A freckled boy with tousled hair looks into the camera and says, “I am NRA Country.” A black guy with dreadlocks echoes him, as do two pretty young women suppressing giggles, saying in unison, “We are NRA Country.” Then there’s country music star Justin Moore, leaning against a farm fence in worn jeans and a cowboy hat, strumming a guitar as scenes of Americana flash by. “You don’t have to look far—all you gotta do is look around,” he sings. “This is NRA Country.”
In Moore’s video, NRA Country looks like a wonderful place. The girls are pretty, the skies are blue, and people seem to spend a lot of time outdoors. But appearances aside, all is not well in NRA Country: according to the National Rifle Association, it faces existential peril in the form of Barack Obama’s possible second term.
Well before the Aurora theater shooting and the Sikh temple massacre returned guns to the political radar, the NRA adopted the poker-table slogan “All In!” for the 2012 election season. The NRA’s long-serving executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, has dubbed the looming vote “the most dangerous election in our lifetime.” In mailings this summer, the NRA’s Political Victory Fund proclaimed that donations “could mean the difference between the survival or destruction of our Second Amendment freedoms.”
The NRA’s beef with Obama could be bad news for the president. The gun group, which grades candidates on their fidelity to the cause on a scale from A+ to F, claims an instrumental role in defeating John Kerry in 2004, Al Gore in 2000 and the Democrats’ Congressional majority in 1994. (“The NRA is the reason Republicans control the House,” Bill Clinton famously said after that election.) While some analysts believe its political power is overstated, the NRA is chiefly feared because it speaks to those voters who will cast their ballot based on the gun issue alone—a unity of purpose that gun control supporters lack.
Central to this fearsome image of the NRA is the notion that it is more than just an organization with a lot of money (it spent $244 million in 2010) and 4 million members (a minority of America’s estimated 70 million–plus gun owners)—that it is, in fact, the vanguard of America’s mainstream working-class culture. It isn’t just that President Obama and Nancy Pelosi disagree with the NRA on gun policy. It’s that their attitude on guns puts them out of step and out of touch with what real blue-collar Americans care about. As a recent headline in the NRA’s magazine asked: “Our America or Obama’s?”
But like the view through the scope of a high-powered rifle, that cultural lens magnifies one aspect of America’s gun politics to the exclusion of all else. Among other things, it obscures the fact that Obama has done little to nothing on gun policy. It glosses over the plain truth that the gun control battles of the 1990s are over and that the NRA has largely won. And most important, it ignores the fact that the gun issue is very much about money—money that the NRA banks with each new member, that the gunmakers earn with each new gun.
There is no divorcing the politics of guns from their profits. America’s gun lobby and gun industry both benefit from creating a fearful vision of life in the United States—a picture of criminals constantly menacing our families and a government hellbent on taking our guns—that is very effective at selling weapons. In fact, in large part because of the way anxieties about his gun policies have been manipulated, the Obama era has been a golden age for firearms manufacturers, and the run-up to Election 2012 could be for Glock and Remington what the Christmas shopping season is for Macy’s and Sears: a time to cash in before the narrative changes.
Many factors—fear of crime during the economic downturn, better promotion of hunting by state wildlife agencies, more women taking up shooting, veterans returning home with a deeper attachment to guns—have likely fueled the boom in gun sales. But Obama’s influence is given singular credit. As Remington’s then-CEO, Ted Torbeck, put it in a May 2009 conference call with investors, “demand…has risen amidst concerns that the new administration will further restrict the use or purchase of firearms and ammunition and levy additional taxes on these products.”
The NRA has been sounding the alarm over Barack Obama since at least 2008, when it called the then–presidential candidate a “serious threat to Second Amendment liberties” and later launched a website called GunBanObama.com. After the president was elected, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action warned, “American gun owners will soon be the targets of an attack dog named Rahm Emanuel.” Barely two months into the Obama administration, the NRA put out an alert called “The Coming Storm,” which described a “wish list of gun-prohibition measures” that the gun control lobby had presented to the White House. Gun sales—which fell 23 percent the first year that George W. Bush was president—soared 23 percent in 2009.
Yet the “coming storm” blew past without incident, as Obama took up none of the wish list measures. Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009 that the administration wanted a new ban on “assault weapons,” but the bid was quickly dropped. Instead, Obama signed a bill that year permitting guns to be carried in national parks. “Obama has done everything in his power to stay away from the gun issue,” Feldman says.
Obama’s inaction on guns earned him an F in 2009 from the pro–gun control Brady Center. Yet on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, the NRA warned that unless people voted for a pro-gun Senate, Obama would be in the position to pick a Supreme Court that “puts democracy in peril.”
In 2011, after Representative Gabby Giffords was shot in the head and six others killed by Jared Lee Loughner, who was wielding a Glock handgun with an extended magazine, Obama gave a nice speech but offered no policy. When the Trayvon Martin shooting in February pointed up the problems with “Stand Your Ground” laws, Obama delivered a moving statement but no substance.
Yet the NRA’s rhetoric reached a fever pitch this spring and summer, with the association warning in a fundraising letter that a second term for Obama would give him “free rein to declare all-out war on our gun rights and rip the Second Amendment right out of our Bill of Rights.”
The “Fast and Furious” controversy gave the gun lobby what at least looked like live ammo rather than blanks.
Gun manufacturers and the gun lobby haven’t always seen eye to eye. When Smith & Wesson struck a deal with the Clinton administration in 2000, agreeing to a long list of changes to its products and business practices—including limiting the size of magazines for its semi-automatic weapons and avoiding dealers who sold a disproportionate number of guns later used in crimes—the gun lobby howled. It led a boycott of Smith & Wesson that nearly killed the company; in a span of just two years, the number of guns manufactured by Smith & Wesson fell by 44 percent. “They just beat the crap out of Smith & Wesson for a while, then let them back in,” says Diaz. Colt Firearms and Sturm, Ruger have been similarly punished for crimes against the Second Amendment.
There remain differences of tone and substance between the industry, represented by the NSSF, and the political gun rights movement, anchored by the NRA. For example, according to Keane, the NSSF isn’t nearly as concerned as the NRA about a potential United Nations Treaty on Small Arms, which would regulate international transfers of guns (although negotiations over the still-vague treaty broke down in July). And after the mass shooting in Tucson, the NSSF engaged in a White House–sponsored dialogue among gun control groups and gun rights supporters about ways to reduce violence; the NRA did not.
Come November, should the gun-friendly Mitt Romney win and the House remain under Republican control, both the NRA and the gun industry will need a new premise for their profitable scare tactics. But as is true for the increasing number of concealed-carry permit holders packing heat each time they go out for a gallon of milk, if all you need to feel frightened is the mere possibility of danger, then danger will be everywhere. After all, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo might run for president in 2016, and he has a record as a gun control proponent. He could replace Barack Obama as Public Enemy No. 1 in NRA Country.