Opinion: The NRA isn’t the main obstacle in US gun politics anymore

Gun Rights

The National Rifle Association is in trouble.

Last year, the organization attempted to declare bankruptcy in response to a New York state lawsuit investigating alleged financial abuses, but a federal judge dismissed the effort, finding that the NRA had filed in “bad faith” and was trying to use bankruptcy to protect itself from litigation. That came after the Senate Finance Committee released a report finding that the NRA, working closely with Russian agents, acted as a “foreign asset” during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The NRA said in a statement to CNN that it will “continue to explore moving its headquarters” to Texas from Virginia — it had requested to be reincorporated in Texas when it filed for bankruptcy. As for the Senate report, the NRA called it “politically motivated,” and counsel for the organization said, “This report goes to great lengths to … create the false impression that the NRA did not act appropriately. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Following the horrific massacre of schoolchildren and teachers last week in Uvalde, Texas — which followed the horrific massacre of mostly Black shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York — the NRA went ahead with its planned annual convention in Houston. The convention reportedly attracted thousands of protesters and repelled a handful of scheduled performers, who withdrew after the killings in Uvalde. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also backed out, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott canceled his appearance, doing a pretaped video instead.

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That trouble is hardly all-encompassing — major speakers such as former President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas still appeared before the relatively sparse and intermittently unarmed crowd. But the organization has been noticeably weakened by years of infighting and corruption.

That might sound like good news to gun reform advocates, who have for decades seen the NRA as the primary driver of gun absolutism in the United States. But even if the NRA went away tomorrow, gun politics in the United States would not change. In many ways, the NRA has already won: It has fundamentally transformed the Republican Party, gun jurisprudence and conservative political identity in ways that will continue even if the NRA fades.

The radicalization of the NRA, from its origins as a hunting and marksmanship organization to one that pushes conspiracy-laden messages in support of full gun deregulation, has been well-documented over the years. The right-wing takeover of the group in the mid-1970s turned, by the early 1990s, into an all-out push to reshape the Republican Party into an anti-gun control institution.

That was not an easy sell. As has also been widely documented — we’ve had enough mass shootings and enough GOP indifference to have rehearsed this history frequently over the last few decades — in the early 1990s, leading Republicans supported gun regulation.

Ronald Reagan, who had been receding from public life after leaving office, nonetheless came out forcefully for both the 1993 Brady bill, which mandated background checks and a five-day waiting period for gun purchases by an unlicensed individual, and the 1994 federal assault weapons ban, which prohibited gun manufacturers from creating assault weapons for civilian use and banned large-capacity magazines.

In the early ’90s, the NRA began shifting its funding to Republican candidates, using its endorsements and funds to help defeat Republicans who had voted for gun control and support candidates who took hardline positions.

The language of the NRA became increasingly apocalyptic during this period, in concert with a rapidly growing militia movement fueled by anti-government sentiment and paranoid conspiracy. After two men who moved in militia circles bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the NRA did not curb its rhetoric. Instead, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre initially defended a letter warning about “jackbooted government thugs.” The letter led former President George H.W. Bush to resign his membership in the NRA and the reported loss of a half-million members.

But within a few years, the NRA had decided that its initial instincts — to never waver, to never apologize — were politically effective. As was the case with Uvalde, a massacre took place at Columbine High School in 1999, the NRA’s annual convention was just a few days away — and miles from the site of the mass slaughter.

The organization’s senior leadership met to discuss strategy in a series of private conversations that, it turns out, were recorded by a participant and obtained by NPR last year. An NRA spokesperson told NPR when asked for comment, “It is disappointing that anyone would promote an editorial agenda against the NRA by using shadowy sources and ‘mystery tapes’ in order to conjure up the tragic events of over 20 years ago.”

But those tragic events are still repeating themselves. And in those recorded conversations after the Columbine shootings, NRA leaders professed their belief that both the Republican Party and the gun industry would follow their lead, and that any show of regret over the shooting would be an admission of guilt. “If we tuck tail and run,” one official said, explaining why the group shouldn’t cancel its convention, “we’re going to be accepting responsibility for what happened out there.” Another also rejected the idea of canceling the convention, saying, “The message that it will send is that even the NRA was brought to its knees, and the media will have a field day with it.”

The convention went ahead with a now-familiar message that liberals and media outlets were politicizing the shooting, while calling for fewer regulations.

In the decades that followed, the NRA would return to that playbook while broadening its influence on a generation of politicians and judges. Its victory was total: The US Supreme Court radically broadened its interpretation of the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, the Republican Party made gun deregulation a litmus test issue for candidates, and state legislatures began to respond to mass shootings by loosening gun regulation.

These actions, though shaped by the NRA in the 1990s, were not carried out solely to appease the organization. No, the NRA’s victory was inculcating the idea that an unrestricted right to own and carry weapons of war was the most fundamental right in the United States. Though the NRA does donate heavily to politicians who reflect its views, it is no longer a necessary part of gun politics. In fact, one of the biggest threats to the NRA now is the rise of more radical gun groups.

For those Americans desperate for more gun regulation, a singular focus on the NRA is not enough. Instead, they must work to strengthen and broaden the infrastructure of gun safety and gun regulation organizations, support a judiciary commitment to a narrow reading of the Second Amendment and make clear that the radicalization of the right on guns is not solely about donations from the NRA, but a deeper commitment to the most radical gun absolutism in US history.

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

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