's hard to know exactly how much money the NRA receives from gun manufacturers because that information isn't publicly published anywhere. But research suggests that Watts is right. The NRA used to be a community organization, but now less than half of its revenue comes from programs and membership dues.
"The bulk of the group's money now comes in the form of contributions, grants, royalty income, and advertising, much of it originating from gun industry sources," Business Insider wrote in an analysis following the Sandy Hook shooting tragedy. In 2013 the Violence Policy Center compiled a report detailing how the gun industry's donations to the NRA have grown in recent years. The lobbying organization has taken in from $19 million to $60 million through its business donation programs from 2005 to 2013.
The funneling of money from gun manufacturers to the NRA isn't particularly well hidden, either. In 2015, Sturm, Ruger & Company launched a NRA-based marketing scheme called the 2 Million Gun Challenge.
"Our goal is to sell two million firearms between the 2015 and 2016 NRA Annual Meetings," Sturm, Ruger CEO Mike Fifer said in a statement. "With that, we pledge to donate not one, but two dollars to the NRA for every new firearm sold during that time. We accomplished our goals to support the NRA in 2012, and with the help of our loyal customers, we believe we can do it again."
This goes a long way toward explaining why the NRA no longer looks or acts like an advocacy organization for gun owners. It has effectively become a marketing arm for the gun industry, focused on scaring conservative-minded customers into spending even more money on guns.
As Brian Tashman, a senior research analyst for People for the American Way, pointed out in a phone conversation, the NRA has created a weird conundrum for itself: While electing Republicans is good for the group from a regulatory perspective, having Democrats in office is actually better for the NRA's marketing agenda.
“Under Obama, the NRA would always say, 'The government is coming after us,'" Tashman pointed out.
Fear of Democrats who wish to confiscate guns is an incredibly effective sales pitch to paranoid conservatives, it turns out. Gun sales surged after Barack Obama's presidential election and rose 158 percent during his tenure, according to industry estimates, as anger about his presidency and paranoia about the possibility of new gun-control legislation encouraged sales.
Gun sellers now worry that Trump's victory may reduce the level of conservative paranoia and existential angst that they have so successfully exploited for so long. As the Orlando Sentinel reported in December, area gun sellers have reported flat sales, even though they had expected a spike for the Christmas season. Early indicators show that gun sales have slowed considerably since Trump's election, with the number of background checks for gun sales declining 20 percent since the same time last year. The stock prices of firearms companies have fallen considerably, as well.
Under the circumstances, LaPierre's speech can be read as a shift in the gun industry's sales pitch to conservative customers.
“First you need a gun because the government’s coming for it; now you need a gun because liberals are going to attack us," Tashman said. “And of course, you always need to buy more guns, which is always the NRA’s message, regardless of who is in power.”
This rhetoric will help sell guns, no doubt. Unfortunately, it will also help stoke conservative paranoia and will be used to justify authoritarian crackdowns on people's right to protest. Republicans in multiple states are crafting anti-protest legislation, and the same lurid claims of violence that LaPierre is using to sell guns are being used to curtail free speech.
The NRA rhetoric may also encourage violence as well.
“This is what the conservative movement is reaching to," Tashman said, "kind of hinting that violence is OK because these people are really dangerous."
Painting largely nonviolent protesters as vicious thugs and dark threats lets conservatives tell themselves that unprovoked violence is a kind of self-defense, Watts argued. She noted that Dylann Roof, the Charleston church shooter, argued that he was somehow trying to protect white people against all that black violence he read about on right-wing websites.
Last week a similar incident happened in suburban Kansas City, when Adam Purinton apparently walked into a sports bar in Olathe, Kansas, and opened fire on two Indian immigrants as well as a third man who tried to defend them. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer at the GPS firm Garmin, was killed. Witnesses said Purinton, a white man, was yelling anti-immigrant invectives at them.
The irony, Watts said, is that it's not "violent leftists" who pose a threat to public safety but rather "the NRA’s leadership’s agenda" to "put more guns in more places without permits."
LaPierre's cynical argument that gun owners should constantly be fearful and expect to encounter dangerous enemies everywhere they look may help revive weapon sales. It also encourages gun owners to jump at shadows and shoot first in uncertain circumstances. Tell people it's a war zone out there long enough, and many will start to believe it.