In the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting, we drew on our combined 50 years of experience battling the National Rifle Association to predict that nothing would change on guns.
Those same 50 years of experience now tell us we were wrong. Why? Because we have never seen the NRA more vulnerable.
The NRA derives its power on one thing and one thing only: their ability to determine outcomes at the ballot box. In 1993, it knocked off Democratic Governor Jim Florio after he banned assault weapons in gun control-friendly New Jersey—a warning shot to blue state Democrats that even they could be beaten. In 1994, the group beat boll weevil House Democrats like Jack Brooks for supporting a crime bill that included gun restrictions, sending the message that even 30 years of pro-NRA votes didn’t mean jack if you crossed the gun lobby. Heck, even Bernie Sanders owes his first election for Congress to the NRA who called him the “more honorable choice for Vermont” when Republican incumbent Pete Smith bucked them. A Socialist is better than a Republican who messes with us, the group said.
This electoral lock now looks to be in jeopardy. The leadership at the NRA and the right wing are in a dither because Parkland teens have exposed that the NRA has a 20th century battle plan for a 21st century fight. Thanks to Parkland teenagers, everyone can see that the NRA made the wrong bets on geography; that it’s been complacent on technology; and that it may have lost an entire generation of future voters and office-holders.
This explains why the NRA, which has never been particularly modulated in its rhetoric, and many of its conservative media defenders, look especially unhinged today—from insisting that these teenage kids learn CPR instead of push for gun control, to mocking their college rejection letters, to comparing them to Nazis.
Losing breeds panic. And for the first time in a long time, the NRA is actually losing.
On geography, the NRA has always banked on winning solid rural support, breaking even in suburbia, while withstanding drubbings in urban America. The support is still there, but rural America is shrinking, with 1,351 rural counties having seen a population decrease since 2010.
With mass shootings claiming suburban victims, the NRA could have solidified its appeal by moderating on a handful of commonsense measures that even most of their members would support. Instead they stiffened their stance, worried about being outflanked by the even more extreme gun rights movement on the furthest right.
It was the wrong choice. Congressional districts will only become less rural when 2022 maps are drawn with the new census. Suburbanites who often have firearms in the home and who the NRA could count on to not really care that much about the gun issue, instead have flocked to rallies. Their geography is shrinking.
On technology, here’s one of the NRA’s many dirty little secrets. Among the five million members they claim to have, only an estimated 650,000 are politically active. That’s the number of dues-paying NRA members who subscribe to their activist magazine America’s First Freedom, and—not coincidentally—their number of Twitter followers. The NRA’s trick is to make those activists feel like five million when they flood officeholders with calls and threats.
The NRA probably thought 650,000 followers was a good army to amass over nine years on Twitter. Then Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez took seven weeks to attract her 1.5 million followers. Each of her followers—as well as fellow survivor David Hogg’s 700,000—are putting pressure on officeholders every bit as effectively as the NRA did in the past.
And this led to their third miscalculation. They panicked after Parkland, and in so doing may have lost an entire generation of young people.
Before Parkland, the gun movement—on the right and on the left—was mostly middle-aged or older. When the NRA and their supporters belittled Parkland survivors with insults, conspiracy theories and threats, they unwittingly ignited an entire generation. There are 15 million kids in high school alone. For millions of them, their activism on this issue will stay with them forever.
Even before Parkland, cracks were starting to show in the NRA fortress. Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey won re-election to the Senate in 2016 because of, not in spite of, his authorship of a universal background check bill. NRA-backed Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte stuck with the NRA and lost to Democrat Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire with guns a major issue. And in the wake of Parkland, Florida Governor Rick Scott’s support of modest gun restrictions will more likely help, not hurt him in his anticipated Senate run against Democrat Bill Nelson as rural areas shrink.
When Republican officeholders in places like Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Indiana come to realize that an A-rating from the NRA is a liability, not an asset, the NRA’s Maginot line will break. The NRA has faced difficult times before, but from our vantage point this is the most vulnerable they’ve been in our professional lifetimes. That’s why they are flipping out.
Jon Cowan is President and Jim Kessler, @thirdwaykessler, is Senior Vice President for Policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank.