The National Rifle Association is facing fresh scrutiny this week after the Huffington Post reported that an “NRA official” had corresponded with the infamous Sandy Hook school shooting denier Wolfgang Halbig. The official, Mark Richardson, had emailed Halbig after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, to suggest that the killings were part of a larger conspiracy.
The story may have overstated Richardson’s importance within the NRA: He is a shooting instructor who coordinates training programs, and isn’t involved in any litigation, policy work, or messaging. But the incident raises questions about how cozy the gun group gets with noxious conspiracy theorists.
NRA leaders have never publicly engaged in mass shooting denialism. Senior executives like Wayne LaPierre and personalities like Dana Loesch regularly criticize opponents’ calls for gun control after mass shootings, but they stop well short of characterizing the atrocities as staged “false flag” operations. And though they warn NRA members about the spectre of “tyranny” that lurks behind tighter gun laws, they don’t talk about classic conspiracy theory tropes like global dominance by alien Reptilian overlords or a totalitarian New World Order.
However, there is an overlap between people who traffic in such fabulism and the NRA. In fact, the NRA has welcomed some of the people and organizations who have done the most to push these dangerous conspiracy theories, including InfoWars, perhaps the most infamous conspiracy theory outlet in the country.
For at least the last several years, the NRA has allowed InfoWars to cover the NRA’s annual convention even as the gun group denied press credentials to mainstream outlets. At the 2016 convention in Louisville, Kentucky, correspondent Joe Biggs interviewed well-known NRA media personality Colion Noir. In 2017, InfoWars’ Michael Zimmerman talked to former NAVY Seal Craig Sawyer at the convention in Atlanta about “exposing the pedophile elite.” That same year at the convention, Sawyer appeared on NRATV. Last year, the website’s Owen Shroyer went to the Dallas convention to meet “like-minded patriots.” InfoWars promoted its own event tied to the 2018 meeting.
InfoWars is notorious for founder Alex Jones’s longtime denial of the Sandy Hook shooting. He has since admitted people were killed in the December 2012 attack, though as recently as this week he cast doubt on documented accounts of victims and their family members. Jones has frequently interviewed the infamous NRA board member Ted Nugent, who told Jones’s viewers to join the gun group.
Why does the NRA allow fringe figures and organizations like InfoWars to set up at its annual meeting if the gun group’s own leaders don’t dally in the same far-out rhetoric? Spokesmen did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and neither did InfoWars, so we don’t have their explanation.
But a likely answer lies in the way that the NRA maintains its coalition. Perhaps the NRA’s greatest asset is its membership’s energy and engagement — and as evidenced by Richardson’s correspondence with Halbig, some core members find common cause with school shooting truthers. The NRA doesn’t want to alienate the grassroots pro-gun vanguard, an unknown number of whom may also subscribe to an array of fringe beliefs. At the same time, the organization can’t be seen to openly embrace the Alex Joneses of the world, or else it would risk its influential position within the more mainstream right-wing political ecosystem.