gun violence


The NRA won after Sandy Hook, but today the gun lobby is in disarray and gun safety is slowly making gains in states.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

How the U.S. got to the point where 19 fourth-graders were slaughtered in a single classroom in Uvalde, Texas, is along a tortured path, arguably going back as far as 1791, when the Second Amendment was ratified. But there is no more important moment this century than on December 21, 2012, when the National Rifle Association doubled down after 26 people, most of them children, were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which remains the deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history. The NRA made no statement for a week, deciding how to respond. Then its long-time head, Wayne LaPierre, came out and twisted the concerns of millions of parents into a call for more gun sales. “How do we protect our children right now, starting today, in a way that we know works?” he asked. The answer was simple: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Those 18 words were Marvel-movie logic, but it didn’t matter. It catalyzed the gun lobby into action. The number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. has tripled since 2000, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic with about 7.5 million people buying firearms for the first time since 2019. “Gun-rights proponents really believe, genuinely believe, that the way that you ensure safety in America is you make sure that everybody has guns,” says Darrell A. H. Miller, the Melvin G. Shimm Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law and co-author of The Positive Second Amendment: Rights, Regulation, and the Future of Heller. Not only are there more firearms in circulation since LaPierre’s call to arms, there are — outside of a few states controlled by Democrats — fewer restrictions on them than there were on the day those children died in Newtown. What’s more, the conservative Supreme Court is likely to limit by next month some states’ abilities to restrict licensing for firearms. This run has fed the conventional wisdom that the gun lobby has blocked any chance for reforms, but the last decade has also seen the gun lobby at its most fractured state in 30 years, and dozens of states pass less noticed gun-safety laws that have restrained the surge in shootings.

The NRA traces its history back to the Civil War, but its modern incarnation as a force behind the expansion of gun ownership started in 1977, when a group of hardliners took control of what was then a fairly sleepy hunting-rights group at a national convention in Cincinnati. At the time, courts had interpreted the Second Amendment to apply to state militias rather than individuals, and states generally restricted who could own a gun, and in almost no instances allowed people to carry them concealed in public. NRA victories throughout the 1980s and 1990s were at the state level, forcing cities to comply with state laws loosening restrictions. “This is the phenomenon of blue islands in red states, and the red state legislature — which also tends to be heavily gerrymandered — flexing its muscle to quash any kind of dissenting voice on gun legislation or gun-violence prevention,” Miller says.

But the NRA’s influence over conservative politics was not guaranteed in the 1990s. LaPierre, elected head of the organization in 1991, said that the organization was running deficits as high as $38 million a year when he took over. In 1994, Ronald Reagan successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Brady Bill, named after his press secretary who was gravely wounded along with Reagan during a 1981 assassination attempt, which mandated background checks, as well as a ban on assault rifles — the last major federal gun-control legislation to get signed into law. The next year, George H.W. Bush quit the NRA over a fundraising letter from the group that called federal agents “jack-booted thugs.” Gun-control advocates’ victories would be short-lived, though. The NRA spent millions to successfully elect a Republican Congress in 1994 and to back George W. Bush in 2000.

Many of the NRA’s biggest legislative victories since then continue to reverberate today, including “stand your ground” laws, the expansion of concealed carry, the expiration of the assault-rifle ban, and the passing of a federal law that shields arms manufacturers from liability when their guns kill people. The NRA even managed to cut off funding from the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence. By the end of the George W. Bush administration, the NRA had prevailed not just in passing a slate of favorable laws, but in waging a culture war that redefined the Second Amendment itself. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller for the first time that individuals had a constitutional right to carry a firearm. During the Obama years, gun sales exploded as the NRA told its members that the president wanted to take away their guns.

So when LaPierre valorized the “good guy with a gun,” he did so after decades of legislative wins. But the legacy of the post-Uvalde world may very well be different. “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” President Biden asked on the night of the shooting — a marked difference from Obama, who initially hesitated to blame the NRA before launching an ultimately failed political attack. Gun-control advocates have also — slowly — been making some limited gains at the state level. About half of the U.S. population live in states with universal background checks, according to Peter Ambler, the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The organization has also successfully pushed a law that allows courts to temporarily bar dangerous individuals from buying guns in Florida. According to Jeffrey Swanson, a psychology professor and researcher at Duke University, every ten to 20 guns removed through those laws prevents a suicide. Funding for gun-violence studies was restored to the CDC in 2019. Michael Bloomberg, whose group Everytown for Gun Safety lobbies for stricter gun-safety measures, spent millions electing candidates who backed gun safety in 2018, after the Parkland school shooting, and kept on heavily spending in 2020. After the Uvalde shooting and a racist massacre in Buffalo, New York governor Kathy Hochul called for raising the age of buying a gun in New York to 21. (The Uvalde killer bought his weapons immediately after his 18th birthday.)

The NRA is also in a weaker position than it was ten years ago, after extensive reporting from the Trace (where I used to work) and a subsequent lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James investigating the group for alleged misappropriation of funds. Leaked internal documents show that membership and revenue has declined for four straight years — a slowdown that halved its political spending during the last election compared to 2016. While the number of guns in the U.S. has exploded, the number of gun owners has basically stagnated at around three in ten from 2017 to 2021, according to Pew Research — which is actually lower than the nearly 50 percent rate in the 1970s. Most gun owners support measures like universal background checks and keeping dangerous or mentally ill people from owning guns — a clear divergence from the NRA’s no-surrender policy, which may explain why its membership rates are falling even as gun purchases are going up. And gun safety has become a way to get voters to turn out in the polls and elect candidates who want to rein in the gun lobby, such as Senators Mark Kelly — the husband of Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman who was shot in 2011 — and Chris Murphy, who had represented Newtown in the House before he was elected to the Senate.

Still, the pro-gun movement is not dead. Next month, the Supreme Court will rule on New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, a case that challenges New York’s ability to decide who gets a permit to own a gun. The ruling has the potential to be more far-reaching than the 2008 Heller decision, which largely affirmed people’s right to own guns. “If we end up with a really broad opinion on that issue, that the only kinds of regulations that are constitutional are regulations that exist in 1791 or close analogs, then all bets are off,” says Miller, the Duke professor. “All kinds of regulations are going to be challenged from guns on airplanes to people convicted of domestic-battery offenses.” Since the ruling would primarily impact states controlled by Democrats, however, gun-safety advocates expect that lawmakers would react with a new slate of restrictions. “I don’t think it’s going to dramatically change the landscape in the same way to overturning Roe v. Wade would for abortion,” says Ambler from Giffords.

Even with the NRA in a weaker position than it has been, it’s not clear that it would matter so much. After the Uvalde shooting, Texas senator Ted Cruz echoed LaPierre’s decade-old “bad guys” talking points in calling for arming teachers and reducing schoolhouses to a single door, guarded by cops. The gun lobby has also historically performed best at times when Democrats have been in power, making Clinton, Obama, and now Biden into convenient foils that animated their base. “The power of the NRA was that it had a large membership that actually went out and voted in primaries. And those voters are still there,” says Eric Ruben, Brennan Center Fellow and assistant professor at SMU Law.

To hear it from those closer to the gun lobby, though, millions of gun owners — even those who may not be card-carrying, dues-paying members of the NRA — may already be primed to hear statements from Biden as an attack on their freedoms and muscle out gun-safety policies that could stop another school shooting. “You’ve got 7 million new gun owners in this country” since the pandemic, says Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the NRA whose book, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist, details his work for, and fallout from, the group. “What they’re hearing — not necessarily what’s being said, but what they’re hearing right now — is we don’t really trust you people to have the guns.”

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