In the wake of the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas this week some people expected the National Rifle Association (NRA) to cancel its annual meeting and extravagant gun show which starts today in Houston. The city, however, has a binding contract that prohibits it from canceling the show unilaterally. But the mayor, Democrat Sylvester Turner, asked the gun group to voluntarily postpone. They declined.
That's to be expected, of course. The NRA has never let a mass shooting get in the way of gathering for fun and profit. The Washington Post's Gillian Brockell reminded us this week that they did exactly the same thing after Columbine, the first of the modern school shootings that have plagued America for more than two decades. That mass killing took place in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver where the NRA convention was scheduled to take place just days later. In that case, the Denver mayor told them the city didn't want them there and even offered to pay them for their trouble if they would cancel. They still refused.
Last year, NPR correspondent Tim Mak came into possession of some recorded calls between NRA officials right after Columbine which showed that their primary concern at the time was that they would look weak if they canceled the meeting. In the end, after contemplating creating a "victims fund" and deciding it would look like an admission of guilt, their only compromise was to cancel the gun show portion of their convention and shorten their gathering to just one day. According to Brockell, NRA president Charlton Heston went on to give a memorable speech that year "blaming the media for scapegoating NRA members as somehow responsible for the tragedy, while 'racing' to 'drench their microphones with the tears of victims.'" The next year he returned to give one of the most famous culture war speeches in history:
Those are the famous final words of the speech but he said a lot more than that. Heston declared war:
I believe that we are again engaged in a great civil war, a cultural war that's about to hijack your birthright to think and say what lives in your heart. I'm sure you no longer trust the pulsing lifeblood of liberty inside you, the stuff that made this country rise from wilderness into the miracle that it is...
As I've stood in the crosshairs of those who target Second Amendment freedoms, I've realized that firearms are -- are not the only issue. No, it's much, much bigger than that. I've come to understand that a cultural war is raging across our land, in which, with Orwellian fervor, certain accepted thoughts and speech are mandated.
That was almost a quarter century ago so all this recent wailing about "cancel culture" is just a new term for the same culture war that's been raging for years. And guns have been at the heart of it because the NRA put them there.
I've written a lot over the years about Wayne LaPierre and his fantastically successful gun rights movement, for which he can pretty much take total credit. He saw the potential to turn the sporting and hunting organization into a political powerhouse and through his public relations and propaganda skills met his goals in the matter of a few short years. In doing so he made gun ownership a social identity for the American right wing.
In 2008, as Barack Obama was about to take office LaPierre made explicit what Heston had alluded to in his speech eight years before. He embraced the emergent populist right and made it his own, railing against the establishment elite. By 2012, in the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, he had a full-fledged agenda just waiting to be appropriated by Donald Trump:
Four years later, LaPierre expanded on the threats the elite posed to encompass free speech, religious liberty, even the ability of people to start small businesses or choose for themselves what kind of health care they want. Drug dealing illegal immigrants were being allowed to pour over the Southern border, he railed. Criminals in big cities were free to prey on innocents because judges were so lenient. "Not our issues, some might say." He paused, and then countered: "Oh, but they are."
The NRA has been battered by scandal in recent years, with LaPierre at the center of it. While he remains as the head of the organization, the state of New York has filed suit against him and others for what the judge in the case recently said if proven "tell a grim story of greed, self-dealing, and lax financial oversight at the highest levels of the National Rifle Association." That same judge also ruled that the NY Attorney General did not have the authority as she claimed to dissolve the organization altogether. So the NRA will live on one way or the other.
Most commentators seem to believe the organization has lost its clout, having gone through bankruptcy and then spending far less in the last election cycle than it had in the past. And perhaps it's past its prime. Politicians are no longer afraid of Wayne LaPierre or the money the NRA might spend against them. But they are afraid of their own voters who have absorbed the NRA's propaganda so thoroughly that they no longer need prompting from the organization. They believe those words from Charlton Heston in their bones.
The New York Times' Carl Hulse reported on the GOP's obstinacy on this issue quoting Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who often says the quiet part out loud:
Asked Wednesday what the reaction would be from voters back home if he were to support any significant form of gun control, the first-term Republican had a straightforward answer: "Most would probably throw me out of office," he said.
It's hard to say what will happen to the NRA. If they do go down, there are other groups out there waiting to fill the void. But the truth is that it's no longer a matter of money or Washington lobbying. While according to polling there are many GOP voters who would be in favor of common sense gun regulation, the hardcore gun rights absolutists are not. And there are enough of them that Republican leaders don't believe they can defy them. In fact, they obviously believe it is a big electoral winner for them, according the Times reports:
More than 100 television ads from Republican candidates and supportive groups have used guns as talking points or visual motifs this year. Guns are shown being fired or brandished, or are discussed but not displayed as candidates praise the Second Amendment, vow to block gun-control legislation or simply identify themselves as "pro-gun."
And it's not just macho dudes slinging around AR-15s either. Every Republican, no matter how inane it might appear, must show their gun bonafides.
Not one of these people will change their minds on gun reform no matter how many little kids are gunned down in their classrooms. Unfettered gun rights are fundamental to their social and political identity.
I'm sure LaPierre is ready to party with Donald Trump and enjoy the fruits of his labor and the adulation of the faithful at the NRA meeting tonight. His job is done.