Upward of 70,000 gun enthusiasts are expected to descend on St. Louis this weekend for the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting, a three-day festival of firepower, conservative political activism, and election-year fundraising. The convention—which will feature speeches by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, recent contender Rick Santorum, and the enduring Newt Gingrich—comes at a moment when guns and gun rights have once again risen to the fore of the American political conversation.
The killing of Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, an unarmed black teen who was shot in the chest by a self-styled neighborhood-watch vigilante, has put the NRA in the familiar and awkward position of promoting an assertive gun culture at a time of mounting outrage over the easy prevalence of guns for anyone who wants one and laws that make it easier than ever to use them. The case brought particular scrutiny to so-called Stand Your Ground laws, broad self-defense measures that have passed in some form in 25 states, with NRA backing, since 2005. Florida’s especially permissive law has been cited as the primary reason that Zimmerman eluded criminal charges for six weeks following the incident.
But through it all, the gun business has been going gangbusters. Smith & Wesson shares are up 125 percent over last year, and the 160-year-old company’s stock hit a new 52-week high in early April. In late March, after it received a million orders in the first financial quarter, rival gun-maker Sturm Ruger announced it was refusing any new orders until it could catch up with demand. (Ruger stock is up 112 percent over 2011 and hit an all-time high after the announcement.) According to a BusinessWeek report, overall handgun production has more than doubled in the past decade.
The NRA not only benefits from the booming handgun business, but like its merchants-of-death alcohol and tobacco brethren, it also lobbies to pass laws that boost sales in the industry on which it relies. The organization’s Institute for Legislative Affairs successfully lobbied to help bring an end to the Clinton-era Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, and, in 2005, it pushed for the passage of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a law that shielded gun makers from liability suits. Ruger CEO Mike Fifer said the law “is probably the only reason we have a U.S. firearms industry anymore.”
NRA lobbyists have found their greatest successes at the state level. By teaming up with groups like the Second Amendment Foundation and Students for Concealed Carry, the group has overseen a tidal change in legislation. The traditional goal of protecting the Second Amendment from government encroachment has evolved into a movement to assert the righteous role of guns in the public sphere. Put simply, the NRA has gone from defense from offense. Laws that would permit guns in churches, bars, and college campuses have been introduced repeatedly in several states, and a federal law to force every state to recognize another state’s concealed carry laws is currently stalled in the Senate.
President Obama, meanwhile, is the best friend the NRA has ever had. While they portray him as a constant and ominous liberal threat, the president has in reality been an ostensible ally. During his first two years in office, Obama signed laws that brought guns into national parks and Amtrak trains, while resisting attempts to reinstate the Assault Weapons Ban or curb the extended clips used in the Arizona rampage that nearly killed Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
Nevertheless, Obama has been lucrative boogeyman for the NRA. In 2008, the NRA distributed literature claiming then-senator Obama would “close down 90 percent of the gun shops in America” and “increase federal taxes on guns and ammunition by 500 percent.” These claims helped raise tens of millions in membership dues and led to a run on guns and ammunition that lasted well into 2009. When the administration disappointed gun-control advocates and weapon hoarders alike, NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre said that the president’s inaction was all part of a long term plot to outlaw guns in his second term.
This weekend in St. Louis, LaPierre will herd the faithful through this valley again. On Friday, Romney will be joined by prominent conservatives including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at the “Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum.” But judging by the week New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had, the fight to define “American Values” as they relate to handguns won’t be over anytime soon.