The National Rifle Association will put on a show at its annual leadership forum in Houston on Friday. Senior Republicans will parade through the event. Gun industry executives will fill the VIP seats wearing the coveted gold jackets of the NRA Golden Ring of Freedom. The tragedy in Uvalde, Texas will put a damper on some of the festivities — Don McLean, who sang the 1970s-anthem “American Pie,” withdrew from the event — but other lesser-known acts will perform.
It’s a remarkable show of force, particularly for an organization that has been battered in recent years by litigation, plummeting revenue and a failed coup. Indeed, Friday will be the first time that Republican leaders have spoken at an NRA annual meeting since 2019 in Indianapolis, after a struggle for power broke out within the NRA leadership. The still-hot civil war started after Oliver North, the Reagan-era conservative hero and then-NRA president, accused longtime CEO Wayne LaPierre of embezzlement.
A lot has changed since then. Understanding this metamorphosis may help explain the nation’s failure to act in the face of so many recent heartbreaking gun tragedies. The unspeakable loss, this time of 19 young children in Uvalde, following soon after the 10 adults killed in a racist attack in Buffalo, and shootings in Chicago and Laguna Woods over just the past few weeks, underscores the frightening level of gun violence that is the new American norm. Meaningful gun reform, meanwhile, despite nationwide pleas for change, is not even on the horizon.
Ultimately, the NRA is a profoundly weaker and more divided organization than it once was. But its legacy, even if it fails to survive, will be the culture and ideology of gun rights it helped cultivate, and that is a potent thing for many conservative voters and the Republican politicians who chase them.
Apart from McLean, who said it would now be “disrespectful and hurtful” to perform for the NRA, few appear to be fleeing. Former President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), along with LaPierre and other NRA officials, remain scheduled to speak. (Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shifted course and plans to send videotaped remarks instead, while holding a press conference in Uvalde.)
NRA members comprise a thick part of the base of what could be called the American gun rights movement. The speakers, in response to these tragedies, are certain not to concede to fresh demands for gun reform; they’ve long vowed to protect gun owners from being penalized for the actions of criminals or the mentally ill. In fact, they’re just as likely to point to the corresponding calls for reform as evidence that gun rights are squarely under siege.
The man on the stage with arguably the weakest credentials on gun rights but who might get the biggest applause will be Trump. He is still the leader of the Republican Party, which has long entwined itself with the NRA. Cruz will no doubt flag that last month he introduced a resolution with 21 other Republican senators opposing the Biden administration’s proposed crackdown on homemade or “ghost guns,” saying registration of gun parts would be the start of national firearms registry. Abbott can boast that he recently allowed Texans to carry handguns with neither training nor a permit.
The gun lobby’s celebration of its ongoing clout comes at a time when the nation’s polarization over gun rights mirrors our divides over abortion as well as the rule of law and the future of our own constitutional republic. But another divide could end up on display in Houston, and it could reveal more fissures.
The fight to oust LaPierre isn’t over.
NRA board director, Phil Journey, who is a Kansas state district judge, is leading the effort to, in his words, “Restore the NRA.” He said in a video that LaPierre is “plundering” the organization. He and his allies have chosen Allen West as their torchbearer to replace him.
West, of course, is the fiery former Republican congressman from Florida who later moved to Texas and for a year was chair of the state party. He made the QAnon phrase, “We are the storm,” the mantra of the Texas GOP and put it on fundraising mailings as well as on T-shirts and hats. Then he ran for governor of Texas, trying to outflank Abbott from the right in the GOP primary. He lost. West, who also writes for the Christian News Service, now seems focused on usurping LaPierre.
West joined the NRA board of directors in 2016, and, within three years, he joined North in accusing LaPierre of the massive embezzlement scheme.
A former NRA president, David A. Keene, defended LaPierre in Ammoland.com, while calling West all talk and no action and “a show horse” as opposed to a “work horse” like LaPierre.
LaPierre’s recent tenure has been characterized by a series of scandals, and New York Attorney General Tish James has sought to dissolve the organization. But LaPierre still has the support of most of the NRA board.
In Indianapolis in 2019, two prior NRA presidents spoke out in his defense: Marion P. Hammer, the first woman president, and the daughter of a soldier who died in Okinawa during World War II, and Jim Porter, the son of a prior president who held the gavel during the Cincinnati Revolt in 1977 that turned the NRA into the gun lobby.
These NRA elders pointed out how LaPierre was the first leader in decades to finally deliver an American president, Trump, to speak at an NRA convention (Ronald Reagan was the first). So whatever LaPierre did or didn’t do doesn’t matter. Trump’s tenure advanced gun rights — along with some of the country’s darkest forces. He opened the door to the rise of white nationalism within the Republican Party, where it merged with an “absolutist” vision of gun rights. The rise of racial tension combined with fear surrounding the pandemic further contributed to ongoing, record sales of firearms since 2020, and an unprecedented ammunition shortage that is expected to last at least until 2023.
No one should forget that the first time an NRA official was given the stage at a political party’s national convention came at the 2016 Republican National Convention that nominated Trump. In 2020, after the NRA began to implode under the embezzlement accusations, the GOP chose the McCloskeys to speak to gun rights. They’re the St. Louis couple who pointed their semi-automatic pistol and rifle, respectively, at passing Black Lives Matter protesters.
Prospects for gun reform anytime soon are nil. While no doubt many Americans clamor for greater gun safety regulations, the ideology of gun rights pulses stronger today than ever. What many Democrats and reformers still don’t realize is that what is stopping them from achieving even one gun reform law is not the NRA’s money, but its ideology. The creed of gun rights.
From this view, even the most heartbreaking losses of either children or adults are “the price of freedom.” Or so the disgraced former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly said in 2017, after nearly 60 people were killed in the Las Vegas shooting. It’s a viewpoint that only seems to have grown.