Guns, Paranoia and Obama Assassination Jokes: Inside the NRA's Annual Convention
ST. LOUIS -- The hotel minibus had barely left the airport when the guy to my left dropped the Obama assassination joke.
There were eight of us on our way to the National Rifle Association's annual convention downtown, rolling past a domino-row of highway billboards advertising the event's "Acres of Guns and Gear." The banter suggested the minibus crew was microcosmic of the NRA's claimed four million members, more than 70,000 of whom made the election-year pilgrimage. There was a soft-spoken father from Long Island and his teenage daughter headed to the University of Akron on a Division-I marksmanship scholarship. There were retired New Hampshire hunters from NRA families going back generations. There was a Russian immigrant whose only hobby is fully automatic machine guns.
And there was a professional Second Amendment extremist named Stephen Burke. An Endowment Life Member of the NRA and an attorney from Springfield, Massachusetts, Burke specializes in getting guns into the hands of ex-cons whose licenses have been revoked or downgraded for criminal activity.
Burke is a loud and boastful retired lance corporal who displays a photo of himself with NRA Executive Vice President & CEO Wayne LaPierre on his professional website. The only thing he abhors more than gun control is silence. When a conversation about former New York Governor George Pataki's pro-gun record entered a lull, he asked the group what sounded like an American history riddle or piece of trivia: "What do Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama have in common?"
The collective intelligence of the minibus was stumped. After a few beats, he delivered the answer: "Nothing. Yet."
Most of the bus erupted in laughter, but the father from Long Island looked out the window, embarrassed.
Parents who want to shield their children from presidential assassination jokes should consider vacation destinations other than NRA conventions. The group's leadership has in recent years expertly cultivated a very profitable hatred and paranoia among its membership. This fact was on majestic display in St. Louis, where NRA officials painted the president as a dedicated "enemy of freedom" quietly implementing the early stages of a master gun confiscation plan. The convention marked the opening salvo in the group's campaign to defeat Obama and his gun control allies in November. The official battle cry for this effort, unveiled on Friday, is "All In."
The NRA's election-year slogan is meant to evoke a bit of the Wild West tough guy imagery that remains central to American gun culture. The phrase comes from poker, the card game of the frontier, and the desired picture is that of a noble, steely-eyed gun lobby pushing its mountain of chips across the table of America's destiny, betting everything on one last high-stakes hand. In NRA land, where impending Second Amendment Apocalypse is a state of mind and a business strategy, the next election is always the final hand. As he did in 2008, chief NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre describes 2012 as "the most important election of our lifetime."
For a group with a self-replenishing supply of chips, the slogan "All In" is absurd. Recent years have seen record profits for the gun and ammo industries, of which the NRA is an integral part. During Saturday's Leadership Forum, two grateful firms -- Ruger and MidwayUSA, the sponsor of the convention -- together donated more than $8 million to the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. These two gifts alone -- raised through a "round-up" campaign on sales -- nearly equal the group's record spending for the 2008 cycle.
Flush with cash from the Obama-era gun boom it's done so much to fuel and drive, the NRA is today a very different beast than when it faced the possibility of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. It has even mutated in large and important ways since 2007, when one of its former lobbyists, Richard Feldman, described the organization as a "cynical, mercenary political cult." Today's NRA is less a lobbying and campaigning organization than a highly profitable, multi-division industry, merchandising, and fundraising machine. It has an annual budget of between $220 and $250 million and executives eligible for the Buffet Rule. An election year for them is a night at the blackjack table for Michael Jordan.
"All In" works better as a slogan if considered in terms of the group's maximalist -- which is another word for extreme, and in the gun context, possibly insane -- interpretation of the Second Amendment. While the NRA once focused on playing national defense against major gun control legislation, it now plays ferocious legislative offense at the state level, where it has expanded gun rights beyond what actors in previous gun debates could have imagined. Its top national legislative priority at the moment is a Senate bill introduced by South Dakota's John Thune that would force all states that issue concealed carry permits to recognize those of every other state. (Carry a laser-sighted 9mm Glock in Laredo? Bring it to Brooklyn.)
Better known is the group's work pushing controversial "Stand Your Ground" legislation at the state level, which a growing number of critics and a growing body of evidence says encourages vigilantism, increases gun violence, and complicates the prosecution of the perpetrators of violent crime.
In pushing its no-limits reading of the Second Amendment in statehouses across the country, the NRA has enjoyed paradigm-shifting success. "Thirty years ago, there was a national conversation about a national handgun ban, and today we're having a conversation about nationwide right-to-carry [handguns]," bragged Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute of Legislative Action, more than once during the convention.
It is unclear whether the NRA's side in this conversation is a winner on the national stage. Alone among the speakers at Friday's "Leadership Forum," Mitt Romney declined to toss bloody cuts of steak at the NRA audience. Now in general election mode, Romney, who only joined the NRA in 2006, has seen the recent data indicating the group's impotence in national elections. (Though its SuperPAC potential in the wake of Citizens United is huge.) Romney knows most NRA members sniff him with suspicion for signing an assault weapons ban and tripling gun registration fees as governor of Massachusetts. But he's probably right in thinking he can survive these suspicions, or at least that he has much bigger problems. Romney took no chances pandering at an event featuring swing-voter-kryptonite clowns like Glenn Beck, (Ret.) Gen. Jerry Boykin, and Ted Nugent.
(Nugent, an NRA board member who worked the convention plugging his new book and branded line of ammunition, made headlines and drew Secret Service attention after video emerged of himurging a crowd there to "ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off in November" and saying that he "will either be dead or in jail by this time next year" if Obama is re-elected. He has since saidhe will "stand by" those comments; asked about an effort by Democrats that Romney (who sought and received Nugent's endorsement) distance himself from Nugent's comments, Nugent claimed that "Mitt Romney knows what I'm saying is true.")
Romney's speech could have been delivered before the National Restaurant Association -- heavy on "freedom" and nearly bereft of the word "gun" or its synonyms. Aside from a call to fire Attorney General Eric Holder, which sent the crowd to its feet, he left the NRA rank-and-file cold.
Don Craiger, a retired Lt. Colonel from Rockford Illinois, could only muster a shrug after Romney's speech. "He can't be any worse than what we've got," he said. "Anybody would be better." Back in the media room, writers for the gun press were withering in their assessment. "We should title our pieces 'The content of Mitt Romney's NRA Speech,' and then just have a giant blank space underneath," sneered a feature writer for leading handgun magazines. "Lackluster," said Roy Kubicek, the pro-gun blogger behind Days of Our Trailers. "I wasn't impressed. He said as little as he could that could be used against him in the general. Because of his actions as governor, I have little faith in him. He's a politician to the core, he'll blow whichever way the wind is blowing."
"Hell no I don't trust him, the guy is an empty shell -- but what am I gonna do, vote for Ron Paul?" said Ross Davis, a 30-year-old landscaper from Tennessee standing in line to meet Ted Nugent.
For the gun business, Romney's failings as a gun-rights champion may offer the best of both worlds in the event of his election: highly unlikely to pursue gun control measures as president, but leaving enough doubt to keep alive embers of panic about gun confiscation. Manufactured panic is the undisputed basis of the industry's recent growth, which research suggests would have otherwise stalled. Throughout the convention's seven-acre display floorshow, manufacturers and dealers reported record sales following Obama's election and the spread of conceal-and-carry laws. Those in the gun industry can't afford to be anything but "All In" when it comes to the NRA's two-track operation of politics and propaganda that inflates fears of impending gun confiscation while simultaneously expanding opportunities for carrying and using them.
(Exactly what the NRA is doing with the fruits of this strategy is the subject of some gnawing questions raised by a Bloomberg Businessweek investigation into the group's finances. The magazine revealed numerous instances in which the donation amounts stated in the NRA's 2010 tax filings well exceeded the amount actually received by the charities named, sometimes by as much as one half.)
There's no lack of self-awareness about panic-production on the industry side of the equation.
"There's a lot of panic buying when Democrats are in power, and a lot of it is driven by the NRA and the gun press," said convention exhibitor Steve Johnston, a manager at Graf's Reloading, a gun and ammo shop in St. Charles, Missouri. "But then after a while [following] the election, people start to get depressed and think, 'Oh wait, I don't really need three AR-15's. I need to pay for food.'"
And so maybe a couple of those AR-15s end up on the newly saturated secondary gun market, where prices come down and tracking the guns get harder, thanks to the NRA's efforts to lower the bar for federal gun licenses, which has proliferated the number of "kitchen table" gun dealers. But soon there's another election cycle to hype, and more gun-confiscation bogeyman to invent. The process begins anew, just in time for the new models. "Having a Democrat in office is sort of like a double-edged sword," said a representative with a major handgun manufacturer who asked not to be identified. "You want your guy to win, but it's not as good for business. There will be a sales dip if the Republican wins."
Whether the NRA and its industry allies really want to defeat Obama is a question worth asking. So is the question of whether they are capable of making it happen. The last few cycles have been unkind to the NRA's self-image as a grassroots-driven get-out-the-vote powerhouse to be feared and placated. Whatever the truth about the NRA's oft-cited role in ushering in the Republican Congress of 1994 and defeating Al Gore in Tennessee in 2000, that's all in the rear-view. In 2006 the NRA bet on losing candidates with 80 percent of its money spent on independent expenditures. Two years later, the group spent more than $7 million only to see its chosen "A"-rated Congressional candidates go down in flames in 80 percent of their races against candidates endorsed by the NRA's nemesis, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The gun lobby would love to chalk those painful drubbings up to larger Democratic waves, but the trend continuedeven amidst the GOP's 2010 resurgence.
According to NRA rhetoric, 2008 should have meant the death of the Second Amendment and the start of a new era of liberal darkness at midnight. In the run-up to Obama's victory, Wayne LaPierre, America's best-paid Little Shepard Boy, had seen wolves everywhere, calling 2008 "arguably the most important year in [the NRA's] history." It's a dog-eared script for the NRA that precedes LaPierre's arrival on the scene in 1977. A decade earlier, NRA president Harlon Carter warned that the 1968 Gun Control Act augured a time when "our children will not be able to enjoy the shooting sports."
As any gun control advocate can tell you, that didn't happen. Three-and-a-half years after Obama's victory, gun owners have more rights than ever, as well as a friendly landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision in the form of MacDonald v. Chicago finding state handgun bans unconstitutional. Yet the NRA's script is more shrill than ever. The group continues to hype a discredited slippery-slope argument to the soundtrack air-raid sirens and chinging cash registers. Obama's election has been such a boon for membership dues and gun sales, you get the sense the NRA is upset mostly over its wounded ego.
"We didn't do so well last time, and need to reclaim our title," said Miranda Bond, Coordinator for the NRA-ILA's Grassroots Division. "Obama is the most dangerous president we've ever faced, and we need to do more."
Neither Bond nor her colleagues in St. Louis mentioned "the most dangerous president they've ever faced" has earned an "F" rating from the Brady Campaign. To be fair, there were a few mentions of Obama's failure to advance the cause of common-sense gun regulation, even after the shooting of a U.S. Congresswoman by a deranged Army reject who legally purchased a Glock with extended magazine like he was super sizing a burger meal. But these recognitions were uniformly couched in warnings of a stealth attack just over the horizon -- Barack Obama as the billion-dollar B-2 bomber of gun control. Unless the gun lobby's "brassroots" can recruit the 96 percent of America's 100 million gun owners who do not belong to the NRA, officials warned, the mask will slide off after Obama's reelection, the ATF confiscation army unleashed on God-fearing gun owners across the land.
The group's get-out-the-vote strategy in 2012 involves closing what the NRA worries is a yawning social media gap between its members and progressive and Democratic groups. The NRA knows that a large and growing portion of its four million members are in, or soon to be in, the market for hearing aids and mechanized mall carts. Just as worrying, many of the younger attendees in St. Louis weren't interested in flashlight-on-the-chin ghost stories about Obama II or UN blue helmets. "We're here because we're into guns, not politics," said one 20-something attendee, to the nods of her friends. If the NRA wants to reach millennials, they should start by replacing whichever new media comm outfit they hired to run the group's online efforts. The face of NRA's would-be viral 2012"Trigger the Vote" campaign is 68-year-old actor R. Lee "Gunny" Ermey, best known as the donut-hating drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.
"Democrats can win the gun control war in 50 years if they just get wise and back off and let age take its course," said Terry Joggerst, a retired NRA member who had a 40-year career with Winchester. "When these 50-year-olds are all dead, and the young people who are more video game oriented replace them, the balance of power will swing. The people who feel most strongly about guns and gun rights are not the young."
The love in St. Louis that dared not speak its name was "Stand Your Ground." Speaker after speaker, including Romney, made direct and oblique references to the "Castle Doctrine," which allows people to defend their homes, but not one uttered the name of the Castle Doctrine's radical son, known as "Shoot First" or "Kill at Will" to its critics. This is because the shooting death of Trayvon Martin blew the lid off the NRA's state-level efforts, and the group understands it is rapidly becoming a losing issue nationally and possibly within its own ranks. Two days after the conclusion of the conference, the NRA's partner in pushing "Stand Your Ground" bills, the American Legislative Exchange Council, announced it was disbanding its Task Force on Elections and Public Safetyand moving forward would focus only on economic legislation.
Even before the ALEC announcement, there were signs the NRA is nervous about defending "Stand Your Ground" laws against an avalanche of bad press. Chris Cox of the NRA-ILA is usually an articulate spokesperson. But when confronted by a member who worried the controversial laws were outside the group's founding mission and risked hurting the larger cause, Cox lapsed into incoherence and noticeably did not mention either the law or ALEC by name:
There's support across the board for the Second Amendment, there's support across the board, even post-media hysteria over the last few weeks, there's support across the board for legitimate self-defense. We don't apologize for support -- whether you call it a national right or a God-given right, legislation that recognizes our right to defend ourselves. The fact that other groups and other business entities and others are supportive of that concept of constitutional freedom, or that they're concerned about it from a Second Amendment standpoint or an economic freedom standpoint, that's not my position to be, you can call them and ask them, that's not my position to take, for debate, for them. We stand in strong defense of any effort to allow law-abiding, good people to defend themselves against criminal attack. We don't apologize for that. It's not a problem in this country. We will defend our efforts. We will defend those laws, and if others want to join that fight, we will. [Listen to the audio here.]
While Cox refused to engage with the details of Trayvon Martin's death, his members were more open. Jon Alexander, an NRA member and organizer from Illinois, said he supported the law in theory but admitted to becoming wary of it in practice. "We should have a right to defend ourselves anywhere we have a right to be," he said. "But I think what happened in Florida, I don't think [Zimmerman is] eligible for that kind of protection. I don't think he was standing his ground. I think he was looking for trouble. But I'm not a lawyer."
Neither is Wayne LaPierre, who closed out the Leadership Forum by blasting the media over its coverage of Martin's death. Attacks on the media were a running theme of the convention, and walking its halls with a "MEDIA" badge felt just slightly safer than wearing antlers. On the exhibition floor, major-gun manufacturer Remington mounted a large television display that looped a Remington-branded video lambasting the major networks. Singling out Brian Williams and NBC, one screenshot described the network as "agenda-driven, flawed, irresponsible, alarming, deceptive, [and] misleading."
"We're very worried about this so-called 'Stand Your Ground' law here in St. Louis," said McCowan of the NAACP. "It's gaining traction and it's clear that it encourages people to shoot first, then tell the police what you want to tell them, because you just killed your witness. We hope the pushback will grow."A few hours before LaPierre's anti-media tirade, an alliance of local and national activists gathered in the marble foyer of St. Louis City Hall to release a218,000 signature petitioncalling for the repeal of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" legislation. "These citizens believe, as we do, that it is long past time to repeal these reckless laws, and to fight for every reasonable effort to keep our children safe and gun violence out of our lives," said gun violence prevention activist Joe Grace, who launched the petition. Democratic State Rep. Jamila Nasheed asked Missourians to join her in the fight against NRA-backed legislation currently pending in the Missouri House. Flanking Nasheed were three survivors of last year's mass shooting in Tucson, and Rev. Elston McCowan of the St. Louis NAACP. Nasheed's coalition can expect support from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's new initiative to repeal "Stand Your Ground" laws wherever they have passed.
Patricia Maisch, a native of St. Louis and survivor of the Tucson massacre, had traveled to her hometown in hopes of meeting with NRA executives. "We used to say we didn't want their guns, we wanted their help, but I don't think that's possible anymore," she said. "The leadership has gone beyond the pale. If you talk to older members of the organization, they'll tell you the NRA is not what it was when they were a kid. Now it's all about making money and selling guns and frightening their members. They have no incentive to stop the cycle."
How could they? The NRA and its industry partners are the cycle. As Chris Cox likes to say, "The fight is never over."