Immediately following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the National Rifle Association did what it always does: It shut up.
The biggest gun rights group in the nation didn’t put out a statement on the shooting, which claimed the lives of 17 people. Its Twitter stayed dormant for five days. The group’s Facebook page stayed quiet for four days, posting a lone missive on Monday, alerting followers to a billboard in Kentucky that read: “Kill The NRA.”
But outside of that, there was zilch. It was a case study in the public relations strategy known as “riding out the storm.”
But not everyone under the NRA umbrella stayed silent. In the hours after Parkland, NRA TV, the television channel run by the gun rights lobby, continued producing content. At first, its anchors struck a conciliatory tone, noting that they shared the objective of making schools a safe place for children. Then they began pushing the company line: that school resource officers needed to be tactically trained and armed to prevent such shootings from being more gruesome.
Then, it turned aggressive.
Over the past two days, NRA TV has gone after both law enforcement for bungling the shooting and media outlets for calling for more expansive gun laws. Host Dan Bongino accused the New York Daily News of being both “pure filth” and “not worthy of collecting dog excrement”—aka actual filth. Host Dana Loesch called for protesters to march “to the FBI offices” for its failure to act on the numerous reports it received that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was dangerous and potentially unstable. Grant Stinchfield, another NRA TV host, added his thoughts on the Fourth Estate on Monday, suggesting reporters were eager for another shooting to push a gun control agenda.
There is a largely—though not universally—agreed upon theory within political circles that one of the reasons gun legislation is so difficult to get passed is because of the power of the gun rights lobby. The NRA has cultivated its image as the top dog on the Hill, able to whip up the frenzied support of its millions of members at even the slightest hint that a gun control measure may pass.
But the way in which the group is wielding its influence is changing. For decades, the gun rights group’s political potency stemmed from its laser focus on a single issue that often transcends other partisan divides. Elected officials as far left as Bernie Sanders have maintained more mainstream positions on gun rights in the past precisely because the issue has historically appealed even to large numbers of Democrats in certain parts of the country.
Over the last couple years though, the NRA has developed a far more robust social media presence, glossy advertising and branding efforts, and a bigger footprint in electoral politics. NRA TV is the epicenter of this new form of advocacy—one in which right-wing politics and cultural signifiers are nearly as prominent as the Second Amendment itself.
The proof is in the billing. The show Frontlines, hosted by Oliver North and Chuck Holton, pledges to cover military and law enforcement matters, including “radiological sabotage, counterfeiting and terrorism, to the threat of an unstable economy and cyber warfare.” Bill Whittle’s Hot Mic is pitched as a critique of the “left-wing pop culture’s war on our freedom and rights.” The show I Am Forever, which is no longer active, had a tagline that read: “American culture is at a crisis point.”
NRA TV’s most prominent public voices have amplified this broader focus with commentary that conspicuously avoids mention of gun rights and, instead, toes a line more typical of an explicitly pro-Trump political organization. Hosts have been hyper-critical of NFL players for taking a knee in protest of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. They have hyped fears about undocumented immigrants and opined favorably about the president’s so-called Muslim ban. One host labeled the Black Lives Matter movement “a weaponized race-baiting machine.”
Their primary enemy, however, has been the media. Loesch, who signed on as a spokesperson for the group last year, has drawn headlines for a series of scathing videos attacking Trump’s critics in the press, and has singled out a number of specific outlets for criticism.
Asked about those videos and their focus on issues separate from gun rights, and in particular an NRA-alleged attempt by the political left to undermine Trump’s 2016 election victory, Loesch defended the organization’s broader political focus. “Members have many concerns, the attack on our republic’s electoral process among them,” she wrote on Twitter.
The multi-pronged, highly aggressive approach to advocacy has made the NRA a more overtly political organization (though its polling numbers have remained somewhat stable). It’s also made it more complicated to combat for gun control groups which are used to waging battles in the halls of Congress or in lower-profile town hall settings.
“It doesn’t surprise me that they’re ahead of the curve now,” said Jim Kessler, a senior vice president for policy and a co-founder of Third Way and a longtime gun control activist. “You look at their leadership and it is a bunch of pudgy, pasty aging white guys. And they get overpaid. They are probably not working too hard. And you’re thinking, this seems like some tired old industry… But underneath, there is a lot of shrewdness and dynamism. And they have so much money that they can experiment.”
Requests for comment made to the NRA were not returned. But critics of the organization also insist that they have branched out as an organization not just as a strategic imperative but out of financial necessity. The shift in the group’s focus mirrors changes in U.S. gun ownership overall. Though the number of privately owned firearms in the U.S. is at an all-time high, those guns are owned by a diminishing percentage of households.
The NRA has countered that trend, experts say, by becoming more than just a gun group. The organization has put its brand on everything from sportswear to jewelry to safes, cigars, books, and DVDs. For $134.95, one can buy an “NRA Critical Food Supply” bucket that would provide 56 dishes in lieu of a temporary power outage or a “catastrophic grid collapse.” It has numerous publications, including the magazine America’s 1st Freedom, and a prominent podcast. It also has a wine club, where first time members can get four “exceptional” bottles for under $30. And, this summer, you can join the group on a Freedom Cruise to Normandy, which Oliver North will host.
In the spring of 2017, it began selling a multi-pronged insurance policy, underwritten by the Chubb subsidiary Westchester, to provide legal protection to gun owners should they shoot someone out of self-defense or personal protection. The NRA called its product Carry Guard. Critics dubbed it “murder insurance.”
“At the end of the day we both either have to pass or stop laws,” said Shannon Watts, founder of the gun control group Moms Demand Action. “What they are creating is a marketing empire because what they are trying to do is sell guns and that requires marketing.”
Those who have followed the NRA, and fought it, say that its current incarnation is simply an extension of roads taken decades earlier. There was the “Revolt at Cincinnati” in 1977, when activists within the group voted out leadership after it had chosen to move its headquarters to Colorado in what was seen as a retreat from politics. There was Harlon Carter’s transformation of the NRA into a fiercely political institution. There was the fundraising email that labeled federal agents “jack-booted thugs,” which prompted George H.W. Bush’s resignation as a lifelong NRA member. And there was the infamous response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, when executive vice president Wayne LaPierre declared that the only thing that could stop a bad guy with a gun was “a good guy with a gun.”
An organization that began as a stodgy gun club has increasingly become an avatar for a certain political lifestyle and ideological bend.
“They have always been a little bit ahead of the Republican Party in moving away from button up business conservatism to white working class nationalism,” said Cliff Schecter, a co-host of the UnPresidented podcast, a longtime gun control advocate, and a Daily Beast columnist. “In many ways, they were Trump before Trump.”