The National Rifle Association won itself no new converts with its news conference Friday.
Addressing last week’s school shootings in Newtown, Conn., NRA officials called for police and armed personnel in every school. That proposal was in keeping with positions taken by some lawmakers and other gun rights groups in recent days.
And it suggests that many were wrong in thinking a mass shooting involving first-graders would be a “tipping point” in changing the thinking of Second Amendment adherents.
“The modern NRA does not compromise,” says Kristin Goss, a Duke University political scientist.
A Question Of Tone
President Obama has called for a broad approach to curtailing mass shootings that would likely include new restrictions on gun ownership.
For its part, the NRA appeared ready to speak about anything — mental health, violent video games, the faults of the media — except new restrictions on gun control.
“Most NRA members, like the overall majority of Americans, are engaged in a serious conversation about how we can best prevent dangerous people from getting guns,” says Jon Lowy, an attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates more restrictive gun laws. “The NRA statement did not attempt to engage that conversation, which is where the American people are at.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued a statement dismissing the NRA approach: “Schools must be safe sanctuaries, not armed fortresses.”
New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie echoed that sentiment, saying he didn’t think a single armed guard would provide much safety and multiple guards would not be “conducive to a positive learning environment.”
It wasn’t just the message of the news event that was off-putting to some observers; it was also the tone. Robert Spitzer, an expert on gun politics at the State University of New York at Cortland, said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre should have led his presentation with the group’s sponsorship of a school security program instead of “bashing” the media and blaming societal influences.
“They failed to develop any idea about mental health issues, which LaPierre mentioned but then passed over,” Spitzer says. “LaPierre sounded defensive, unhelpful, angry and scared.”
Garnering Poor Reviews
Although NRA officials decried the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they put far more emphasis on their proposal to have more armed personnel in schools. The group had been mostly silent for a week “out of respect for the families,” as LaPierre put it.
“It’s not going to go down in the classics of good public relations,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “A little too much pushback on the media, not enough sympathy for the victims.”
On social media, the group has been lambasted. After Keene and LaPierre refused to take questions from reporters, saying they would take calls next week, some joked about requiring a three-day waiting period for media but not gun purchasers.
A Sympathetic Official
Not everyone was critical of the group’s message. “That sounds like what the NRA would say, and of course I agree with that,” says Jeff Serdy, owner of A.J.I. Sporting Goods in Apache Junction, Ariz.
His phone has been ringing almost literally off the hook — “our phone rings about twice a minute these days,” Serdy says — with inventory selling out as gun owners stock up on weapons and ammunition in the aftermath of the shooting and Obama’s call for new gun laws.
Serdy says the problem of gun violence has less to do with weapons and more to do with disturbed individuals failing to take medications.
“You Google all the mass shootings in the last 10 or 20 years and all of them have had some kind of antidepressant medicine in their system, or that they were failing to take,” he says. “To me, it’s an antidepressant problem, it’s not an inanimate piece of steel and polymer.”
Serdy, who sits on the Apache Junction City Council, says he would support the NRA’s proposal to have universal police presence at schools. “At one time, when the budget allowed, we had school resource officers on campuses,” he says.
A Firm Political Stance
Gun control advocates noted that there were two law enforcement agents present at Columbine High School during the mass shooting there in 1999, although gun proponents have said the agents may have prevented the killers from harming even more people.
Still, for all the heat the NRA’s news briefing is taking among gun control advocates, its position on armed school personnel may prevail in some states and localities, if not in Congress.
On the other hand, the firm disavowal of gun control expressed by the NRA and other gun rights groups makes the chances for new restrictions passing through Congress — especially the Republican-controlled House — look less likely.
Michael Hammond, legal counsel for Gun Owners of America, argues that Democrat Al Gore lost a number of states in 2000 — and with them, the presidency — because his party had pushed for gun control after Columbine.
He says with a large number of Democratic senators from Republican “red” states up for re-election in 2014, “my own perception is if they choose to push this very hard, then they’re going to lose the Senate over it.”
Speaking For Members?
NRA officials clearly chose to speak to their base Friday rather than the broader public that has been shocked by the shootings and might be sympathetic toward further restrictions on gun ownership.
The only question is whether the NRA took a stance so unyielding that it was out of step even with their own members, as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg argued.
As yet, there’s little evidence of that.
“I’ve always argued the reason the NRA is so powerful, where it is powerful, is largely because of its membership,” says Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College. “They wield power because elected officials are pretty much aware of the number of NRA members and gun owners in their district, and they can do the math.”