INDIANAPOLIS-- The theme of last week's National Rifle Association annual meeting was an odd one: maternity.
It was not an official theme in the way macho slogans like “All In” and “Stand and Fight” have formally defined recent NRA congresses. But it was a thick running thread, one that signals the quickening of a broad shift underway across the gun rights movement, from the gun makers to the grassroots.
Red schwag set the tone. At tables throughout the complex, NRA staffers handed out “I'm an NRA MOM” buttons and t-shirts. At the building's main entrance hung an enormous banner of a woman, looking a little pouty, next to a populist taunt of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently said he would spend big on behalf of the gun safety movement.
While it is unclear if the woman is an NRA mom, she is notably not NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre or board member Ted Nugent. The billboard captures perfectly the NRA's double-pronged messaging campaign of the moment, best summarized as “Glocker Moms against Mayor Mike.”
For years the role of women in the politics and business of guns has been growing. We may look back at 2014 as the year it flipped. In Indianapolis, women constituted a full quarter of NRA attendees for the first time -- up to a five-fold increase over the past decade, according to the group.
The NRA is pivoting quickly to adjust, and for the first time its convention program featured two major events for women. In addition to the $250-a-plate Women's Leadership Forum Luncheon and Auction, the group held the first annual Women's New Energy Breakfast, where female gun owners and NRA moms mixed and networked over a $15 breakfast buffet.
These same women are the target of a female-oriented media push, anchored by a running NRA web series called “Armed and Fabulous.” An early episode looks admiringly at the Potterfield women of the Midway ammunition empire, whose scion, Larry, is one of the NRA's biggest industry donors.
The women-and-guns motif carried over into the male-dominated dog-and-pony show known as the Leadership Forum, where 2016 hopefuls bragged about their wives' gun racks. Rick Santorum boasted that his wife owns more guns than he does, and that his five-year old daughter is already an NRA member. Indiana Governor Mike Pence talked about falling in love with his wife for her handgun. Florida Senator Marco Rubio bemoaned the paperwork required for his female staffers to carry and conceal. And after two years in which Glenn Beck delivered the keynote, this year's honor fell to the pistol-packin' Mama Grizzly, Sarah Palin.
What's going on? The modern NRA is, above all, a thinly veiled industry group. Its “mom” offensive reflects basic gun industry economics: manufacturers' continued growth depends in no small part on making up for the duck and deer hunting demographic, which has been static or declining for generations.
The industry hopes that women can be their growth market. Thus far its degree of success is anyone's guess. Anecdotal evidence and some polling shows an increase in female gun ownership in recent years. But according to the General Social Survey, the gold standard for survey research, only 12 percent of women owned guns in 2012, a lower level than in the mid-1990s.
Whether or not there's a real demographic sea change at hand, the transformation is unfolding in the gun media, both popular and trade, where designers and analysts discuss the need for new models representing the past and future of the industry. Gun makers are rolling out more rifles fitted for arthritic fingers, as well as handguns like the Pavona pistol, “designed for the discerning woman.”
There is also a political dimension. Following the Sandy Hook massacre, Shannon Watts opened a new front in the gun debate by founding Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America, which now claims 130,000 moms as members and chapters in all 50 states. The group's calls for common-sense gun-reform sparked new life in a grassroots gun-reform movement that needed a boost. Last year Watts' group merged with Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns, giving it money to go with its grassroots muscle. Watts' success created a frame that put the gun lobby on the wrong side of the gender divide.
The result was the image makeover rolled out in Indianapolis. A couple of years ago, in St. Louis, the group unveiled a testosterone-heavy election 2012 media campaign centered around Chuck Norris and R. Lee “Gunny” Ermey, best known as the donut-hating drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. Last weekend, the NRA unveiled a modern look: slick ads that prominently featured women and people of color.
After drawing criticism in the wake of Sandy Hook for the paranoid ranting of white male spokespeople like LaPierre, the NRA has spent the last 18 months building a diverse bench. It now employs seven commentators for its NRA News media wing, including three women (Natalie Foster, Gabby Franco, and Nikki Turpeaux), an African American (Colion Noir), and Chris Cheng, an Asian-American who has declared himself "gay for guns."
Meanwhile, young women like CNN's S.E. Cupp, The Blaze's Dana Loesch, and Fox News' Katie Pavlich regularly appear on cable news to provide the NRA's line on the gun issue.
The NRA mom meme isn't just a top-down thing coming from Fairfax. While strolling the gun show floor -- a 40,000 square-foot maze of merchants exhibiting everything from gun insurance to fully automatic, sub-compact "greasers" -- I ran into Kyle Coplen, the affable young CEO of the Armed Citizen Project, a non-profit that offers free shotguns and training to residents of high-crime neighborhoods. He was handing out his own mom-themed schwag, and said he'd been doing it for months. The shirts he designed show a female silhouette holding a child's hand with one arm, a shotgun with the other. With a nod to shirts found in the tourist shops of South Beach and the French Quarter, it reads: “I support single moms.”
Coplen explained that he's currently arming all kinds of moms. “We've trained and armed women in wheelchairs and women with special needs children,” he said. So far, his donated shotguns have all been traditional steel and wood, but he'd have no problem handing out guns in the increasingly popular hot pink. “The idea of banning pink guns is part of the liberal anti-gunners 'war on women',” he said.
I'd heard the same thing earlier that morning in a park opposite the convention center. There, a coalition of new pro-gun mom groups took advantage of perfect spring weather and rallied under the slogan, “Armed Moms United to Protect.” Suburban and middle-class, they were textbook Glocker Moms. There weren't many of them, but they all seemed to have their own mom group.
Whether these groups were letterhead organizations or represented a genuine phenomenon among the brassroots is hard to say. But they do seem serious. Most have registered as 501(c)3's and some are also functioning as PACs. The groups sponsoring the Saturday rally included Moms With Guns Demand Action, Indiana Moms Against Gun Control, and 1 Million Moms Against Gun Control. Some of them had mom-guns in their mom-jeans.
I asked one of them, Linda Elliot of 1 Million Moms Against Gun Control, how many mom groups like hers had sprung up. “Too many to count probably,” she said. “The rhetorical terrain is shifting toward women, so our message is that it's okay to be a mom and own guns. I hate to give Shannon Watts any credit, but when she threw such a tempter tantrum, it kind of exploded.”
The Glocker Moms' message may be tailored for women, but they are going to have trouble with that broad political hinge group once famous as Soccer Moms. As I approached their rally, the gun lobbyist and hard-right operator Larry Pratt, who runs the NRA rival Gun Owners of America, was praising Cliven Bundy as an American hero (this was after Bundy's comments on the state of “the Negro”).
Pratt, who has consorted with neo-Nazis and other extremists over the years, may be the scariest mother of them all. If Linda Elliot wants to cultivate non-rural female gun ownership and activism, her group might want to stop associating with people with long records of conspiratorial and racist commentary.
Pratt is a minor obstacle if the goal is bringing more women to the gun movement. The NRA's board of directors tolerates a culture shot through with misogyny. Earlier this year, Nugent became the subject of a firestorm of controversy after he was invited to campaign with the GOP's candidate for governor of Texas and state Democrats responded by highlighting his inflammatory commentary on women.
Later that afternoon, back at the gun show, I asked Jan Morgan of Armed American Women about this tension. Morgan had keynoted the “Armed Moms” rally with a speech that blended gun-policy with attacks on liberals and abortion rights, delivered while wearing a pistol prominently strapped around her calf. She said pro-gun women should make their case in the context of protecting life, and that means tying it to anti-abortion politics. “Look, if anti-gun liberals are going to talk about banning guns to protect children, then they need to look at abortion,” she said.
Whether most women agree with her on abortion or not, she said there was no stopping the surge in women buying guns. “Women [gun owners] are the largest growing group because of the level of crime, the number of mass shootings,” she said. “They understand the best way to protect yourself and your children is with a gun. They're gonna have a huge impact on the movement. Shannon Watts and Bloomberg are going to regret opening up the language of 'moms'.”
Shannon Watts, the original Gun Debate Mom and an Indianapolis native, was in town for the weekend. On Saturday, she led a 300-mom strong “stroller jam” in protest a few blocks north of the convention center. On Sunday, she unveiled a Mothers Dream Quilt and released a new report, "Not Your Grandparents' NRA." The latter was written under the imprimatur of her new group, Everytown for Gun Safety.
Watts' report focused on the NRA's growing political radicalism, but the gender shift is leaving pink streaks that are also unlike anything in the group's history. Few were the exhibits on the gun show floor that did not feature products catering to women. We are now well past the novelty of a pink AR-15 here, a sparkled pistol there. Today's woman has holsters and targets of her own. In Indy, the Law Enforcement Targets booth had already sold out of its bestselling pink shooting target, sales of which benefit not the NRA's “round-up” program, but breast cancer research and awareness. “Our new line of female targets is selling like crazy,” said a company rep. Down the aisle, the first company to market exclusively to the woman shooter, the Ontario-based Packing In Pink, likewise did a brisk trade.
“Industry is finally catching up with us,” said Linda Elliot of 1 Million Moms. “A few years ago it was hard to find a holster or gun that fit a woman's hand.”
As the convention was winding down on Sunday afternoon, I chatted with Alan Gottlieb, the man who anticipated all of this. Gottlieb was sitting unassumingly in his trademark bowtie, signing up new members for his gun-rights group, the Second Amendment Foundation. Most NRA members have never heard of Gottlieb, but he is among the most important figures in the development of the modern gun-rights movement. His group, not the NRA, built the legal team and the strategy behind the landmark Supreme Court gun cases of McDonald and Heller, not to mention dozens of important state-level suits. Among the literature arrayed before him was the current issue of a magazine called Women and Guns, which he has been publishing since 1989. A long-term strategist, Gottlieb dismissed the “mom” boom as a silly marketing arms race and a distraction from larger trends.
“It's not just about 'moms,'” said Gottlieb. “The future is about all of the non-traditional groups: single women, the LGBT community, people living in cities, Hispanics who come to this country to enjoy our freedoms, including Second Amendment rights. Those are the only places we can grow. That's where you find the future of the gun-rights movement.”
As he began packing up his materials, I asked Gottlieb if the rapid adoption of maternal messaging -- by the NRA, by the Glocker Moms, by industry -- might not betray a fear, or at least a nervousness, that suburban women and mothers, if unchallenged, could swing the political momentum toward serious gun reform.
“Fear? Look around,” he said, gesturing at the bustling arms bazaar extending in every direction.
“No, I really don't think these guys are too worried about their future.”