The NRA: From Awful to Even Worse

Michelle Cottle describes the bizarre scene at the NRA’s Washington press conference.

Give the NRA this: those guys know how to work the media and public like a call girl at a political convention.

Following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary last week, the pro-gun lobbying behemoth signaled that it, too, felt—as so many people have suggested—that “this time was different.” Breaking with its long-standing tradition of not responding to such tragedies, the group grandly proclaimed that it was “prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again” and announced that it would hold a formal press conference in Washington, D.C., Friday morning.

Intrigued by the group’s new MO, the media hordes flocked as bidden to the venerable Willard Hotel, lugging laptops and cameras past the police cars, lines of protesters (one guy dressed in camo—and on stilts—paced with a sign that read: “Are you here to apologize NRA? The ‘Freedom’ you sell is killing us!”), and a veritable army of dark-suited, grim-faced security agents. (God help you if you were a hotel guest trying to get through the lobby without your room key.)

Downstairs, journalists were allowed to check into the ballroom early, but then were kicked out at 10:00 for a security sweep. (Not-so-subtle message: the NRA knows it’s in hostile territory and is not playing around.) Fifteen minutes later, reporters were allowed back in—assuming they were on The List. And had proper credentials. And even then everyone was seated behind a waist-high barricade draped in blue cloth that protected the podium area. The drama! What if someone tried to storm the stage?

At precisely 11:00, NRA president David Keene plodded slowly to the podium, bespectacled, white haired, and avuncular. Cameras whirred and clicked, but the room was otherwise silent. Keene teased the crowd a bit: This sad gathering, he told us, “is for the purposes of beginning our discussion of the topic that has been on the minds of all American parents: What can we do about tragedies of the sort that struck in Newtown, Connecticut, to avoid such events in future?” Yes! That’s what we’re all here for! “Like most Americans,” he continued, “we were shocked by what happened. Like all Americans, we’ve been discussing all the various options available to protect our children.” This is it! The big moment we’ve been waiting for!

At which point, Keene gave a warm welcome to NRA Executive VP Wayne LaPierre.

Now, for anyone unfamiliar with LaPierre, let’s just say that he feels about handing out firearms the way Grover Norquist feels about cutting taxes: there is no problem in our society that cannot be fixed by doing it more and faster. So when LaPierre ascended the stage, everyone in the posh, Versailles-esque ballroom should have immediately smelled what was coming next: yet another performance of the NRA’s all-time favorite refrain: What the world needs now, is guns, sweet guns.

Indeed, in his dissection of the Newtown tragedy, LaPierre set forth the proposition that everything under the sun was to blame for the tragedy—except guns: movies, video games, the mentally ill, the lack of a national registry for the mentally ill, the government’s failure to prosecute gun crimes, foreign aid (don’t ask), politicians, and, of course, “a national media machine that rewards [these psychopaths] with wall-to-wall attention and gives them a sense of identity that they crave.” (This last bit may be the one thing LaPierre said to which I took no exception.)

As for the NRA’s suggestion for what to do about the chaos these problems have wrought? Simple: armed guards in every school. Right. This. Minute. “I call on Congress today to act immediately, to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school—and to do it now, to make sure that blanket of safety is in place when our children return to school in January,” LaPierre challenged, with that look of pained urgency that he does so well.

But don’t imagine that the NRA is content to leave this sort of task up to the politicians alone. No sirree, LaPierre assures us. “The NRA is going to bring all of its knowledge, dedication, and resources to develop a model National School Shield Emergency Response Program for every school that wants it. From armed security to building design and access control to information technology to student and teacher training, this multifaceted program will be developed by the very best experts in their fields, which will consult with schools to provide individualized security.” So serious is the NRA about its new shield program that it has recruited former Rep. Asa Hutchinson to head up the initiative.

Even assuming politicians could somehow find the will—and the necessary billions a year—to put a policeman in every school, LaPierre won’t be satisfied: “Even if they did that, politicians have no business—and no authority—denying us the right, the ability, or the moral imperative to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm.” So what we’re talking about here is schools filled with armed guards and armed parents?

That’s right, the NRA’s “meaningful contributions” to the discussion post-Newtown are to use the atrocity as an opportunity to promote its own wares. People are right: This time really is different. Never before has the gun group been quite this shameless in its scare tactics.

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Indeed, LaPierre went all out in his speech, jacking up the paranoid, hysterical rhetoric to a degree usually not seen outside an Allen West rally: “The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters—people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn't planning his attack on a school he's already identified at this very moment?”

As for all those crazies talking gun-control nonsense, LaPierre has only contempt: “Politicians pass laws for Gun-Free School Zones. They issue press releases bragging about them. They post signs advertising them. And in so doing, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”

How’s that for reasonable public discourse and “meaningful contributions”?

LaPierre didn’t get very far into his spiel before journalists started to figure out that we’d been had—corralled into a ballroom to be fed the same line we’d heard a thousand times before. After that, the only moments of real energy in the room came when a couple of Code Pinkers stood up with their protest signs and started yelling about the perfidy of the NRA. This, at least, gave everyone something to do. LaPierre paused in his sermon and assumed the long-suffering visage of a saint. Journalists leapt to their feet to photograph the gate-crashers. The dark-suited security guys rushed forward to tote the offenders from the room.

Then it was back to more of LaPierre and his commercial for guns, guns, and more guns. Don’t stop and think! he warned us. And don’t waste time with silly chit-chat. “There'll be time for talk and debate later. This is the time, this is the day for decisive action.”

As one of at least 100 journalists who had cued up like cattle to bear witness to this bit of theatrical genius, I gotta admit: We asked for it.

Of course the gun-rights lobbying behemoth wasn’t going to step up with some conciliatory talk about limiting magazine capacity or closing gun-show loopholes or restricting certain types of ammo . That, quite simply, is not what they do. It is not who they are. And no matter how high the body count climbs, that will not change.

For the NRA, the Newtown tragedy was not “different.” Rather it was just further proof that the world is so dangerous that we should all be packing heat, all the time.

And down, down, down the rabbit hole we slide.