Twenty years ago, the National Rifle Association didn’t know what to do after a mass shooting. But it now has the protocol down: it’s had, after all, plenty of practice. First: keep quiet. Cancel events and interviews, stop updating Twitter and Facebook. If cornered, say: ‘This is a time to mourn, not to play politics.’ Or: ‘The anti-gun zealots are exploiting a tragedy to advance their anti-freedom agenda.’ Meanwhile, NRA fundraisers will be trying to reach all their five million members to let them know that this time it’s serious, the liberals are coming for their guns, and they need to dig deep and donate whatever can be spared to ‘freedom’s safest place’, the NRA. On their own, the members will have already started calling politicians to demand that they not back down on gun freedom: 60 per cent of Americans, when surveyed, are in favour of stricter gun control laws, but you wouldn’t know it from a congressman’s call log. On its website, the NRA advises members not to threaten the politicians they telephone, and to be careful about identifying themselves as members of the NRA, since ‘unfortunately, many anti-gun politicians are under the misguided impression that NRA members only say what NRA tells them to say.’
What the NRA no longer does after a mass shooting is grovel before Congress, as its flustered head did after Columbine in 1999, when – was that shame? – he testified that anyone who buys a gun should have to pass a background check (he took that back a few years later), and agreed that guns shouldn’t be allowed in schools (he took that back too). With reporters, silence and deflection tend to work well enough, but if a particular mass shooting seems to be getting more attention than usual, or if even Republican allies start suggesting that maybe they’re not completely unsympathetic to ‘some common-sense gun laws’, then the NRA takes to the airwaves, ideally with an attractive young mother as its spokeswoman. She’ll say: gun control doesn’t work, it just keeps law-abiding folks from protecting their children, since criminals will always find a way to get guns. In Chicago they have some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, and how’s that working out for them? More than one hundred Americans are killed every day by cars – will you outlaw cars too? Will you force women to defend themselves against murderers and rapists with knives? And she’ll quote Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s leader, who likes to say that ‘the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ In 2012, after 26 people (twenty of them six and seven-year-olds) were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he suggested that every school in America should have ‘an extraordinary corps’ of armed citizens patrolling the halls. After all, Obama’s daughters were protected with guns: ‘Are the president’s kids more important than yours?’ an NRA ad asked. In 2018, after 17 people were killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida, LaPierre said the solution was to arm teachers. News stations followed by holding debates on whether teachers should pack heat, with federal funds allocated to shooting lessons. Never mind gun control. The next month, the NRA broke a 15-year fundraising record.
LaPierre likes to say that shooting is in America’s blood: it’s what Americans have always done, with the right to own guns ‘granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright’. But as Frank Smyth points out in his new history of the NRA, the organisation was actually founded because a group of Union Army veterans were dismayed by how few Americans actually knew how to shoot, particularly compared with Europeans. According to one of its founders, George Wingate of the New York National Guard, ‘the Civil War had demonstrated with bloody clarity that soldiers who could not shoot straight were of little value. This situation, and the general ignorance concerning marksmanship which I found among our soldiers during the Civil War, appalled me.’ He assumed that Americans would eventually be drawn into a European war in which they would be outmatched, particularly against the Prussians with their superior rear-loading rifles.
Wingate’s model was the British National Rifle Association, which had been organised to promote the Home Guard in 1859, the year Tennyson wrote ‘Riflemen Form!’; Queen Victoria opened its first meeting by firing on Wimbledon Common. (The British NRA still exists to promote marksmanship ‘throughout the queen’s dominions’ and acknowledges no relationship with its namesake.) Smyth explains that Wingate went to London in the 1870s, and ‘studied how the British had designed their system of competitive shooting, and then got the American NRA to follow their lead’, even turning swampland on Long Island into ‘the spitting image of Wimbledon’. The NRA was privately run, but much of its money came from the government. Shortly before his death, Ulysses S. Grant was made its president, and his name helped. The army paid for NRA shooting matches, and allowed it to buy surplus military rifles at cost. After an outbreak of train robberies, the NRA was put in charge of running shooting courses for railroad mail clerks. For decades, it took little interest in gun legislation: when gun crime rose during Prohibition, the NRA accepted that ‘tighter regulations of the sale and use of firearms’ were ‘inevitable’. It supported the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first federal gun control law, and was in favour of taxes on guns and ammunition to support wildlife conservation. After Dunkirk, but before the US entered the Second World War, it shipped thousands of guns to England to ‘rearm the police and Home Guard’. Churchill sent his thanks.
None of this seems particularly embarrassing, but in the NRA’s preferred version of history – one promoted by its board members in interviews and by speakers at NRA conventions – the organisation was actually founded by Union Army veterans in order to ‘train Black Americans to arm themselves and defend themselves against the KKK’. (A few years ago, the NRA started referring to itself as ‘America’s longest standing civil rights organisation’.) Black Union Army veterans often kept their guns, and the Ku Klux Klan would go house to house lynching men who wouldn’t give them up, but there is zero evidence that the NRA ever came to their aid. In recent years, as NRA members have found common cause with White Power activists and the Militia movement, the organisation has emphasised ‘the racist history of gun control’: all the gun permits denied to Black people over the years by racist cops, the ‘open carry’ laws that were briskly repealed after the Black Panthers started marching, legally, on state capitols with loaded shotguns. The NRA has taken to honouring the birthday of Martin Luther King because, before he became America’s most famous proponent of non-violence, he had once been denied a gun permit in Alabama, and so, according to NRA logic, was actually a ‘victim of gun control’ when he was killed years later by a bullet from a Remington Model 760 Gamemaster – the only thing that stops a bad guy etc.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination was harder for the NRA to explain away: the president’s motorcade was hardly lacking in good guys with guns, and Lee Harvey Oswald had ordered his cheap Carcano infantry rifle, surplus from the Italian military, from the back pages of the NRA’s monthly magazine, American Rifleman. In response, the NRA’s then head, Franklin Orth, came out in favour of limiting mail-order gun purchases and did little to prevent the Gun Control Act of 1968, which ‘banned the interstate retail sale of guns, prohibited all sales to juveniles, convicted felons and individuals adjudicated as being mentally unsound’. It was far more anaemic than the bill that Lyndon Johnson had hoped to pass, but it enraged a faction of NRA hardliners, who would succeed in overturning the law prohibiting interstate sales. One board member, Neal Knox, argued that Kennedy’s assassination might have been the work of gun control activists trying to bring about disarmament – a commie plot to make Americans easier to subdue. The NRA split between members who bought their guns for hunting and target practice – and who wanted to move the organisation’s headquarters to Colorado Springs, where they would concentrate on gun safety and environmental awareness – and those who bought their guns for self-defence, and had no interest in ever leaving Washington. You know who won.
One of the things Johnson wanted, and blamed the NRA for not letting him get, was a national registry of all the guns in the country. NRA lobbying was still in its infancy, but when its publications attacked the ‘irrational emotionalism’ of Johnson’s proposals, its members buried their congressmen in post. Crime rates were rising: they needed guns for protection, and to have to register them would be un-American. Even now, the FBI has to destroy background check records within 24 hours so that they can’t be used in future investigations, and government agencies are forbidden from creating ‘any system of registration of firearms, firearm owners or firearm transactions’. For the NRA, it’s axiomatic that gun registries inevitably lead to mandatory gun surrenders and confiscation. When Ben Carson was running for president in 2016, and blamed the Holocaust on gun control (his argument seemed to be that German Jews would have prevailed against the Nazis if only they’d been allowed to keep their guns), I thought: well, that’s Ben Carson.
But actually that’s the NRA. On its website – and in books and articles by writers with dubious credentials, funded by NRA grants, such as Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and ‘Enemies of the State’, written by one of the NRA’s lawyers – the argument is made, over and over again, that gun registries are the golden thread connecting all genocidaires: ‘Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot and other 20th-century mass murderers did not start their genocides until after they had disarmed whom they planned to exterminate … More guns, less genocide.’ Furthermore, according to the NRA, registries put the lives of gun owners at risk – since what is a gun registry but a ready-made list of potential resistance members? Gun owners know, of course, how to handle weapons, and they’re also known to be ‘resourceful, independent-minded persons’. During a government takeover, wouldn’t they be among the first to be rounded up?
The NRA argues that guns are necessary to resist one’s government when it goes, probably inevitably, fascist or communist, and to prevent genocide generally, and to protect oneself when there’s no government at all. ‘What people all over the country fear today is being abandoned by their government,’ LaPierre says. ‘If a tornado hits, if a hurricane hits, if a riot occurs that they’re going to be out there alone. And the only way they’re going to protect themselves in the cold and the dark, when they’re vulnerable, is with a firearm.’ One of the NRA’s television campaigns claimed that Congress was releasing thousands of drug dealers from prison. The adverts didn’t show guns at all: they didn’t need to. The NRA is nevertheless quick to assure its members that, hellish though things are, at least they’re not living in a country with stricter gun laws. In Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America, the former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch says that ‘gun crime skyrocketed’ in Britain when ‘criminals realised that they could rob and rape anyone they wanted without concern that their victims would be equally able to defend themselves.’
There are probably 400 million ‘civilian owned’ firearms in the US, and (although there is of course no registry) 43 per cent of Americans report that they live in a home with a gun, even if they don’t own one themselves. Those numbers are going up. Anxiety about the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have done more for gun sales than the 9/11 attacks, and even more than the election of Barack Obama and the Sandy Hook shootings, when Americans thought that guns were about to become illegal and that they needed to stock up. Not all states require that all gun purchasers undergo background checks – loopholes abound – but whenever a person does buy a gun from a licensed dealer, the FBI dutifully performs one. The checks usually take a few minutes and are hardly intrusive, but at least they can be counted. Last year, they performed 28.4 million checks; by the end of August this year, they were already at 25.9 million. (Just wait until Christmas sales are taken into account.) In January and February, according to a Brookings study, Americans were buying between 80,000 and 100,000 guns a day. In March, after Trump declared a state of emergency, it went up to 176,000 a day. When George Floyd was killed at the end of May, sales went up again. Smith & Wesson had its best quarter of all time; gun store owners say they’re having trouble keeping ammunition in stock. The NRA isn’t wrong to take some of the credit: they successfully lobbied governors – and, when lobbying failed, filed lawsuits – to have gun shops classified as ‘essential businesses’, to stop them having to close during lockdowns. What could be more ‘essential’, the NRA argued, than the ability to defend your life? Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, pushed back, and eventually prevailed in the courts; other Democratic governors caved in. The Republicans had needed little persuading in the first place.
Among Democrats, if only in the most left-leaning districts, being bashed by the NRA can be useful – it confers cred. And although some Republicans are occasionally wary of the NRA’s support (George W. Bush worried that it would hurt him among suburban women), that doesn’t mean they want the NRA to endorse some more freedom-loving Republican in the next primary. When the NRA donates directly to politicians, the amounts are usually on the small side, often less than $10,000 to congressmen, a bit more to senators. But where the NRA gives, its members follow. They’re dotted all over the country, but tend to be white rural men – a reliable Republican block, but only when they turn up. The NRA prides itself on getting its members registered to vote, which it does at gun shows and conventions, and – through TV ads, mailers, calls and ceaseless emails – delivering them to the polls. They’ve long been able to persuade a certain kind of American man that the NRA represents him and his values, even if he’s personally indifferent to guns. For years, Charlton Heston was re-elected to the NRA presidency because – despite living on an estate in Beverly Hills – when he faced the press, he was able to deliver such lines as:
Heaven help the God-fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle-class, Protestant or, even worse, Evangelical Christian, Midwest or Southern or, even worse, rural, apparently straight or, even worse, admitted heterosexual, gun-owning or, even worse, NRA-card-carrying, average working stiff, or even, worst of all, a male working stiff, because then, not only don’t you count, you’re a downright menace, an obstacle to social progress, pal.
Long after his death, NRA members still repeat his catchphrase, ‘I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands’ – but no one says it like he could, Moses with a tinge of Ben-Hur. As for Black gun owners, well. After the police killed Philando Castile – during a routine traffic stop he disclosed that he had a legally registered firearm in his car, but didn’t take it out – the NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch said that he shouldn’t have moved his hands to get out his driving licence. ‘I’ve been pulled over while carrying and I had out my permit before the officer got to the car,’ she tweeted. ‘There is a reason they teach this in classes.’ When the police killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy who was playing with a toy gun, she said that Rice shouldn’t have shown such a ‘general disrespect for law enforcement’.
In 2015, Obama acknowledged that there were more guns in the US than there had been at the beginning of his presidency, and argued that gun control activists wouldn’t get anywhere until more of their supporters became ‘single issue voters’, as uncompromising as the other side. The next year, the NRA spent $30 million to help Trump get elected, by far the most they’d ever spent on a single race. Only once did Trump seem to disappoint them, when – a few mass shootings into his presidency – he announced that he wanted Democrats and Republicans to ‘come together and get strong background checks’. LaPierre then tweeted that he’d spoken to the president, and all was well again: ‘We discussed the best ways to prevent these types of tragedies.’ Trump now says that existing checks are actually ‘very, very strong’.
Trump admits that he’s been bought – ‘a lot of the people who put me where I am are strong supporters of the Second Amendment’ – and says that the best way to prevent gun violence is to build mental institutions (since ‘mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun’). But financially, Trump’s victory was a disaster for the NRA: members became complacent with an ally in the White House, and dues dropped by $35 million. (‘We have an unusual business model,’ one board member told the New York Times. ‘The more successful we are, the less money we make.’) In the midterm elections, for the first time, the NRA was outspent by gun control advocacy groups, and they’ve had layoffs. All this has made them increasingly dependent on large donations from gun manufacturers, sometimes estimated to be at least 60 per cent of their income. It’s not just American money: a quarter of the guns in the US were made in Europe, and Austrians (Glock), Germans (SIG Sauer) and Italians (Beretta) have donated millions of dollars to the NRA in order to protect their biggest market. The interests of gun sellers and gun buyers often overlap, but not always. I used to wonder why the NRA seemed to value the right to carry a concealed gun over an openly carried one, until it was pointed out to me (in Tom Diaz’s excellent book The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It) that gun manufacturers often make more money from accessories – waistband holsters, ankle holsters, jackets with special pockets, vegan leather handbags with gun compartments – than from the guns themselves.
But above all, the NRA protects its own interests. Smyth’s book only touches on the Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which established for the first time that Americans have a right under the Second Amendment to keep guns for self-defence in their homes. Smyth mentions that the majority opinion partly relied on the work of a legal academic who’d been on the payroll of the NRA – a canny investment. But Adam Winkler’s more comprehensive (also more engaging) book, Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America (2011), offers a persuasive account of the NRA’s efforts to prevent libertarian gun rights activists from pursuing Heller all the way to the Supreme Court – not because the NRA thought they’d lose, or that another case would be stronger, but because they feared that a stunning legal victory would depress membership dues. As a former NRA lobbyist told Winkler, ‘nothing keeps the fundraising machine whirring more effectively than convincing the faithful that they’re a pro-gun David facing an invincible anti-gun Goliath.’ And the NRA needed the money – not only for its voter registration drives. The New York attorney general, Letitia James, alleges that NRA executives, principally LaPierre, have been diverting ‘charitable assets for their own benefit and interests’. The lawsuit she filed in August is a 168-page chronicle of lives well lived: private jets, yachts, safaris; $12,332.75 of NRA money for LaPierre’s niece to spend eight nights at a Four Seasons resort; $16,359 for hair and make-up artists for LaPierre’s wife. A senior assistant put her son’s wedding on expenses.
The NRA has countered with a lawsuit of its own, accusing James of misusing her office in an attempt to ‘silence the NRA’s advocacy and neutralise it as an opposing force’, all part of a liberal conspiracy to ‘harass, defund and dismantle the NRA because of what it believes and what it says’ in the run-up to the presidential election. James has said that she seeks the ‘dissolution’ of the NRA, though a change of leadership is more likely. LaPierre, seventy years old, was already planning his retirement; new executives will think twice about claiming for their haircuts. In the meantime, the NRA has a new advertising campaign, calling for donations to help it ‘stand and fight’ against the New York Democratic machine’s latest desperate, baseless attack on all gun owners. It says it’s gaining a thousand new members a day.