The National Rifle Association reveres police, treats their criticism as a sign of moral decline, and has gotten downright apocalyptic in response to protests of police abuses.
In 2017, for instance, NRATV host Chuck Holton warned that the “blatant racism and violence” of the “Black Lives Matter crowd” could lead to the massacre of whites. And the NRA has repeatedly denounced taking a knee to protest racism and police brutality.
That history highlights a peculiar tension: The NRA styles itself as a bulwark for liberty and an essential check on state power, but its interest in confronting government abuses comes to a hard stop at the thin blue line. Even in the context of defending the Second Amendment, the group has a history of silence when advocacy could implicate cops in wrongdoing.
Most recently, the NRA’s failure to offer public support to Kenneth Walker, a licensed gun carrier who in March fired at three men forcing their way into his Louisville, Kentucky, apartment, led some in the gun rights community to express dismay. The men, who turned out to be plainclothes cops executing a dubious warrant for a man already in custody, shot and killed Walker’s girlfriend, Breonna Taylor. Kentucky charged Walker, who is Black, with attempted murder, but the case was dropped after evidence surfaced that police had misled the grand jury.
The NRA has also been mute on the police killing of George Floyd, which led to this summer’s nationwide protests against police brutality toward Black Americans. It’s not the first time that the group has kept quiet in response to such killings, said Michael Cargill, a Texas gun store owner who is Black. “The NRA is always going to stand with law enforcement, right or wrong,” he said. “Cops are a political ally, their foundation, the people who put money in their pocket.”
A forward-looking NRA less narrow in its moral concern and truer to its rhetoric would see a brand-building opportunity in Black Lives Matter and partner with the movement, said Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law and a Second Amendment scholar. “Their alliance with police is in some ways at the expense of their ideological agenda,” he said.
For the NRA, the bond is vital. As the Center for Responsive Politics recently reported, the NRA’s PAC has been among the leading recipients of contributions from police officers this election cycle. That backing is borne from deep, longstanding ties to police, a constituency the NRA has trained, armed, and enlisted to fight its cultural and political battles.
Police agencies rely largely on instructors certified by the NRA’s Law Enforcement Division, which was established in 1960 to train officers and recruits in firearms use. There are roughly 13,000 active, NRA-certified trainers, according to the gun group’s website. Instructors are largely drawn from the military, the private security industry, and active and retired law enforcement.
The NRA’s “instructor development schools” are a money-maker. Eight certificates are offered in specializations including tactical shooting and precision rifle and each course costs $685. Students must be NRA members and pay additional fees to keep their certifications current. Prevailing in combat, particularly gun fights, is what the schools emphasize. “The law enforcement firearms instructor’s job is to teach officers how to be safe, effective and timely in the use of their firearms and tactics,” the NRA website states, “and to win the lethal encounter.”
One mainstay on the NRA speaking circuit is Lt. Col. David Grossman, a police trainer who encourages readiness to kill. A former Army Ranger, Grossman argues that threats must be met with overwhelming force and that for the “mature warrior,” killing is “just not that big of a deal.” He’s told students to expect the best sex of their lives after killing, describing it as a job perk.
The NRA gives guns, ammunition, and cash directly to police. From 2009 to 2018, the NRA Foundation provided at least $1.4 million in grants to 95 police and sheriff’s agencies in mostly rural areas of the country. Some $350,000 of the total was in the form of equipment, including AR-15s, ammunition, and other shooting supplies. Those totals likely don’t capture all gifts to local law enforcement because the NRA only needs to disclose grants that exceed $5,000.
While it has shown extraordinary deference to police, the NRA has at times vilified federal law enforcement, perhaps most memorably in 1995, when its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, referred to federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs.” In the same fundraising letter, LaPierre continued, “Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens.”
Portraying federal authority as tyrannical and local police as heroic protectors is in keeping with the worldview — held disproportionately by older, conservative whites — that the NRA caters to and promotes, according to Alexandra Filindra, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who has studied links between white racial resentment and opposition to gun laws.
“These are people who are profoundly suspicious of the state,” Filindra said of the NRA’s audience, “but supportive of police actions.”
An email obtained by The Trace criticizes a lack of transparency around ongoing staff reductions, which have hit the group’s fundraising staff especially hard. “Why have we not been advised regarding termination of employees?” it reads.
The NRA has long fostered a specific gun owner identity in its members, Matthew Lacombe, a political science professor at Barnard College, argues. Whiteness, belief in gun rights, and allegiance to GOP-style law and order are interlocking parts of this identity, Lacombe said. The NRA has an intuitive sense, he said, that affirming one aspect of this identity in a way that impugns the others could create “cognitive dissonance” for many members.
Lacombe’s theory offers an explanation for why the NRA, despite its purported dread of armed government agents running amok, has shown such antipathy toward Black Lives Matter.
Not all officers, of course, view the NRA favorably. The NRA has quarreled with police associations in the past and chiefs of big city departments, who often back stronger gun laws, have leveled blistering criticism. Tensions were highest in the 1980s and early ‘90s, when the NRA and law enforcement leaders battled over banning so-called “cop-killer” bullets and passage of the Brady Bill, which required licensed firearms dealers to perform background checks on buyers.
In response to such rifts, the NRA helped establish the Law Enforcement Alliance of America in 1991. The alliance was ostensibly a voice for rank-and-file cops with views more sympathetic to the NRA. Its first leader was Leroy Pyle, an NRA board member and San Jose, California, police officer who’d argued publicly with his chief over gun laws and the NRA’s influence.
The NRA pumped an estimated $6 million into the alliance through 2010, by which time the alliance was funneling dark money to candidates opposed to stricter gun laws. Its practices drew heat and, by 2015, the alliance was reduced to operating from a rented mailbox in Virginia.
In 2010, the NRA launched Life of Duty, a recruitment drive that enticed law enforcement officers and military personnel to join with free membership and insurance benefits, as well as discounts on guns and gear, all courtesy of the group’s industry partners. Life of Duty produced its own streaming programs, and the challenges of policing effectively in a politically correct era were a frequent focus. Programs included Defending our America, which featured episodes with titles like One Dime Bag At A Time and We’ve Gotta Do Bad Things to Bad People.
Though the NRA still offers reduced-cost memberships to police, funding for Life of Duty fizzled in 2015. Life of Duty programs, however, found a new home with the advent of NRATV in 2016. The online video channel took flak for its unhinged content —such as claiming that the Black Lives Matter movement could lead to the mass slaughter of whites — and shut down last year as the NRA’s relationship with its former public relation firm imploded in scandal.
Cargill, the Texas gun store owner, is an NRA-certified firearms instructor and member of the gun group. He said he was opposed to some of what he’d heard coming from the recent protests, such as calls to “defund the police.” However, after ticking off the names of Black Americans killed by cops in recent years, he said that changes are clearly needed — such as greater outside oversight — to ensure that police are accountable.
Cargill had this request:
“What I would like is for the NRA to stand up and say, ‘You know what, that was wrong, the police officer was wrong, and the police officer has to be prosecuted.’ Don’t be a coward.”
The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.
Data analysis by Daniel Nass.