Fighting the Anti-Gunners: The NRA Makes Its Presence Felt at CPAC

From fighting ‘stupid laws’ to teaching young members how to discourage ‘anti-gunners’ from voting, the NRA made its presence known at CPAC. Caitlin Dickson reports.

At NRA University, National Rifle Association grassroots organizer Miranda Bond told a group of young conservatives fresh from Sarah Palin’s fiery, lead-barreled CPAC speech Saturday afternoon that encouraging pro-gun friends to register to vote was a good start—and even better would be to discourage “anti-gunners” from casting ballots.

“The thing is, we don’t want the anti-gunners to vote,” she said, lamenting the fact that President Obama was reelected despite the NRA’s best efforts to oust him. So, she said, students should set up voter registration booths on campus but “put up a great big sign that says: ‘Pro-gun? Vote Here.” That will keep the gun control advocates away, she said, because “they’re scared of guns.”

The group of more than 50 people, about half of them women, were there to listen, to learn, and to claim a free NRA hat as well as a free year of membership.

Before another grassroots organizer, Colton Kerrigan, got things started with what he called a “pump-up video,” Ashley DeNardo, coming directly from Palin’s speech, filled out her registration form. The 19-year-old journalism student at West Virginia University said she comes from a family of gun owners and was eager to get involved with the NRA. She began target shooting when she was 13, and her family moved out of the city of Rochester to Williamson, a more rural area.

“My state just passed a stupid law banning capacity magazines that hold over seven bullets. But criminals don’t follow laws, so they’re just stopping law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves,” DeNardo said, arguing that young people need to be educated about gun rights.

“The Second Amendment is one of the most important rights to protect and if young people aren’t involved in the NRA, the government will be able to grow, take over, and make us dependent on them,” she said. “And that is really dangerous.”

A few minutes later, Kerrigan spoke to the mostly college-age crowd, sounding similar notes. He began by declaring the NRA the country’s oldest civil rights organization, and set out to debunk what he called the top three myths about gun control: that more guns lead to more crime, that registration of firearms leads to less gun crime, and that there is no legitimate purpose for assault weapons. “There are 100 million gun owners in the U.S.,” he said, “yet the country’s crime rate is at an all-time low.” He stressed that those were “not NRA numbers,” but real ones, and said that most of the lawmakers backing gun control legislation—like most members of the media—couldn’t tell you the difference between the butt and the barrel of a gun,” Kerrigan said as the audience chuckled.

He concluded that new laws, which could threaten Americans’ Second Amendment rights, would do no good because “criminals, by definition, don’t follow laws.”

The Second Amendment, and the need to protect it, emerged as a frequent theme at CPAC this year, stressed by many of the conservative movement’s top-billed speakers. Michele Bachmann emphasized the importance of women, in particular, being able to protect themselves with guns. Sarah Palin boasted about her family’s own gun collection. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre dismissed the White House and other gun-control advocates as crazy, questioning the point of registering lawful gun owners: “So newspapers can print those names ... so the list can be hacked by foreign entities like the Chinese?” And almost everyone—including keynote speaker Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas—made fun of Vice President Joe Biden’s much-mocked advice to his wife that she should buy a shotgun to protect their home.

Notably, NRA President David Keane, addressing the conference Saturday afternoon, refrained from referencing the Second Amendment or the post–Sandy Hook push for new gun laws in Washington. Instead, he warned that "[o]ur movement and the Republican party are not the same," and said the GOP needed a broader tent, or it would again become a Goldwater-esque party of more principles than followers. Taking a (metaphorical, of course) shot at John McCain, Keane called the Arizona senator an “aging presidential candidate” who’d foolishly attacked Rand Paul—who later was announced the winner of this year’s CPAC straw poll—because “he appeals to young people."

Keane may have shied away from the hot topic, but in his closing speech, it was Cruz who brought the crowd to its feet with the question: "Do we surrender on gun control or do we stand up now?" They stood up.