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Commentary

The Silent Season of Wayne LaPierre

What is the National Rifle Association, if its leader no longer bothers to publicly address or try to redefine the mass shootings that shock the nation?

After the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre responded by telling Congress that his group favored “mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone.” After mass shootings at a Tucson, Arizona, strip mall, the Washington Navy Yard, and a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, LaPierre and his representatives offered statements of condolence to the victims and exhorted Americans to permit more “good guys with guns.” After 20 children and six instructors lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School, LaPierre famously held a press conference to call for armed guards in schools, advocate rigorous mental health checks for gun-buyers, and blame video games and rap music for creating a culture of violence.

The urge to do something in the wake of mass murders with firearms is so natural and widespread that the NRA has historically felt it, in its way. This year, that national interest in doing something has returned, over and again. There was the shootout between armed bikers last May at a Waco, Texas, restaurant that killed nine and injured 18. In June, there was Dylann Roof’s racially motivated murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. There was the Chattanooga, Tennessee, recruiting-center shooting and the Lafayette, Louisiana, movie theater shooting and the late August killing of two Roanoke, Virginia, TV reporters by an ex-colleague, posted online for all to see. There was the Umpqua Community College shooting earlier this month, the deadliest in Oregon’s history, and the deadliest in America since 2013.

Amid this relentless carnage and a growing call for action, LaPierre has said…nothing.

Certainly, other, lesser outposts of the empire have chimed in: A member of the lobby’s board blamed the Charleston victims for being unarmed; after Chattanooga, a spokesman argued that military recruiters should be carrying. NRA News has made cursory mentions of the Umpqua massacre to the organization’s faithful, among them a mercurial video segment, a week after the shooting, titled “Heroism in the Age of the Beta Male.” And the NRA’s Twitter feed has been a fire hose of agitated partisanship since last week’s Democratic debate, culminating in its excited painting of Hillary Clinton as a gun-confiscating fascist after she suggested that Australia’s post-massacre gun buyback model could be worth looking into.

But those responses have been insular, transitory — dog whistles. They don’t compare to the public pronouncements that LaPierre has deployed with alacrity to seize on past spikes in the gun debate. The largest pro-gun lobby in the world’s most-heavily armed country, the NRA has long positioned itself not merely as a club for sportsmen or a political market-maker, but as a grand moral arbiter. And so for two decades, LaPierre’s special press conferences, congressional testimonies, and sound bites have sought to sway, or at least slow, the national conversation in the wake of stunning shootings.

When Columbine sent waves of revulsion around the planet, the NRA leader offered his legislative olive branch to critics. Post-Sandy Hook, his call to arm school officials may have maddened skeptics, but it did represent an acknowledgment that the country needed to make changes to prevent future massacres. In LaPierre’s own warped way, he was joining the dialogue, seeking recruits to the group’s “more guns, less crime” logic and worldview. Even when he was blasting pop culture’s violent fetishes — a puritanical view point, sure, but one once also advanced by liberals like Tipper Gore — he was acknowledging the NRA’s need to address mainstream concerns. “Together with our more than five million members, we’re proud defenders of history’s patriots and diligent protectors of the Second Amendment,” the NRA’s website crows. Claiming for itself the privilege to speak for U.S. gun owners, the group has felt obliged to comment when a gun owner horrifies the country with a high-profile act of violence.

Something has changed this year. In terms of speaking to a broader American audience, the organization that also calls itself “a major political force” and “America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights” has been uncharacteristically silent. Its absence from the stage raises real questions about the organization’s identity and potency. What is the National Rifle Association’s place in American culture and politics, if it no longer bothers to address or define a national event like this?

There is a school of thought in crisis communications that says you don’t feed a story with unnecessary public comment when you have nothing new to say. It’s possible this is the situation the NRA finds itself in today: Having gone from agreeing to close background-check loopholes to proposing more, not fewer, guns in schools in the span of two decades, the gun lobby may have reached the terminus of its product pipeline. Its policy position now seems so extreme that there’s nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile, the NRA finds itself challenged from the right, where more radical groups such as Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights have emerged to compete for the affection and dollars of “gunnies.” On this farther fringe, LaPierre’s calls to entrust school safety to designated armed personnel is apostasy, an unacceptable infringement on the individual’s right to bear whatever arms he wants, wherever he wants to bear them. After the NRA’s Sandy Hook press conference, Philip Van Cleave, a representative of another of those fringe groups, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, vented his frustration with LaPierre’s call for an armed elite. “Utah allows everybody with a permit to carry in a school,” Van Cleave told a local TV station. “How many school shootings have you heard of in Utah?”

To such Second Amendment absolutists, unfettered firearms possession is an intrinsic good, an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. These activists can brook no restrictions, however small. And if they sense the NRA is not advancing that agenda, they can be sure the insurgents will.

The NRA is shirking a responsibility that it ironically sought out for itself: the responsibility to speak for all gun owners when guns become the subject of moral and political contention.

In fact, just that kind of backlash greeted the closest thing the NRA has made to a mainstream response to this year’s mass shootings, matinee bloodbaths and live-TV assassinations. Last August, LaPierre’s group loudly lent its immediate blessing to a bill sponsored by Senator John Cornyn intended to limit gun purchases by the mentally ill, legislation that the NRA had helped the Texas Republican’s office develop. The NRA emphasized that bill would make it harder for President Obama to “abuse” the federal background-check system by using Social Security and VA mental health records in those checks. Health experts quibbled that it would also make it easier for ex-psychiatric patients to swiftly have their gun rights restored. But the hardliners had a different beef.

A day after the NRA rolled out its push for the bill, NAGR assailed the NRA for backing “RINO”-sponsored legislation that legitimized the concept of mental-health checks, arguing that “the established gun lobby supports gun control.” GOA piled on, charging that by supporting a measure that relied on the existing background check system (rather than dismantling it), the NRA was abetting Cornyn in “an unconstitutional ‘infringement’ of Second Amendment rights.” When even your ostensible ideological allies are so quick to try to kick your teeth in, keeping your mouth shut has a way of being the obvious move.

To view the NRA’s silence through that lens is to see it as a defensive posture. But there could be an offensive strategy at play, too. For the gun lobby to hold a press conference or give a national media interview on the tragedy in Oregon would be to confirm that mass shootings are a big deal, troubling to the point that a mix of political decorum and human decency at least necessitate an offering of “thoughts and prayers.” Yet the NRA has given us evidence that it no longer sees mass shootings that way. It was there in a less-remembered moment of LaPierre’s infamous Sandy Hook press conference, when he said, “The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters… 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 Obama has lamented, mass-shootings are “routine” now, the new normal that numbs us into complacency. Perhaps the NRA’s bet is that if it stays off the soapbox, its silence can help hasten these shootings’ fading into memory; certainly, it doesn’t want to risk prolonging a conversation that might dwell on the fact that 88 people in America are killed by guns every day. Maybe by making no major statement, LaPierre and the NRA hope to let Umpqua, and Roanoke, and Charleston disappear in the rearview mirror a little faster.

Whatever the calculus, the result has been the same. The NRA is shirking a responsibility that it ironically sought out for itself: the responsibility to speak for all gun owners when guns become the subject of moral and political contention. But then, that responsibility has always seemed disingenuous. The NRA boasts 5 million members, while there are as many as 310 million guns in America. The vast, silent majority of gun owners in America are unaffiliated with the NRA. If the gun lobby is done talking to the country at large about mass murders with firearms, perhaps the silent majority will now finally be heard from.

[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]