Following another series of horrific mass shootings in 2015 that captured the public's attention, gun safety has emerged as a major campaign issue for the 2016 elections. It's already clear how the National Rifle Association (NRA) will use the issue to try to swing the elections and hamstring any attempts at new legislation - after all, they've been using the same playbook for years.
As U.S. gun deaths continue to tick upwards -- now on par with automobile deaths -- public interest in gun issues in 2015 rose to its highest level since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. This year, Americans watched news reports of public shootings targeting parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, service members in Chattanooga, Tennessee, moviegoers in Lafayette, Louisiana, students and educators in Roseburg, Oregon, people visiting a Planned Parenthood health clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and attendees of a Christmas party in San Bernardino, California.
Presidential candidates in favor of reform on gun laws released policy proposals, addressed the issue during debates, and argued for stronger background checks on gun sales and other proposals during campaign events.
Meanwhile, candidates who oppose stronger gun laws remained largely in line with the National Rifle Association, with the majority of the GOP field speaking at the NRA's 2015 annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. Republican members of Congress also fell in line with the NRA -- Politico summarized the state of affairs with the headline, “GOP unmoved on gun control as massacres pile up.”
As The Washington Post noted, the attention paid to the issue by Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton indicates “a shift in presidential politics.” Business Insider identified gun violence prevention as an issue that “suddenly looms large over the first Democratic presidential debate,” and Politico called gun safety “one of the most volatile issues of 2016.”
As the NRA gears up to poison the well on another national debate over gun violence, four main themes are likely to emerge:
With all indications pointing to the NRA utilizing its fearmongering playbook against the eventual Democratic nominee, it is worth examining the rhetoric used by the NRA to attack President Obama before the 2012 elections and what impact the NRA actually had on those elections.
The NRA began its 2012 campaign work in earnest with a September 2011 speech by NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre at the Conservative Political Action Conference. During the annual gathering of conservative powerbrokers, LaPierre announced the existence of “a massive Obama conspiracy” to destroy the Second Amendment during a second term. Claiming that during his first term Obama sought to “play us for fools,” LaPierre said, “We see the president's strategy crystal clear: get re-elected, and with no other re-elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms freedom. Erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and exorcise it from the U.S. Constitution.”
As Election Day approached, the NRA's rhetoric against Obama went even further off the rails, including when LaPierre analogized the prospect of Obama's reelection to the 2004 tsunami in South Asia in an article in the NRA's magazine that announced an “All In” campaign against Obama.
Describing the tsunami as “faster than a 747” and “carrying more energy than 1,500 Hiroshima bombs,” LaPierre noted the disaster's 250,000 person death toll before writing, “Today in the United States, just as in Indonesia, too many Americans don't see -- or don't recognize -- the tidal wave that's bearing down on our nation and our freedoms. If we don't warn our fellow Americans in time, disaster could be upon us on Election Day -- just nine short months from now.” According to LaPierre it was up to NRA supporters to “mobilize the American people to defeat Barack Obama before he dismantles our Second Amendment freedom -- and all of our freedoms as Americans -- completely and forever.”
The NRA, however, failed on Election Day 2012. In an election year that was bad for conservatives generally, the gun group fared particularly poorly. The NRA Political Victory Fund (PVF) and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action spent over $12 million in the NRA's ill-fated quest to defeat the president.
More than 95 percent of the more than $18 million the NRA spent on federal elections went to races where the NRA-backed candidate lost on Election Day. The PVF in particular was one of the most ineffective outside spenders during the 2012 elections, achieving a “return of investment” on campaign spending of less than one percent.
The NRA also failed to garner Congressional victories. In six of seven Senate races where the NRA spent over $100,000 during the general election, the candidate supported by the NRA lost. Of 26 House incumbents who lost their seats -- including Democrats and Republicans -- 18 were endorsed by the NRA.
In addition to ineffective spending, the NRA's message, which largely cast the group as the singular force that could save the Second Amendment and America from destruction by Obama, was also ineffective. In three key swing states - Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina - voters said they trusted Obama more than his opponent, former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA), to oversee gun laws.
The NRA is already busy launching attacks against pro-gun safety candidates ahead of the 2016 election. The majority of the attacks have focused on Hillary Clinton - who the gun-group has a long-held disdain for, dating back to the Bill Clinton administration - but the NRA has also included former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley in its unhinged attacks.
In fact, the first cover of the NRA's magazine, America's 1st Freedom, to focus on the 2016 elections, published in September, was for a story that amounted to a lengthy smear of O'Malley.
The NRA's feature falsely attacked O'Malley on two fronts, claiming that he poses a threat to Second Amendment rights and accusing him of taking the side of criminals in Maryland -- even though courts have sided with O'Malley on the constitutionality of Maryland's gun laws and violent crime fell significantly during his tenure as governor. Echoing language seen during the NRA's 2012 attacks on Obama, the NRA's top lobbyist Chris Cox predicted that an O'Malley presidency could trigger “a fight for the survival of Second Amendment freedom as we know it.”
The NRA's attacks on Clinton -- “the most anti-gun first lady in the most anti-Second Amendment administration in American history,” according to them -- are perhaps more unhinged.
During a video montage shown at the NRA's 2008 annual meeting, the NRA linked Clinton to a plan to exploit a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. While showing an image of Clinton on screen, followed by archival footage of the aftermaths of major terror attacks, a narrator said, “If an anti-gun president occupies the White House, then the perfect storm is upon us. Its arrival would be hastened by a terrorist attack; an event that experts say is inevitable. Then the final disarmament of law abiding Americans will take place beneath the shroud of anti-terrorism legislation.”
In 2007, the NRA was silent as one of its most prominent members of leadership, longtime board member Ted "I Am The NRA" Nugent, called Clinton a “worthless bitch” who should “ride” on his machine gun during an on-stage rant he delivered while wielding assault weapon props. Nugent, who has referred to Clinton as a “whore” and a “cunt,” has also called for the former secretary of state's arrest. (The NRA has remained in the gutter on Clinton; during the 2014 debut of its web series targeted towards millennials the host said, “it's pretty blatant that Hillary is no longer sleeping with Bill Clinton, because if she were, he would inform her that this whole gun issue thing and trying to walk this elusive line of gun control but still for the Second Amendment rights is probably not the smartest thing to do because we're not idiots and we're not falling for it.”)
The NRA began its 2016 attacks on Clinton with LaPierre's 2014 CPAC speech where he predicted that anti-gun forces were “laying the groundwork to put another Clinton back in the White House” with the ultimate goal being “to finish the job, to fulfill their commitment, their dream, of fundamentally transforming America.”
LaPierre ramped up his attacks on Clinton during the NRA's 2015 annual meeting in April. During a speech before the NRA's leadership forum, LaPierre predicted that Clinton's potential election “will bring a permanent darkness of deceit and despair” to America while vowing that “in 2016, by God, we will elect our next great president of the United States of America and it will not be Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
In widely criticized remarks before members during a later speech, LaPierre turned up the volume even more, launching a gender-based attack on Clinton while taking a racial dig at Obama. On the 2016 elections, LaPierre said Obama “intends to go out with a coronation of Hillary Rodham Clinton. I have to tell you, eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough.”
The NRA has also been busy crafting its massive Clinton conspiracy, which is copied from its Obama playbook. In 2008, the NRA distorted and strung together past statements on the gun issue by Obama to push the claim that as president, he would ban the use of guns for self-defense among other extreme positions. This claim garnered a "false" rating from PolitiFact and led FactCheck.org to conclude the NRA “falsely claims in mailers and TV ads that Obama plans to ban handguns, hunting ammo and use of a gun for home defense.”
In a May article appearing in America's 1st Freedom, the NRA took the same approach, purporting to offer a history of Clinton's views on firearms in order to push the unsubstantiated theory that a Clinton presidency would bring about gun confiscation.
The NRA frequently argues that the only thing to stop the cataclysmic destruction of the Second Amendment and possibly America as we know it is the election of NRA-favored candidates for office. Despite these repeated predictions from the NRA not coming true, 2016 is proving to be no different.
2016: Just days after writing that “the future of our Second Amendment rights comes down to one day -- Election Day” 2014, and calling those elections “the most important of our lifetime,” NRA leadership labeled the 2016 elections “the fight of our lives for American freedom.” In the December edition of America's 1st Freedom, LaPierre predicted that the 2016 elections could spell “the final defeat for the Second Amendment and every freedom we cherish” before announcing an NRA membership due increase.
The NRA's apocalyptical predictions about 2016 echo rhetoric from previous elections, even if the Second Amendment - or America - never ends up getting destroyed.
2012: On the 2012 elections, LaPierre wrote, “This isn't just the most important election of our lifetimes -- it's the most important election for our children's, grandchildren's and great-grandchildren's lifetimes.” He also wrote (emphasis original), “It might seem like a stretch to compare an election to one of the deadliest disasters in modern history [the 2004 South Asian tsunami]. This year's election could prove the most disastrous in the history of this country. Why? Because this election will decide whether Americans remain free.”
The 2016 election promises to revive longstanding -- but evidence-free -- conventional wisdom seen throughout media coverage of the role of the gun issue in electoral politics, which is the claim that the NRA has the ability to determine election outcomes at will and punish politicians who vote against its agenda. While this myth is oft-repeated in media, actual data analyses of federal election cycles have proven that the value of NRA election spending and endorsements is vastly overrated.
Supposedly objective media outlets who push this narrative become unwitting allies of the NRA, which seeks to use overstated claims about its own electoral power to wield outsized influence in Congress.
Following the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, major media outlets were quick to suggest that politicians who supported gun safety reforms would be defeated by the NRA during their next reelection run.
That never happened. While 2014 was a bad election cycle for progressive politicians generally, the gun issue fared significantly better, including the passage of a “historic” background check ballot initiative in Washington state and the successful reelection of governors who signed into law the most significant gun safety reforms in response to Sandy Hook. At the same time, Democrats in the Senate who sided with the NRA on a background check bill compromise that was blocked in April 2013 lost their reelections, with the NRA failing to aid them or in other cases actively spending against them in favor of the Republican candidate. As one leading gun safety advocate put it, “with friends like the NRA, who needs enemies?”
The myth of NRA electoral dominance is actively being pushed by major outlets leading up to the 2016 elections. A January documentary about the NRA released by PBS and a July Washington Post article setting the stage for the role of guns in 2016 electoral politics pushed the claim that the NRA cost Al Gore the 2000 election. The Post article also posited that the 1994 assault weapons ban was responsible for Democrats losing the House during elections held that year.
While these claims have become electoral apocrypha, there is no statistical support for their validity according to political science experts who conducted data-driven analyses of the two election cycles. The NRA, however, will be counting on media to share these stories as it puffs itself up before Election Day.