CNN’s Town Hall meeting in Sunrise, Florida began like the most honest conversation America has had about gun violence in decades. Surviving students and parents of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting peppered politicians like GOP Sen. Marco Rubio with questions about his NRA funding and positions on guns, specifically the AR-15 rifle.
But the conversation shifted when NRA spokesman Dana Loesch took a seat and began fielding questions.
A Generation-X gun rights advocate, Loesch learned how to hunt and shoot from her grandfather in the Ozark Mountains. She is a God-fearing Christian who still goes to church regularly, she claims. She made her name for years as a conservative commentator before becoming the face of the National Rifle Association last year.
The anticipation peaked when CNN let the compelling, surviving high school senior Emma Gonzalez ask the NRA representative, “Do you believe that it should be harder to obtain the semi-automatic weapons and modifications for these weapons to make them fully automatic, like bump stocks?”
The question was on point, but the NRA spokesperson never answered it.
Instead, Loesch validated the young, grieving woman’s emotions, saying she was a teenage activist herself. The NRA representative then deflected the conversation to the shooter whom she described as a “monster” who was “nuts,” adding that “crazy” people like him should not have access to firearms.
Loesch then changed the conversation to states who don’t fully report incidences of mental illness to the national background check system. Gonzalez ended up silencing the crowd herself when people starting shouting and accusing the NRA official of dodging the question.
The high school senior, it seems, was played along with CNN and the rest of the nation.
The national outrage over the Parkland, Florida high school shooting has all the markings of a tipping point in the national debate over gun violence. Five years ago, however, the pro-gun movement managed to survive another alleged tipping point after the Newtown, Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
No one should count the NRA out yet.
The same day as the CNN Town Hall meeting, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence held a meeting together in the White House with survivors and educators who have endured shootings in Parkland, Newtown and Washington, D.C. One young man, a Parkland high school shooting survivor, managed to drill down on the issue of access to semi-automatic weapons. The rest, who seemed to be carefully vetted, expressed emotions demanding actions without saying exactly what they wanted.
The NRA is smarter than you think. For decades its representatives and pundits followed a playbook. Avoid the fundamental conversation about gun access. Deflect the dialogue by saying things like, “Before we pass new laws, enforce the laws already on the books,” without mentioning that NRA lobbying has ensured most of the same laws remain unenforceable.
Or change the conversation to focus on the mentally ill. If that fails, entangle opponents in the minutiae of firearms. As a last resort, wrap yourself in the Second Amendment. Meaning: posit a false choice between doing nothing about guns or trying to confiscate and outlaw them all.
Rubio seemed to be feeling the pressure. He suggested such a false choice, before unexpectedly breaking with the NRA on two points: setting an age limit to purchase firearms and limiting the ammunition capacity of magazines.
His A+ NRA rating may decline.
But Loesch made no concessions, while attempting to strike a sympathetic tone with the audience in the hall and homes across America.
Her recruitment by the NRA is part of an ongoing tactical shift for the organization.
For decades the NRA has sheltered in place, remaining leery of fellow conservative politicians and groups. No less than Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush each ended up betraying the gun lobby by denouncing high-capacity rifles and NRA anti-government rhetoric, respectively. Even with the rise of the Tea Party, which drew in activists like Loesch, the NRA kept its distance from what it saw as a largely leaderless, unpredictable movement.
Today many pro-gun activists still don’t trust President Trump. But the NRA has thrown its lot in with Trump and his supporters, betting that gun activists and his backers have plenty in common.
Loesch leads the NRA today on the culture war’s frontline. She has narrated videos lashing out at Hollywood along with the liberal media, saying the NRA will meet their purported lies with “the clenched fist of truth.”
But she showed another side at CNN’s Town Hall meeting that validated her opponents’ emotions instead of attacking them, just like President Trump did the same day inside the Oval Office.
Parkland school shooting survivors like Gonzalez have the potential to change the nation. But only if they and other gun reform advocates figure out a way to compel the NRA to answer the question.
Smyth (www.franksmyth.com) is a freelance journalist who has covered the NRA for Mother Jones, The Progressive and MSNBC.