Robert Spitzer wrote the definitive book on the American gun debate — seven times. His landmark work, “The Politics of Gun Control,” was first published in 1995 and its subsequent editions remain an indispensable guide for understanding why our country has the gun laws it does.
Spitzer is also by extension an expert on the National Rifle Association, whose 2018 convention kicks off in earnest today in Dallas. The 12 months since the group’s last annual meeting have been a seismic period for the issue over which the NRA asserts its influence. They have included three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in American history and the arrival of a youth gun-reform movement rallying around the slogan, “Never Again.” Pro-NRA Republicans have lost in Virginia, Alabama, and a formerly reliably red corner of Pennsylvania. Both the FBI and the FEC may be examining the gun group’s Russia ties.
The list continues: Brand-name banks and retailers are cooly braving backlashes from gun owners by distancing themselves from the assault-rifle business. The sporting goods chain Dick’s has gone from imposing its own regulation of the products to retaining a lobbying firm to press Congress for federal restrictions.
Yet it’s also easy to tick off signals of the NRA’s strength. The group just celebrated a headline-making fund-raising haul. Its firewall in Washington has been so far holding just fine.
We went to Spitzer, who chairs the political science department at the State University of New York at Cortland, with an overarching question: Just what is the NRA’s standing right now?
Because this is a Q+A, we did lob a few other questions as well.
Mike Spies: We arrive at this NRA convention at an interesting moment. On the one hand, the NRA is facing persistent criticism from the public and a growing movement by major financial firms and consumer brands to cut ties with gun companies and the group. On the other, the NRA broke a fund-raising record in March.
Robert Spitzer: Yes, there’s several points to make on those observations. First, the NRA is on the defensive right now because of not just Parkland, but the political firestorm that’s developed since the shooting and this new student-led reform movement, which is really not like anything we’ve seen before.
Here’s the thing about the corporate response we’re seeing: The fiscal consequences for the NRA are probably little to none. In the short term, I don’t think this impacts the group significantly. But in the long term, it contributes to the NRA’s marginalization as an extremist, zealot group that has become more severed from the larger American public.
It’s a little like the treatment of the tobacco companies in years gone, when corporations and people began to say, “Yeah, cigarettes are legal, but they kill millions of people, so we’re not going to be associated with them anymore.” I don’t think it’s a defining moment by itself, but it’s one more log on the fire that contributes to the idea that you can oppose the gun lobby and survive.
MS: In the short term, do the breaking of corporate ties with the NRA actually play to the group’s benefit, in the sense that it amplifies and reinforces an us-against-them mentality?
RS: Well, yeah. And that’s just how the NRA would play it because whenever they’re criticized, that becomes the basis for saying to their membership, “Look, we’re under attack.” This becomes more significant in a time where both the president and Congress are extremely sympathetic to gun rights. The NRA used to be able to point to Barack Obama as an existential threat — he’s coming to take your guns away. But they can’t do that now.
MS: And that’s how the NRA raises $2.4 million in March, a 15-year record.
RS: Yes. It’s notable for being a record, but there’s a couple other points to make. The NRA will often spend a lot of its resources to gin up membership and contributions so that they can then say, “Look, we’ve had record numbers of people joining the NRA and we’ve had record donations.” In other words, the net financial benefit may be less than you might think.
The other point is that in the days of mega-money and politics, two-and-a-half million dollars is a drop in the ocean. Especially in an election cycle where hundreds of millions or even really billions of dollars are spent these days on elections. So it’s kind of a political milestone for them, but it’s no game-changer.
MS: The value for the NRA is not in a dollar amount, it’s in the message it can send to its members.
RS: That’s right.
MS: How does the post-Parkland moment affect the NRA going into the midterm elections?
RS: There are already indications that some candidates are now running for office expressly, or including in their policy discussions, criticisms of the NRA and the gun lobby. So it has become a more mainstream campaign issue, which is part of the goal of the student movement and the post-Parkland movement more generally. If the Parkland activists are able to push the issue into the fall elections at a time where Trump’s popularity is very low, it could be a contributor to significant change in these midterms.
MS: What’s the difference between the calculus that a Republican lawmaker is making versus the calculus that a corporation is making, when it comes to defying the NRA?
RS: It’s quite different. If you’re a Republican lawmaker, your immediate and most dire concern is the possibility of being primaried from your right wing. Especially if you were to break with the NRA publicly, it would be an invitation to mount an effort against you. It’s this threat that has tended to push Republicans in Congress to the right and keep them there, or to move ever further to the right. And a primary challenge is a pretty potent price to pay for breaking with the NRA.
MS: You touched on this a little earlier, but I am curious. You’ve been observing the NRA for quite some time now. What’s your assessment of the group’s relative strength right now?
RS: They’re still a potent organization, there’s no doubt about it. I wouldn’t minimize that in the least. I do think they are on the defensive right now, but they have Trump and Congress behind them, even if it’s in a more low-key way right now. There’s a lot riding on the fall elections, and it’s anybody’s guess what the outcome will be.
MS: You mentioned Trump, who is in the NRA’s corner and will make his third appearance at an NRA convention this weekend, apparently on a last-minute basis. That goes further than past Republican presidents have been willing to do.
RS: I think the main reason Trump is going this year is not because he’s in love with the gun issue. I don’t think he really cares that much about it. He’s there because the NRA supported him early, and he loves the adoration of crowds. He’ll get a rousing response, and they’ll cheer him no matter what he says. And the NRA is obviously happy to have the president of the United States come to their convention in Dallas and say how great they are, so I think that’ll be the main takeaway for the NRA members and also for the press.
MS: One advantage of having the president appear at the convention is a demonstration of that relationship to the members. But it also underscores how little the NRA has to show for its alliance with Trump. The NRA hasn’t had a major piece of legislation pass in its favor, despite Republicans controlling the White House and Congress. It hasn’t delivered on its promise of national concealed carry reciprocity of silencer deregulation. Won’t NRA members ask at some point, “What are you guys really getting done?”
RS: That’s a fair question for NRA members to ask, but really it’s a question that dogs Trump more generally. He’s made so many promises, going back to the campaign, that have come to nothing. He’s all about show. That’s who he is, that’s what he does. Administratively, there are NRA people in the administration. His court appointees, however, are very conservative and sympathetic to gun rights.
MS: Why do many NRA members still buy the “we’re under siege” message, even when their allies control the federal government the majority of state capitols as well? It seems like there’s some cognitive dissonance.
RS: Well, there is if you’re paying attention, but the NRA’s messaging is not about reality. It’s about instilling fear and paranoia. They’ve been relying on that theme going back to the 1980s and early ’90s because that’s the best way they can rally their base, get members, and get contributions from the small subset of Americans who respond very specifically to those appeals.
Wayne LaPierre talks about it all the time, ginning up the fear of crime: Super-predators who wander around and indiscriminately murder Americans. This is at a time when crime rates are at record lows, and have been declining for over 25 years. That’s a small particular that I think exemplifies the ability of the NRA to control their messaging and have true believers continue to believe that the government is a threat and the liberals or the press are going to take their guns away.
Once you head down that road, which they’ve been doing for 30 years or more, they can’t really walk it back, because if you do, you lose all credibility. It’s the opioid of the gun movement that they’ve got to stick with that apocalyptic rhetoric. If they turned it down, or turned it off, people would say, “You were lying us,” or “I’m not motivated anymore.” So they can’t walk it back. They’re addicted to it and it’s all they can do.