The Long Disgrace of the NRA
In Texas, questions continue to mount about the response of law enforcement, and the time it took for the “good guys with guns” to take action.
Meanwhile, as the nation gears up for Memorial Day weekend, the National Rifle Association is holding its annual member meeting in Houston, just days after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde.
So this seems like a good time for an NRA retrospective of sorts.
When Bush Quit
This is the letter of resignation sent by former President George H.W. Bush to the National Rifle Association in May 1995:
Dear Mr. Washington,
I was outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of N.R.A., defended his attack on federal agents as "jack-booted thugs."
To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as "wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms" wanting to "attack law abiding citizens" is a vicious slander on good people.
Al Whicher, who served on my [United States Secret Service] detail when I was Vice President and President, was killed in Oklahoma City. He was no Nazi. He was a kind man, a loving parent, a man dedicated to serving his country -- and serve it well he did.
In 1993, I attended the wake for A.T.F. agent Steve Willis, another dedicated officer who did his duty. I can assure you that this honorable man, killed by weird cultists, was no Nazi.
John Magaw, who used to head the U.S.S.S. and now heads A.T.F., is one of the most principled, decent men I have ever known. He would be the last to condone the kind of illegal behavior your ugly letter charges. The same is true for the F.B.I.'s able Director Louis Freeh. I appointed Mr. Freeh to the Federal Bench. His integrity and honor are beyond question.
Both John Magaw and Judge Freeh were in office when I was President. They both now serve in the current administration. They both have badges. Neither of them would ever give the government's "go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens." (Your words)
I am a gun owner and an avid hunter. Over the years I have agreed with most of N.R.A.'s objectives, particularly your educational and training efforts, and your fundamental stance in favor of owning guns.
However, your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.
You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre's unwarranted attack. Therefore, I resign as a Life Member of N.R.A., said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list.
N.R.A. and G.O.P., Together Forever
Donald Trump addressing the National Rifle Association convention last year. (Photo: Ty Wright / New York Times)
FOR years, Republicans have effectively outsourced their thought leadership to the loudmouths at the end of the bar. But perhaps the most extreme example of that trend has been the issue of guns, where the party has ceded control to a gun lobby that has built its brand on absolutism.
And now, again, we are about to see the consequences of that abdication. Congress did nothing in the wake of the mass murder of children at Sandy Hook, and except for a largely symbolic ban on bump stocks, it’s likely that nothing meaningful will happen in the aftermath of the shootings in Las Vegas. Instead, Republicans will round up all the usual clichés and excuses for inaction.
We’ve seen this before, and it is a script written by the National Rifle Association. The N.R.A.’s blessing of restrictions on bump stocks — devices that make semiautomatic weapons fire faster — is designed to pre-empt anything more serious by giving the illusion of action. It substitutes accessory control for actual gun control.
I saw firsthand how the N.R.A. worked six years ago when I was a conservative radio talk show host in Wisconsin. The context is important here: I was a longtime supporter of Second Amendment rights and had backed state legislation that would allow law-abiding citizens who passed training courses and background checks to carry concealed weapons (as every state now allows in some form). More than 16 million Americans have the permits.
In 2011, concealed-carry legislation was poised to pass both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature until the N.R.A. decided that it did not go far enough. It insisted that the Second Amendment should preclude even minimal safety requirements for concealed carry. The N.R.A., claiming that it was supporting what it calls “constitutional carry,” demanded that anyone be allowed to carry a concealed handgun without training, background checks or permits of any kind.
I thought this was nuts and said so. The N.R.A. position made no sense from the standpoint of either public safety or politics. How would an unlimited right to carry weapons enhance public safety or confidence if you could walk into Milwaukee’s Miller Park with a handgun without any training or a permit? That would be a nightmare for law enforcement and frankly unsettling even for many ardent Second Amendment supporters.
But the national gun rights lobby pushed back hard, targeting me and a radio colleague who thought the idea defied common sense. The headline on one pro-gun website declared, “N.R.A. Calls Out Milwaukee Talk Show Hosts for Ignorant Stance on Right to Carry.”
Darren LaSorte, a former lobbyist for the N.R.A. Institute for Legislative Action, appeared on an internet broadcast, insisting that “it’s embarrassing to see them do that.” By suggesting that people learn to use a gun before carrying it out in public, he said, my colleague and I “probably did more harm to constitutional carry and the fight there than any other people out there, the anti-gunners or anyone else.”
N.R.A. members, he said, “should be actively hammering them.” Many of them did so, as my email overflowed with angry gun-rights activists demanding unfettered concealed carry. But when I opened up the phones to listeners, the response was quite different. As polls suggest, most gun owners take a far more reasonable stance than the gun lobby. My listeners overwhelmingly supported gun rights but thought that requirements for background checks, safety training and permits just made sense.
Despite a costly campaign that flooded legislators with emails and calls, the N.R.A. lost its bid for “constitutional carry” in Wisconsin. But the organization is back again this year, pushing ahead with a new effort to eliminate the licensing and training requirements for concealed carry here and elsewhere. And the N.R.A. remains on the offensive: 12 states allow concealed carry without a permit.
Since we beat the N.R.A. back six years ago, the political environment on guns has shifted quite a bit. President Trump seems to understand not only that the gun issue helped him win states like Michigan and Wisconsin but also that opposition to gun control has now become a central test of loyalty in our tribal politics.
This is what many of the N.R.A.’s critics have been slow to grasp: The N.R.A. has successfully taken the issue of rational gun regulation out of the policy realm and made it a central feature of the culture wars. The issue is no longer simply about bump stock, or assault weapons, or specific regulations, or public safety; the debate over guns has become a subset of the larger cultural clash that pits us against them — liberals versus “normal” Americans. As Kurt Schlichter, a conservative columnist, insisted last week, “Leftists hate our rights because they hate us.”
The N.R.A. has pursued that strategy relentlessly and with great effect. It was hardly a coincidence that it decided to wade into the controversy over N.F.L. players’ kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. The group put out a video called “We Stand,” which linked the themes of freedom, patriotism and guns. “I stand for the children, the spouses and parents whose family made the ultimate sacrifice for us,” the narrator says. “We are all standing. We are the National Rifle Association of America and we are freedom’s safest place.”
In a recent video starring Dana Loesch, a popular radio talk show host, the N.R.A. checked all the boxes of the culture wars. Featuring apocalyptic images of protests and violence, the spot targeted educational indoctrination in the schools, Hollywood leftism and liberal news media bias. “The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth,” Ms. Loesch declares.
The video was part of a larger strategy. Last fall, the N.R.A. started its own television news outlet, known as NRATV. As Adam Winkler, a law professor at U.C.L.A. and the author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” notes, NRATV does not focus merely on guns. “Now it’s focused on immigration, race, health care,” he told The New Republic. “We’re seeing the N.R.A. become an extreme right-wing media outlet, not just a protector of guns.”
It’s actually more than that. The N.R.A. has effectively turned itself into the Id of the right. Despite the largely symbolic ban on bump stocks, the result is paralysis, both political and moral.
There was a time when the Republican Party could discuss possible reforms to our gun laws: Ronald Reagan himself endorsed the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban that passed in 1994.
But today, no matter how horrified decent Republicans are by the carnage, they understand that any meaningful response is now impossible. In the face of unconscionable bloodshed, the party is forced again to argue that there is really no public policy response regarding guns, that there is nothing they can do, besides a largely tactical retreat that will allow the cycle of carnage and cowardice to repeat itself.
The NRA Civil War: Grifter vs. Grifter
Even though the adage has been nearly worn out in the Age of Trump, it is probably obligatory to once again quote Eric Hoffer’s observation that “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
In case you missed it over the weekend, the National Rifle Association degenerated even further—from racket into something that more resembles the Borgia court during one its nastier squabbles. After days of trading charges of grifting, attempted extortion, and swampy corruption, the NRA effectively ousted its president Oliver North, suspended one of its top lawyers, and girded its cash-starved loins for a challenge to its tax exempt status from the New York attorney general’s office.
But, if anything, this rendering of events actually understates the full measure of crazy that is unfolding. As the Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff tweeted out:
Inside the Downfall of the NRA
Our Bulwark podcast with Tim Mak in 2021:
After years of pushing fear, the NRA is facing an existential crisis. Government investigations and the billionaire lifestyle of Wayne LaPierre may spell the end for one of the most powerful organizations in America. NPR's Tim Mak joined me on this Bulwark podcast.
I am a veteran and was an avid target shooter. I grew disgusted with the gun-porn and thinly veiled racism of the NRA and did not renew my membership (which effectively banned me from competitive shooting). I was kept on the NRA’s membership roll for years. Also, whose family thinks to tell the NRA of a life member’s death? My point is that the NRA membership is almost certainly a fraction of what they claim.
What’s left is being a lobbyist for the gun manufacturers.
The right wing media loves to use Chicago as its boogeyman. Let’s think about it. The criminals in Chicago aren’t using pistols they found in grandpa’s old Army footlocker, they have the latest gear available in endless supply. How?
In most red states, you can buy a box of Glocks with nothing more than your drivers license. You can then sell them without a background check in a private transaction. To a gangster gun wholesaler.
It’s more than $1bbn/year in sales to criminals with zero repercussions. This is the NRA’s real business interest.
There’s a simple answer. Make manufacturers criminally responsible for the sale channels. This and universal background checks for all used gun sales would dry up straw sales overnight.
While I did not always agree with President Bush, I always thought he was a man of integrity who put his country ahead of politics and party. That letter is just one example of the quality of his character. He would be drummed out of the Republican Party today.