When the National Rifle Association convened its annual meeting last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky, its leaders stressed to the event’s more than 80,000 attendees how much is at stake in the upcoming presidential election. They urged members to rally behind Donald Trump in the defense of gun rights, but also to reverse national trends that the NRA finds disturbing. The most unsettling transformation: increased scrutiny of law enforcement, urged on by the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of several police shootings of African American men.
“Can you imagine growing up in a country where everyone from movie stars to the president tells you to be suspicious of police officers?” Chris Cox, the group’s chief lobbyist, asked a crowd of thousands in the Kentucky Exposition Center’s Freedom Hall. “Everything we’ve always known to be good and right and true has been twisted, perverted, and repackaged to our kids as wrong, backwards, and abnormal.”
Next up on the stage, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre characterized the call for greater police scrutiny in a similar vein as his understudy: a symptom of the nation’s moral decay. “You’re here in this room because you care about the America we all know and that we all cherish,” he said. LaPierre then offered a roll call of the salt-of-the-earth types that make up the NRA’s base. It began with, “We’re the police officers who patrol neighborhoods.”
The NRA has latched on to law enforcement officers as potent symbols of group identity ahead of an election it says is an us-versus-them fight for the soul of America. Police are embattled, criticized by a movement led by a younger generation for how they use force. As the NRA tries to mobilize its older, white, rural, and suburban members, it sees an opportunity to cast itself as a champion for police in this fight.
But there is an irony to the gun group’s campaign: Cops often oppose NRA-backed policies.
“Most of the gun laws the NRA opposes, like uniform background checks, are strongly supported by the police,” Robert Spitzer, a professor of history at SUNY-Cortland and author of Politics of Gun Control and Guns Across America, tells The Trace. “And the NRA’s whole notion of average citizens carrying guns to thwart crime is vehemently opposed by nearly all police.”
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The rift between the NRA and law enforcement was ripped wide open in the 1980s. As crime in urban centers soared, police asked Mario Biaggi, a New York congressman and former police officer, to introduce a bill banning teflon-coated “cop killer” bullets designed to pierce body armor. Biaggi’s bill took five years to pass. The NRA opposed it until certain provisions that sought to penalize stores that sold such bullets were watered down. Around the same time, over the opposition of law enforcement, the gun group lobbied for laws that eased restrictions on interstate transfer of guns.
The NRA has continued to push for policies that law enforcement officials oppose. In Georgia, the state police chief’s association opposed sweeping 2014 legislation that dramatically expanded the places where concealed weapons license holders can take guns. Frank Rotondo, the association’s director, said his officers did “not want more people carrying guns on the street.”
In February, Ken Winter, the head of the Mississippi Police Chief’s Association said that a push by the state legislature to dismantle the state’s gun licensing system “would put law enforcement officers and all Mississippians directly in harm’s way.”
Beat cops have also spoken out against attempts backed by the NRA to loosen gun laws. The head of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, a union that represents patrolmen, called a permitless carry bill passed by the legislature earlier this month “ludicrous.”
When NRA leaders say they stand with police, that doesn’t mean they are reconsidering their support for campus carry or permitless carry, Spitzer says. It is, instead, an election year tactic deployed by the gun group to motivate its members. “The pro-police message plays well to their base, and is doubly useful at a time of the Black Lives Matter movement and the reaction against police excesses,” he explains.
A poll released in September 2015 by right-leaning public opinion firm Rasmussen found that 58 percent of likely voters believe there is a “war on cops,” and 60 percent believe criticism of police hinders actual law enforcement (that’s despite the fact that last year was one of the safest ever for police).
Based on conversations with NRA members approached outside the convention hall, the message that police must be protected from scrutiny has resonated. Don, a Louisville native and NRA member who declined to give his last name, said he agreed with NRA leaders that police critics were out of line. “If I had to do [the police’s] job and put up with the shit they put up with, I might bust a couple people in the mouth too.”
Cheryl Essner, an NRA member from Dodge City, Kansas, said she was glad to hear the NRA speaking out for police. “If the NRA isn’t behind our police officers, who’s going to be?” she said. Police “put their lives on the line every day for the people that holler that they’re too brutal. But the only reason they’re brutal is the people they’re trying to protect are.”
When the NRA talks about support for law enforcement, they don’t mean every agency. Those at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the agency the enforces federal gun laws, are viewed as the enemy. At the leadership forum, LaPierre warned members that a Hillary Clinton White House would “put the full weight of a weaponized IRS, ATF, EPA, Interior Department, and every other federal agency behind a tax on groups and people they don’t like.” This screed echoed the NRA leader’s explosive comments from the mid-’90s, when the ATF investigated a rising wave of violent right-wing extremism that led agents into a series of bloody standoffs.
In a 1993 fundraising letter, LaPierre decried ATF agents as “jack-booted government thugs.”
In Louisville, police are contending with the consequences of the NRA’s lobbying power. In late March, Chief Steve Conrad told local reporters that the city’s streets are flooded with an increasing number of guns because the unregulated private market makes weapons available to anyone.
The NRA has long opposed expanding the background check system to cover these transactions.
Conrad said his city is less safe as a result. “Anybody can sell a gun to anybody they want,” he said “There’s no records check, there’s no I.D. I want to say we can meet in the parking lot or your office and I can sell you a gun, and that is not illegal.”
[Photo: Kyle Grillot for The Trace]