Four Years after Sandy Hook, the NRA Continues the Arming of America

The weekend after the presidential election, I attended a gun show in Frederick County, one of the rural counties in the blue state of Maryland that voted for Donald Trump. One mother, with her infant resting quietly in a navy blue stroller, pulled back the black metal slide of a 9mm pistol. Not far away a man caressed the polymer handguard and stock of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

The National Rifle Association manned a booth near the entrance. One of the men behind the green wooden counter, whose nametag read Bob, said he was a longtime NRA member. I asked him what he thought about NRA head Wayne LaPierre. “He’s well-spoken, and I trust him,” he answered.

Wayne LaPierre, in a video made by the NRA just days after the election, credited NRA members for Trump’s victory: “On November 8, you, the five million members of the National Rifle Association of America, along with the tens of millions of gun owners all over this country, who followed your lead, achieved a truly extraordinary, historic, even heroic accomplishment.”

The election of Donald J. Trump, combined with a Republican sweep of the Senate, has given today’s GOP an unprecendented monopoly of power. The NRA now finds itself within reach of goals that it has pursued for nearly forty years. The organization has arrived at this point via a combination of patience, self-control, and deceit.

“In the face of the bitter hatred and elitist condemnation, this is our historic moment to go on offense and defeat the forces that have allied against our freedom once and for all,” stated LaPierre in a recent video titled, “Our Time is Now.” With a patient, self-effacing demeanor, he’s the first executive director to not come from a military, hunting, or sports background.

In the video, LaPierre also mocks universal background checks, favored by 70 to 90 percent of Americans, and derides other “common sense” gun laws. He calls for the new Congress to pass a national concealed carry reciprocity law, which would require states to accept a concealed carry weapons permits issued by other states, much like the way states recognize each other’s driver licenses. Today, twenty-six states have at least some restrictions on who is eligible to carry a concealed weapon. Among them, nine states further limit such permits to people like security guards.

LaPierre also claims President Obama has “infected” federal courts with 300 constitutionally unsound judges and states that “Second Amendment freedoms” should trump state and municipal gun control laws. How is it that in Washington, D.C., one can now legally keep a gun in the home, asks LaPierre, but there is no place to buy a gun in the same city?

The NRA pumped a record $38 million into ads to help elect Donald Trump, and another $24 million to secure GOP control of the Senate. With the help of NRA campaign ads saturating the airwaves, six NRA-backed Senate candidates won key races, including Marco Rubio in Florida. Now the gun lobby is making an unprecedented push for federally mandated measures to expand the ability of state gun permit holders to carry firearms nationwide. The group is also seeking national legislation to legalize silencers. The NRA supports President-elect Trump promise to eliminate “gun-free zones” across the country, too.

“I don’t think it’s quite game over,” said Jonathan E. Lowy, legal director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “But there are reasons to be concerned.”

Trump will appoint at least one justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia, but the court’s liberal justices include Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who is eighty-three. If Trump gets to appoint a second Supreme Court justice, America’s entire political landscape could change. The NRA is looking for a Roberts court decision that would not only proscribe future attempts at gun control, but dramatically expand firearms access across the nation.

None of this was supposed to happen.

For years, many liberal pundits proclaimed the NRA was in decline. Gun ownership, they noted, has been decreasing across America. One report found that just three percent of Americans own most of the nation’s guns. The NRA, some said, is facing the same kind of challenges as the Republican Party in a nation that is increasingly diverse.

And then there was the gun tragedy that led gun reformists to believe their time had finally come. This Wednesday, December 14, marks the fourth anniversary of the slaughter of twenty small children and six of their educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The Sandy Hook tragedy was preceded by many other mass shootings from Columbine to Aurora, from Tucson to Virginia Tech, to name just a few, not to mention the more mundane, daily toll of gun violence. But it was this unspeakable schoolhouse tragedy that finally seemed to signal a time for change.

“So our hearts are broken today—for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost,” said a teary-eyed President Obama. Over the ensuing six months, there was a palpable hope that Congress would finally act. The Senate drafted bills to try and pass “universal” background checks, even though they still had large loopholes.

But even watered-down versions of the relatively token legislation failed due to the threat of a Republican filibuster over a Democratic-controlled Senate. None of the legislation introduced after Sandy Hook ever even made to the GOP-controlled House.

Understanding how the NRA survived Sandy Hook helps explain how the gun lobby has ended up on top today. It prevailed by downplaying its own extremism, and by presenting one alleged “independent” expert whose influence ran all the way to the Senate and Supreme Court.

LaPierre’s initial response to Sandy Hook shocked many people. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun,” he said, adding that if any adults at Sandy Hook had been armed, the children and educators might still be alive. His comments were described as “tone-deaf.” During the subsequent Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on gun violence, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois asked LaPierre if he thought the Second Amendment was meant to let citizens amass arms as a check on government, the driving mantra of gun rights absolutists. LaPierre said this was the Founding Fathers’ original intent, sidestepping the question of whether this is still the NRA’s view now.

Another witness at that Senate hearing, David Kopel, titled his testimony, “What Should America Do About Gun Violence?” He identified himself as the research director of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law at Denver University. He did not disclose that his Institute had received more than $1.4 million, including about $175,000 a year over the past eight years, from the NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund. For decades, until the funding was uncovered first by this reporter at and later by FOX31 in Denver, Kopel managed to write op-eds in leading newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, without ever identifying his NRA funding.

Kopel also wrote law journal pieces at top schools, including Harvard, Yale, and the University of Michigan, without disclosing his NRA funding. And he appeared before the Supreme Court, as part of the team arguing in favor of gun rights in the District of Columbia vs. Heller. His amicus briefs on behalf of law enforcement groups, at least two of which have themselves received NRA funding, each failed to mention any NRA funding to either these groups or himself. Kopel’s briefs were cited four times in 2008 in Heller’s majority decision by the late Justice Antonin Scalia. They cropped up again in 2010 in another landmark Supreme Court gun case, McDonald v. Chicago.

Four years can seem like a long time. The gun reformists who were expecting victory after Sandy Hook now see their worst nightmares forming on the horizon.

It’s true that an NRA victory is hardly assured, especially at the state level. In November, gun restrictive referendums passed in three out of four states. In Washington, courts can now block access to people deemed dangerous. In California, background checks are now required to buy ammunition. Nevada voters passed one of the nation’s most restrictive laws, requiring background checks for almost any firearms transfers. A similar initiative failed in Maine.

“The [gun control] movement is in better shape than it’s ever been,” says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center and longtime gun control expert, He points to relatively new organizations including one funded by parents who lost children at Sandy Hook, and another organized by former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was injured in a racially motivated 2011 attack that killed six people, including a child. A third group organized by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pumped millions to back gun reform candidates.

But nearly all of those candidates lost on November 8, one more sign that the view from Capitol Hill in every direction favors the NRA. Unless progressives and gun reform groups manage to muster enough strength and resources to oppose it, the gun lobby may well end up expanding arms access across America for some time to come.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has covered the NRA for more than twenty years, writing for The Village Voice, The Washington Post, and The Progressive. He won a Society of Professional Journalists national investigative award for his Mother Jones story, “Unmasking NRA’s Inner Circle,” after the Sandy Hook massacre.

The Dangerous Movement Behind Donald Trump

It makes sense to worry that Donald Trump’s recent comments about the Second Amendment could encourage an assassination attempt against Hillary Clinton. But, as a long-time follower of the gun-rights movement, I think Trump’s words mean something else.

His controversial statement in a speech that “Second Amendment people” could stop Hillary Clinton from appointing liberal judges and cracking down on gun rights fits in with a familiar National Rifle Association message to members—that gun owners should prepare for an armed insurrection against the state. Trump is stoking the coals of an extremist movement that in the long run may prove more dangerous than any crazy would-be assassin inspired by Trump.

“He pointed out that an armed populace is a check on lawless politicians,” wrote a commenter about Trump’s Second Amendment remarks on the pro-gun forum, adding, “I wonder if anybody else ever thought of that? Or codified it in a document of some type?”

While Trump and his supporters claim he is upholding the Constitution, these latest comments are an escalation of his ongoing attack against the credibility of our constitutional democratic process. Since he started losing ground in the polls, Trump began claiming without evidence that “the system” and the elections are rigged. Now he seems to be suggesting that some kind of collective act of resistance may be necessary to stop an overreaching government should Clinton win the November election.

This is a message that resonates with the hardline base of the gun lobby and the NRA, which this year, for the first time, had an official speak from the stage of a Republican National Convention. It also appeals to people like the small group of armed men who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. And it’s a message that strikes a chord with white supremacists and neo-Nazis who have never felt so comfortable with a major party presidential candidate as they do now.

Americans should not forget that Timothy McVeigh was a gun-rights absolutist who was following the plot of a novel, The Turner Diaries, written by a neo-Nazi leader, in 1995 when he blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Nor should we forget that he did so on the second anniversary of the federal siege at Waco, Texas.

For most people, the death of seventy-six people at a compound in Waco was the result of a tragic standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians, a messianic cult. For gun rights absolutists, Waco remains a galvanizing example of federal abuse of power. Most important to gun advocates, the original reason for the raid was the presence of illegal, fully-automatic weapons.

Seen in that context, Trump’s recent remarks are potentially more treasonous than encouraging Russian agents to hack into Democratic National Committee emails. They are a more serious threat than Trump’s remarks that riots might break out if he did not receive the Republican Party nomination. Trump’s appeal to “Second Amendment people” is the kind of claim you might hear from a failing candidate in an underdeveloped nation prone to coups.

For the first time in modern history, a major U.S. presidential candidate seems to be promoting a possible armed insurrection against the U.S. government.

Trump’s words, as usual, were sketchy and ambiguous. Clinton wants to essentially revoke the Second Amendment, Trump falsely contended, adding:

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.”

A Trump spokesman claimed he meant that “Second Amendment people” would act before the election by “voting in record numbers” to defeat Clinton. A Trump spokeswoman later said he meant “Second Amendment people” would act afterward, exerting their clout to stop Senators from approving Clinton’s nominees to the Supreme Court.

Neither explanation is what countless gun-rights absolutists heard. For them, the Second Amendment is about their right to keep arms in order to fight an insurgent war against our own government, should one ever become necessary to keep tyranny at bay. This may sound ludicrous. But go to Twitter and search terms like #2A, #NRA and #MolonLabe, an ancient Greek expression of defiance that means “come and take them.” Or spend any time on websites like Or read NRA statements.

“Our Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment so Americans would never have to live in tyranny,” said NRA chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre in 2012 before a United Nations arms control panel in New York City. “When you ignore the right of good people to own firearms to protect their freedom, you become the enablers of future tyrants whose regimes will destroy millions and millions of defenseless lives.”

This view has nothing to do with hunting or sports shooting, which is where the NRA—until hardliners took over the organization in the late 1970s—had its roots. In fact, NRA hardline advocates today deride hunters who don’t share their Second Amendment views as “Fudds,” short for the bumbling cartoon character Elmer Fudd who never managed to shoot Bugs Bunny. The late President Ronald Reagan was the NRA’s most famous Fudd for supporting gun control both during his tenure and after.

Gun rights absolutists don’t entirely trust Trump, either. “Never trust a Fudd,” wrote “waltdewalt” on a gun politics page on Reddit, suggesting Trump is not as committed to the Second Amendment as he claims.

The gun lobby is playing a long game. They have managed to withstand the fallout from one horrific mass shooting after another, including the heartbreakingly tragic loss of first-grade children in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and the largest such tragedy in our nation’s history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Gun reformists, meanwhile, have managed to make progress in just a handful of states, while they have failed to pass even token legislation in Congress. In the long run, the gun lobby faces the same demographic challenges as the Republican Party. But no one should count them out anytime soon.

As we approach the fortieth anniversary of the NRA’s transition from a sports shooting club to a gun lobby, the group’s vision for an armed America is becoming a reality. The change was led by a small group of determined advocates who, through some parliamentary jockeying using the NRA’s own bylaws, assumed control in 1977 at the NRA annual convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. (I attended NRA meetings and reported on the machinations of extremists controlling the NRA board for The Village Voice.)

Since then, the NRA has grown into the nation’s most powerful single-issue lobby, and has managed, through both transparent and shadowy means, to dramatically expand Americans’ access to guns across the nation.

In 1986, just nine states required the granting of concealed-carry-weapon permits; now at least forty-one states allow concealed carry, some without the need for permits. A majority of states also allow the open carrying of firearms. When gun reformists talk about passing federal gun reform legislation in Congress, they need to remember that these gun-permissive state laws are already nearly a fait accompli.

The patchwork of gun laws across the nation is precisely what allows weapons to flow unchecked across state and city lines. States with permissive gun laws are the main suppliers of guns used in crimes in states and cities with stricter laws. Of 3,806 crime guns confiscated in New Jersey last year, more than 86 percent came from other states. Of the 12,390 crime guns confiscated in Illinois, more than two-thirds came from out of state. These statistics are from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which now, due to an executive order by President Obama, is once again allowed to compile data on guns used in crimes (a simple law-enforcement practice previously outlawed thanks to successful NRA lobbying in Congress).

few pundits have boldly predicted the NRA’s demise. But the gun lobby continues to endure, for a number of reasons. First, it controls the message, including running a script designed to deflect debate away from gun reform after every mass attack. Second, it uses “independent experts” like lawyers David Kopel and David T. Hardy, each of whom testified after Sandy Hook on national television in the Senate without anyone disclosing that Kopel in particular had by then received $1.39 million from the NRA.

Third, the NRA sets up shell organizations like the Law Enforcement Alliance of America to claim more support from police than actually exists. And, finally, the group intimidates politicians by wielding funds from its gun-industry-filled coffers, less to make donations to the candidates it supports than to finance attack ads against opponents, usually on nongun issues (like Benghazi).

The racial tensions that have exploded over the past two years since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have only bolstered the gun lobby. Yet the sniper attack on police in Dallas, Texas, led some law enforcement officers to challenge policies long championed by the NRA. After the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, attacks, the head of the Cleveland police union raised the safety of police officers to try to get Ohio to ban both concealed and open-carry of weapons in downtown Cleveland during the Republican National Convention. The effort failed, but it shows that law enforcement is not lined up behind the gun lobby as the NRA claims.

Since Sandy Hook, a number of new gun reformist groups have emerged, including one funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But all of them combined still pale in comparison to the kind of deep-rooted national and local voter networks painstakingly built over decades by the NRA. One Pennsylvania gun-rights blogger mocks these gun reform efforts as little more than astroturf, meaning you can buy it and lay it down but it still won’t grow into a grassroots movement.

This year, the gun rights movement is enjoying a higher national profile than ever before. Meanwhile, the gun reform movement, despite the very good work of groups going back decades like the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center, is in many ways just getting started. Gun reformists need to pace themselves for the struggle ahead.

The gun lobby will outlast Trump. But his campaign has helped bring far-right gun enthusiasts and white supremacist groups into the mainstream.

“We have a wonderful OPPORTUNITY here folks, that may never come again, at the RIGHT time,” wrote Rocky Suhayda, the chairman of the American Nazi Party last fall, as was recently reported by Buzzfeed. “Donald Trump’s campaign statements, if nothing else, have SHOWN that ‘our views’ are NOT so ‘unpopular’ as the Political Correctness crowd have told everyone they are!”

Mainstream pundits and the Clinton campaign are right: Trump’s talk is inciting violence, and America has a tragic history of political assassinations. We have a history of homegrown terrorism, too.

Frank Smyth is an award-winning investigative journalist and gun owner who covers the gun lobby the The Progressive. He has written about the NRA for more than twenty years for outlets including The Village Voice and The Washington Post.