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NRA: The new face of the American right?

Key GOP leaders came to woo the NRA's annual convention this weekend, one sign of the group's growing clout.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 2009


When Kirby Warner, a trusty Ruger pistol strapped to his hip, sat around and shot the breeze with his fellow gun owners here at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting this weekend, they weren't just chatting calibers and cartridges.

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Nor did they stop at other tried and trusted fare, such as President Obama and gun control. This year, taxes, bailouts, and the general direction of the country was all on the docket. He remembers reading a sign at one of the national tea parties: "If First Amendment fails, see Second Amendment."

"I like that," he chuckles.

The 47,000 gun-loving Americans who attended the 138th NRA Convention bore the hopes of many disgruntled, mostly white Americans who seek to check what they see as Washington's liberal trajectory. They represent one of the most organized and entrenched groups opposed to the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress, so it's no coincidence that Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, potential Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, and GOP chairman Michael Steele all spoke Friday at a leadership forum here.

Moreover, they are growing: Membership is booming, gun registrations are skyrocketing, and ammunition stores are back-ordered by the millions. This success is giving the NRA significant clout in an electorate polarized by issues ranging from gun control to government bailouts. In addition, it is threatening to merge the organization's firebrand rhetoric – which, critics say, sometime verges on paranoia – with a broader band of political discontent.

"This is armed conservatism, backing political beliefs with guns, and I think that's the key of its emotional appeal," says Joan Burbick, author of "Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy." "The gun has become the symbol of the conservative vision of freedom."

Going back to the 1977 "Cincinnati Revolt" that launched the modern NRA, the gun lobby's membership has ebbed and flowed with the political tides, cresting under Democrat presidents. "If President Obama can be credited with one thing, it's the boom in gun sales," says Chris Cox, the NRA's chief legislative director.

This weekend, NRA leaders were keen to lay out in stark terms the threat they see in the Obama administration. Gun owners face "the slickest, most aggressive anti-gun White House in history," said CEO Wayne Lapierre.