NRA has had presidents whose personal views were less rigid including the one-time movie star Charlton Heston, who served from 1998 to 2003. But Heston is most famous in his role as NRA president for proclaiming: “From my cold dead hands!” at the 2000 NRA convention, as he hoisted a rifle above his head.
“So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away,” Heston said, trying to rally the membership against Vice President and Democrat Al Gore during the 2000 presidential election. “I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!'”
That rallying cry is on NRA bumper stickers and symbolizes the modern-era NRA attitude when it comes to gun restrictions. And since Carter’s hard line, picked up by the subsequent leaders of the organization, the NRA has also seen its membership and funds swell. And when a mass-shooting happens or a Democratic president looks like he or she might win, gun stock prices soar.
That speech also took place after eight years of a Democratic presidency that saw an assault-rifle ban go into effect. Gore, of course, narrowly lost in 2000. Often when there’s momentum in one direction, there is a backlash, and that happened that year.
The NRA experienced setbacks on gun restrictions in the 1990s, stemming from the 1981 attempted assassination of Reagan. It created a new groundswell for gun control and led to the 1993 law known as the Brady Bill (for Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady, wounded in the attempt on the president’s life).
The Brady Bill established a waiting period and other restrictions and had the support of NRA member Ronald Reagan. The following year, a Democratic Congress enacted a domestic ban on “assault weapons,” the combat style semiautomatics so common in war zones around the world. But the NRA managed to insert a 10-year sunset on the law, and when it came due in 2004, the control of Congress had passed to the GOP, which allowed the law to expire.
Over the years, the NRA has also become involved in litigation, such as the lawsuit challenging the personal handgun ban in the District of Columbia. That case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which struck down the law in the landmark Heller decision in 2008. That decision also preserved the longstanding NRA principle that the Second Amendment right to firearms was meant for a private individual as well as a “well-regulated militia.” The majority opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, who had been appointed to the court by Reagan, the first president endorsed for the office by the NRA.
This is the NRA we know today, the one to whom lawmakers and the media turn after a firearm massacre such as in Florida. When this happens, the NRA has a well-established protocol for its response. First the organization remains silent for a period of days, offering only a message of sympathy for the victims and a request that the tragedy “not be politicized.” Then it begins to engage, usually through a few officers and spokespersons who have been through this multiple times, such as the chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, and its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre.
LaPierre then makes the rounds of TV talk shows and cable channels, reciting a well-practiced “talking points” defending his faith in guns, their use in self-protection and the NRA view of the Constitution. That is:
- That the Second Amendment guarantees the right to “keep and bear arms,” and the Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed that this right applies to private individuals and not just to organized militias (as referenced in the Constitution), but also to private individual citizens.
- The organization lays the blame for gun violence on criminals and the producers of Hollywood movies and video games and the failures of the mental health system.
- It reminds that it is not possible to legislate away the evil in the world.
Finally, and repeatedly, the NRA repeats its chant: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Or, as LaPierre put it recently, “It comes down to … if your glass breaks in the middle of the night, there is not a government authority on the planet that substitutes for your right to own a firearm.”
In the case of the Las Vegas on shooting on October 1, 2017, that took 58 lives and wounded or injured hundreds more, the NRA has deviated only a degree from its pattern. In its original response, the NRA said it was willing to discuss the Las Vegas shooter’s reliance on a weapon modification known as a “bump stock.”
This enables someone holding a semiautomatic weapon to fire many rounds without squeezing the trigger for each. This does not modify the weapon to make it “fully automatic,” but it produces a similar effect.
On the same day the NRA released its statement, a number of Republican legislators, including some from party leadership in the House and Senate, told reporters they could “take a look at” bump stocks. Shortly thereafter, Trump also said the administration would “take a look at” bump stocks.
Whether or not this was a coordinated strategy, it was a mild concession on the part of the NRA which usually opposes new limitations. It was condemned as such by the Gun Owners of America, a smaller guns-rights group that is often critical of what it calls the NRA’s willingness to compromise and “sell out.”
But it soon became clear that the NRA was not in favor of addressing the bump stock through any actual change in the law. LaPierre and others said it was within the purview of the Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms to regulate bump stocks now. They said repeatedly that ATF should simply “do its job.” LaPierre wouldn’t agree on legislation, but regulation simply because it is a lot easier to revoke when necessary.
ATF officials, however, contradicted LaPierre’s statement pointing to the language of the relevant laws on the books. They said those laws needed to change for them to ban bump stocks. While that “he-said, she-said” debate goes forward, LaPierre added recently added that he did not see a need for any gun bill that “would become a Christmas tree” loaded with anti-gun measures. He specifically mentioned the suggestions by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democrat with whom he has clashed since she pushed the assault-weapons ban in 1994. (LaPierre was first made executive vice president in 1991.)
LaPierre’s view is already being championed by many members of Congress. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was seriously wounded when a gunman opened fire in June 2017 on a congressional baseball team practice, has suggested there might be other legislation moving in his chamber that enhanced gun owner rights rather than limiting them in any way.
In my view, NRA will continue to buy members of congress through their grading structure and financial support. That organization poured $36.3 million into the 2016 election, breaking its own record of $31.7 million from just two years earlier. NRA continues to be “bad news” for America because that organization is concerned more about gun manufacturers than children, and the only way to change that model is to vote in people who are more concerned about their constituencies that than selling their soul to the NRA.