News & Politics

NRA Calls Out Texas Open Carry Activists For Giving Gun Groups Bad PR

New gun control efforts are forcing the NRA to change its strategy.

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Last week saw the Texas equivalent of surrender at the Alamo—for that state’s gun nuts.

The National Rifle Association reprimanded an even more extreme pro-gun group, Open Carry Texas, for giving the gun nut community a bad name by taking their military-style assault rifles with them to eat at fast food and national chain restaurants, scaring both employees and other Texans seeking some comfort food.    

“Recently, demonstrators have been showing up in various places, including coffee shops and fast food restaurants, openly toting a variety of tactical long guns,” the statement by the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action said. “While unlicensed open carry of long guns is also [like handguns] typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone slide up to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms.”

The NRA’s rebuke continued, basically telling the open-carry Texans to grow up. 

“Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.”

Nobody should think for a minute that the NRA’s leadership has been in sensitivity training. Indeed, a day after the statement, ILA Chief Executive Chris Cox started walking it back, saying the NRA did not mean to offend its allies. 

America’s love-hate relationship with guns and gun controls has been in a period of notable upheaval since December 2012’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Both pro- and anti-gun groups have been more aggressive across the country—with 1,500-plus proposed bills introduced in state legislatures and new grassroots groups on both sides forming and speaking up.

By some counts, such as Mother Jones’ongoing reporting, the gun control side has been winning because the handful of states that passed new gun control laws—such as New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Colorado and California—have adopted more sweeping measures than the NRA and its allies. However, there are notable red-state exceptions, such as Georgia and Alabama, where previous gun control laws have been gutted. Residents in those state can even take guns into grade schools.

“This year [2014], the policies designed to strengthen state gun laws that are making progress in state legislatures revolve mostly around domestic violence and mental health prohibitions,” the Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence’s most recent report said. “Indiana, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have already enacted laws to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers. Twelve additional states are currently considering bills on this crucial topic.”

But other longtime NRA watchers said it would be a mistake to believe that the NRA is in retreat, and cautioned reading too much into the latest Texas open-carry brawl.

“The NRA is not more cautious, it is just politically careful,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and author of Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms in America. “The NRA leaders see the open carry advocates as threatening the progress of the NRA has made. Given laws expanding gun rights, and curbing gun-control laws, like Georgia’s guns everywhere law, it would be hard to conclude that the NRA is getting timid. Since Newtown, the NRA has been more successful at winning legislation repealing gun control then gun-control advocates have been strengthening controls.”

Winkler says the ground under America’s gun control debate is shifting—but just not as evidenced by the NRA’s eyebrow-raising brethren in Texas.

“We may be witnessing a major shift in gun politics today,” Winkler said. “The defining feature of gun politics over the last 30 years has been the ability of gun rights groups like the NRA to mobilize voters and scare politicians way from gun control. The recent shootings, like Newtown and Isla Vista, are motivating pro-gun-control forces to mobilize too. We see this in Michael Bloomberg's new organization and Gabrielle Giffords's super PAC. If these organizations can bring more pro-gun-control voters to the polls, it will make a big difference in our gun politics.”

In other words, the NRA is no longer battling its longtime opponents where they have operated by the same political playbook for a long time, which the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence also noted.

“More important than the numbers [of pro- and anti- gun control bills], or even the context surrounding the numbers, are the real people who have dedicated their lives to changing our nation’s gun laws since Newtown,” the Center’s 2014 report said. “New organizations such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Sandy Hook Promise, and Texas Gun Sense and many, many more have formed in just the last 16 months.”

“The story after Newtown is that in every state people are making their voices heard, fighting to strengthen firearms laws, and oppose the gun lobby’s profit-driven efforts,” it continued. “This part of the story is ony just beginning.”     

Against this shifting backdrop, it makes sense that the NRA is seeking to reel in some of their side’s most embarrassing extremists, such as Open Carry Texas’ rifle brigades. But it would be naïve to think that the NRA’s pro-gun beliefs have moderated; they simply want better P.R. than having to defend armed throngs occupying Texas steakhouses.

As the NRA said in its statement and rebuke of Open Carry Texas, “We love AR-15s and AKs as much as anybody, and we know that these sorts of semiautomatic carbines are among the most popular, fastest selling firearms in America today.”


Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).