You can hate the NRA all you want. You can loathe their tactics, abhor their racism, or despise their manipulation of the rural poor. You can mock their frontman, Wayne LaPierre, for behaving like a grotesque movie villain, or rage at their refusal to even talk about mass shootings until mass shooting fury has simmered. But you must admit this one thing: They are fucking effective.
Never since the heyday of the Italian-American Mafia has an organization with so few confirmed members wielded such tremendous power. But the NRA isn’t trigger happy Tommy from Goodfellas, flying off the handle and whacking everyone who crosses them. They aren’t even Al Capone — the real or Untouchables version — fearless, thanks to superior muscle. Instead, they wield political influence like Vito Corleone in The Godfather, with a series of shadowy gambits, precisely calculated for maximum return. They play the long game when everyone else moves in fits and starts, and their patience benefits them greatly.
For decades now, the NRA has gaslighted a nation — convincing voters that the problem isn’t guns and that they’re silly for ever thinking so. They’ve done this while claiming roughly five million members in a country of 325 million. That’s barely 1.5% of the populace leading the fight against gun safety legislation in a nation where 55% of voting-age adults support stricter gun laws. If you were writing a script about La Cosa Nostra and endowed them with NRA-level power, no one would believe you. You’d have to scale it back for the sake of realism. Because LaPierre and his cohorts win more than peak Tom Brady. They’re literally no joke — too successful to be satire; too proficient to be parodied.
But can they be imitated? Might the oft-thwarted opposition steal the NRA’s hyper-focused game plan, co-opt it, and flip it? What would it take to build an anti-NRA?
1. CREATE PINCH POINTS
Every time there’s an active shooter, we’re reminded just how many House and Senate campaigns have accepted NRA super-pac money while wishing “thoughts and prayers” to victims. And it’s a lot. But the direct cash influx isn’t particularly significant. Here’s the total list of senators and congresspeople who accepted more than $9,000 in campaign contributions in 2016:
- Blunt, Roy (R-MO) Senate $11,900
- Comstock, Barbara (R-VA) House $10,400
- Burr, Richard (R-NC) Senate $9,900
- Coffman, Mike (R-CO) House $9,900
- Grassley, Chuck (R-IA) Senate $9,900
- Guinta, Frank (R-NH) House $9,900
- Hardy, Cresent (R-NV) House $9,900
- Hurd, Will (R-TX) House $9,900
- Katko, John (R-NY) House $9,900
- Mills, Stewart (R-MN) House $9,900
- Paul, Rand (R-KY) Senate $9,900
- Poliquin, Bruce (R-ME) House $9,900
- Portman, Rob (R-OH) Senate $9,900
- Rubio, Marco (R-FL) Senate $9,900
- Zeldin, Lee (R-NY) House $9,900
15 people. And for selling their souls, they’d theoretically be able to buy a 2013 hatchback with a clean title and 95K miles. But that’s not the point to the NRA. Their expertise is making themselves the deciding factor between candidates getting elected or not. They create pinch points and exploit the hell out of them.
As an organization, the NRA ranks 460 of 18,591 in direct contributions. In 2016, they gave $1,090,200 total, mostly parceled out in small chunks, as you can see above. Where the NRA really puts their cash is in “outside spending” — expenditures and electioneering that they can control themselves without candidate oversight (these are the “non-candidate endorsed” messages you see near the end of particularly ugly campaigns). In that category, the NRA gave a whopping $54,398,558 (including $30 million to support Donald Trump).
Now check this: The NRA-backed candidate won four of the five Senate races and three out of five House races that the NRA put money behind. They also won the presidency.
While candidates might relish the ability to distance themselves from the NRA’s aggressive messaging, they also recognize that they need this back-alley brawler on their side. The NRA knows the candidates get this, so they turn the screws (because the votes are the point here, not the dollars). Since Newtown, when the gun debate really caught fire, the organization has been unafraid to crush longtime supporters who step out of line. They’ll even oppose incumbent allies by backing new candidates who fit their needs better. The message in all of this is very clear: Push back and we will ditch you; defy us and we will ruin you.
The anti-NRA could replicate this, though it’s a scary technique for liberals and leftists to fathom. It means opposing semi-aligned candidates without an iota of guilt. It means being laser-focused on “One Big Idea,” rather than putting things into context within the political landscape. It may not be the best strategy for the country, but boy has it ever worked for the NRA.
2. PLAY MEAN, PLAY FAST
Here’s a little story from 2004. Two men ran for president. One was a Texas Air National Guard reservist with a dubious attendance record and the other was a Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts, one Bronze Star, and one Silver Star. But this decorated soldier was no warmonger, he came home with a measured, thoughtful perspective on his service, testifying to a Senate subcommittee in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” — a sentence that’s often credited with ending one of the most convoluted military engagements in US history.
Now, understanding that the 2004 election hinged on picking a president to manage the War on Terror — which threatened to be a Vietnam-level quagmire — whose military service do you think reflected better on them? If you guessed the dude who was able to avoid conscription by staying home (after going AWOL) in Texas, you’d be absolutely right. Why? Because John Kerry, lauded war hero and activist, was slandered by The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and refused to lash out at them. He played nice and he lost. The case is viewed as one of the most successful political smear campaigns in the modern era. The swift boat testimonies were eventually decimated by men who fought alongside Kerry and official Navy records, but the damage was done.
What’s its relevance here? The NRA runs exactly like those Swift Boat Vets. They create ominous fear and ask nebulous questions while positioning themselves and their candidates as the only people interested in the safety of US citizens. Does data support their position? No. But that doesn’t matter. They are bold and singularly focused and if you haven’t yet realized the political power that can be achieved by clear messaging (regardless of its factual value) then you don’t know American politics.
Could the anti-NRA dramatize a home invasion gone wrong? Could it film an attack ad in which a mother accidentally shoots her toddler? Absolutely. And there are statistics to support those videos. To win this battle the anti-NRA needs to do what John Kerry failed to do: Take a punch, square up, shake it off, and punch back harder. Right now, gun legislation movements are associated with hippyism, Hollywood elitism, and the Nanny State. “Beta male shit” as the Red Pill, AR-15 crowd calls it. Leftists are the side that writes thinkpieces about thinkpieces about thinkpieces — drilling deeper into the minutiae of widely shared liberal ideology (and further, the right might say, up their own asses).
Instead, the movement needs to look gun owners in the eyes and say, “Sorry, you statistically suck at using your toys and often abuse them. We have the FBI numbers to prove it. We are treating this as a public health issue, so get ready to be regulated.” Or maybe something saucier, like: “Want to learn how to handle a weapon in order to compensate for insecurity? Take a fencing class! Don’t worry, fam, the metaphor of ‘poking things with my sword’ is just as on the nose as ‘shooting things with my gun’.”
What the anti-NRA doesn’t need is to play nice. Not if they want to change things. That means not waiting out tragedies or giving time to mourn, but acting with a sense of immediacy. In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo fast-tracked new laws and had them signed into law six weeks later. The NRA called it, “a secretive end-run around the legislative and democratic process.” Want to create the anti-NRA? Have them say shit like that about your techniques.
3. BE THE ONLY HOME FOR ALL COMERS
The boy in the image above has a place in the NRA. So does the prepper in Idaho, the mom afraid of home invasion in New York, the anti-gov family in Utah, and the nearly infirm gun show attendee in Florida. If you like guns, the NRA likes you and that’s one thing their opposition has never been able to understand.
Related: There is one NRA. Just one. It has its intent written into its very name, The National Rifle Association. Any questions about their mission? Nope. By comparison, the gun regulation movement has the Brady Campaign, Gabby’s Pledge, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Moms Demand Action, etc.
In order to compete with LaPierre’s political power these organizations need to come under one umbrella. Right now, the best option is Everytown for Gun Safety — which boasts four million members and brazenly uses the word “gun” paired with American flag iconography. This is the right attitude: To say, “We, too, are Americans who love America and we’re not going to give an inch on that.”
If those in favor of gun control really want to win, they’ll fold every organization into Everytown. Jobs would be lost, initiatives would die, but power would be consolidated. Money would be in one place. Numbers would increase. The battle would be clarified: “Rifle Association” vs. “Gun Safety.”
If that came to pass, it would need to be followed up by complete inclusiveness and a lack of public infighting. “Are you for stricter gun control? You’re with us. We’re not interested in your stance on abortion or the economy — you have a home here.” The NRA’s attitude is all-encompassing like that, but it’s been terrifically hard for the opposition to replicate. In this battle, there is no room for internal division.
Is in-house debate crucial to growing a massive political movement? Sure. Argue away, behind closed doors. But for God’s sake don’t show your bloody rag to the other side. They are wolves, they will smell your rot across the badlands and they will come for you.
4. CAPTURE THE NATIONAL IDENTITY
The NRA’s agenda is inked right into our Bill of Rights. We know that. They won’t let us forget it. Moreover, since the beginning of the mass-shooting era, they’ve positioned themselves as defenders of that document. They’ve inoculated their manufacturers against liability and pivoted the conversation every time it heats up. This is the greatest trick the devil ever pulled — using America’s founding fathers to excuse silencers and semi-autos — and it’s worked. Somehow, thanks to the NRA, high capacity clips have become part of a “well-regulated militia” while any actual regulation of said militia is seen as anti-American.
The left let this happen. They ceded ground on patriotism, Christianity, and the constitution — three of the most politically powerful invectives in the history of our nation. They mock the values that matter to the majority of the country; scoffing at the so-called fly-over states. Now liberals are stuck being the party of The New Yorker and avocado toast.
Any gun regulation movement worth its salt needs to be linked to something that is core to the American identity. Empathy, perhaps? “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Or maybe just plain old common sense? Nah. That’s still too frou-frou. How about this one: “Not dying in a hail of bullets.” That’s a widespread value. People prefer living to dying by an overwhelming majority.
Whatever it is, the anti-NRA needs to rally the same fervor in its members that Charlton Heston stirred in these old white men with his “Cold, Dead Hands” speech. Because remember how we said that the NRA reports roughly five million members? Well guess what: 14 million people claim to be part of the NRA. They haven’t paid dues, but they like the idea of the organization so much that they say they’re part of it. These gun owners are eager and politically active. They don’t flit from cause to cause and their involvement doesn’t spike around mass shootings, like their opponents. When they set their sights they are laser-focused.
Repealing 2005’s Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act might be the place to start for the anti-NRA. That law protects gun manufacturers from lawsuits and rolling it back might be the key to turning the tide. There’s a great case to be made that cigarette brands didn’t stop steamrolling everyone until they were taken to court for civil damages. It’s not a stretch to suggest that firearms would operate similarly.
Any move to change legislation will require the anti-NRA to fight passion with passion, connect with core American values, and spark the curiosity of millions. Most of all, they need to steal blatantly from LaPierre’s techniques — admitting that the NRA is wildly effective and having faith that they could be too.