By Danny Katch
A civil war within the National Rifle Association has allowed us a look inside the supposedly all-powerful gun lobby. And it’s given us some good news: the NRA’s power has been wildly exaggerated. It can be defeated.
After the latest mass shooting in Virginia Beach, many commentators noted that these scenes of carnage have become depressingly familiar — as has the failure of our political system to come up with any solutions to our societal crisis of gun violence. But at least the wake of this latest tragedy has seen less of the “if only the victims were armed” take that usually makes a horrible situation even worse.
This may be a small consolation but it’s an important one, because it reflects the fact that the engine of that toxic concern trolling, the National Rifle Association (NRA), is going through a destructive civil war — a conflict rooted in greed, corruption, and debates about just how far into the far right the organization should venture. But mostly it’s about greed and corruption.
It’s a moment for shame-free schadenfreude — there’s nothing wrong with deriving pleasure from the self-inflicted wounds of people who smear school shooting victims as crisis actors, use the horror of the 2017 Manchester bombing to spread the white nationalist “replacement theory” of declining white birth rates, and hint that maybe gun owners should assault Black Lives Matter activists.
But as we hope for everyone involved to inflict maximum damage upon one another, it’s worth paying attention to some of the dirty laundry being aired through lawsuits and media leaks, which reveal that the organization’s image as an unstoppable force is just that: an image. That this misleading picture has been propagated for decades by both Republicans and Democrats should raise questions about the many different interests it’s served.
The conflict went public at the organization’s April convention when NRA president Oliver North tried and failed to oust longtime leader Wayne LaPierre, currently chief executive and executive vice president, and announced soon after that he wouldn’t be running for a second term. But North, the notorious Iran contra gun runner and drug smuggler whose ceremonial role as NRA president made a mockery of its claims to represent the law abiding “good guy” against criminals and the deep state, isn’t a major player in this fight. Rather, he’s the spokesmodel for Ackerman McQueen, the Oklahoma-based advertising firm that’s long been an integral part of the NRA.
Ackerman and the NRA have been locked in a power struggle as the gun lobbying group has been hit by a financial squeeze that’s led to the freezing of employee pensions, layoffs at the NRATV video channel, and a credit crunch. The result has been an escalating legal and media battle between the organization and its advertising firm over who is more responsible for reckless spending and gross mismanagement.
NRA lawyers have accused Ackerman McQueen of issuing “overbilled, deceptive, vague invoices” and having decision-making power within the NRA that creates “financial conflicts of interest.” The ad company counters with lurid stories of LaPierre billing half a million dollars at Beverly Hills boutiques and Italian resorts.
This all-around corruption was tolerable during the golden years of the Obama administration, when gun fundamentalists feared the coming apocalypse and the money kept rolling in. But, as Vox reported in January, membership dues have dropped 21 percent since 2016, and non-dues donations have gone down by almost 30 percent, leaving the NRA is a debt crisis even as it faces an ongoing New York state investigation into its tax-exempt status.
At the end of May, Ackerman McQueen announced that it was cutting ties with the NRA, leaving the future in doubt for NRATV and other propaganda projects of the country’s most powerful gun lobby.
Amidst the competing stories of financial misdeeds, one thing that’s become clear is that Ackerman McQueen has long been an underappreciated force within the NRA. As the New Yorker’s Mike Spies wrote:
Even as the association has reduced spending on its avowed core mission—gun education, safety, and training—to less than ten percent of its total budget, it has substantially increased its spending on messaging. The N.R.A. is now mainly a media company, promoting a lifestyle built around loving guns and hating anyone who might take them away.
There’s a fascinating sociological aspect to the story of how the NRA was transformed into a beacon of insurrectionary red-state culture warriors not by true believers from the gun-loving base, but by twenty-first-century Don Drapers. One longtime NRA employee described the Ackerman employees to Spies as highly skilled mercenaries who “weren’t your folks who were interested in Second Amendment politics” but instead were “your typical New York or Austin types that are excited about doing really big projects and creative projects.”
But the political lesson is that if the NRA is largely a spin factory, its highly touted ability to swing elections and shape the culture deserves closer scrutiny.
In 2012, Paul Waldman conducted a study of the NRA’s influence over the previous four national elections. He found that the NRA’s success rate in House races was mostly a result of the group endorsing incumbent Republicans in uncompetitive races. In competitive Senate races in which the NRA poured significant resources, the group had a Mets-like won-loss record of 10–12.
To be sure, national elections don’t cover the full extent of the NRA’s influence. As Benjamin McKean pointed out in Jacobin last year, the organization’s real strength lies in its base of five million dues payers, who make up both a mass audience and a pool of grassroots leaders to inject the organization’s toxic brew of libertarianism and racial paranoia into the political mainstream. But how much do rank-and-file NRA members, most of whom join the organization for its services like firearms training and insurance, agree with or even pay attention to the group’s propaganda?
In his reporting on the NRA-Ackerman standoff, Danny Hakim of the New York Times found that NRATV — Ackerman’s “signature product” — had fewer than fifty thousand unique visitors in January 2019. That’s a stunningly miniscule number given Ackerman’s $40 million annual budget. It’s also wildly out of line with the national attention NRATV understandably receives for its outrageous content.
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None of this is to say that the NRA is a paper tiger. If anything, some of its current financial problems result from its success: it’s hard to fundraise on paranoia that the government is coming for your guns as the first step in a globalist liberal conspiracy to take away all your rights when the guy running that government seems to believe all your conspiracy theories.
But it does show that, like Trump himself, the NRA represents a hard-right minority that has benefited enormously from the weak opposition it has faced from the centrist-dominated Democratic Party. It’s those very centrists, in fact, who have found it useful to exaggerate the NRA’s strength rather than face up to their own weakness.
The myth of the unbeatable gun lobby started in the aftermath of the 1994 Republican landslide in the midterm elections, which then-president Bill Clinton attributed to his party being punished for passing the Assault Weapons Ban. This explanation conveniently ignored the demoralization on the Left produced by the Democrats’ miserable performance after two years of controlling the White House and both houses of Congress. (Universal health care? No. NAFTA? Yes.) It also cast Clinton and his team as being punished for doing the right thing, which both gratified their egos and laid the groundwork for arguing that the party needed to move still further to the right (Gutting welfare? Mass incarceration? Financial deregulation? Yes! Yes! Yes!) in order to win elections in a country that was clearly teeming with right-wing, gun-loving rubes.
The NRA has been a useful boogeyman ever since for “third-way” Democrats like Clinton and Al Gore looking to make the party fully competitive with Republicans for the allegiance of capitalist donors. Stories of the fearsome gun lobby returned after Gore, an unbelievably soulless candidate — whose campaign slogan was “prosperity and progress” — lost the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.
Here’s Bill Clinton’s tortured explanation of why Gore lost the key state of Colorado:
… a referendum designed to close the so-called gun show loophole shared the ballot with the presidential ticket. Gore publicly backed the proposal, while Bush opposed it. Though the referendum passed with 70 percent of the vote, Gore lost the state. Clinton said that the reason was because a good chunk of the referendum’s opponents were single-issue voters who automatically rejected Gore as anti-gun.
How is it mathematically possible to be hurt by backing a measure with 70 percent support? The logic is tortured but the motivation is straightforward: centrist Democrats are forever looking for excuses to explain why something always seems to get in the way of their delivering on the progressive agenda that their voters want. As the pace of mass shootings has accelerated in the twenty-first century, the NRA has also become a conveniently Republican scapegoat that allows Democrats to ignore their own continued support for permanent war, police militarization, economic insecurity and hopelessness, and other policies that are clearly related to our national gun sickness.
What clever centrist strategists never seemed to realize is that the dual tack of hyping the NRA’s power as a destructive right-wing force and then citing their power as a reason to be moderate only made these moderates appear to be even more cowardly and unprincipled.
Last spring’s wave of school walkouts against gun violence that followed the Parkland massacre — in which students boldly challenged not only the NRA’s outsize political influence but also institutional racism, police profiling, and youth unemployment — showed that people are running out of patience with these failures. A successful political and cultural movement to reduce gun violence will need to recognize the NRA as a serious threat while understanding the reports of its omnipotence have been greatly exaggerated. We can thank Wayne LaPierre and Oliver North for pointing that out to us.