Assault-rifle-toting Texans get NRA to back down on 'weird' claims

The National Rifle Association recants its lobbying arm's criticism of grass-roots gun activists who carry rifles into restaurants. Open Carry Texas applauds the NRA for its 'clarification.'

Tony Gutierrez/AP
Kory Watkins, coordinator for Open Carry Tarrant County, poses holding his Romanian AK 47 at a demonstration in Haltom City, Texas, on May 29, 2014. The NRA has disavowed criticism of such armed protests as 'weird' by its own lobbying arm.

Heavily armed men and women making appearances in US restaurants and hardware stores appear to be gaining proxy power over the national debate concerning whether to expand or contract gun rights for Americans.

That’s one conclusion drawn by the actions of the National Rifle Association, which, after issuing a rare critique of gun owners who “open-carry” scary-looking long rifles into retail stores, subsequently offered a just-as-rare apology for calling open carry advocates “weird” and “downright scary.” The apology was posted Tuesday on the NRA’s lobbying website.

To be sure, the NRA – a 5-million-member-strong organization that spends about $3.5 million lobbying for gun rights on Capitol Hill every year – is feared in Washington. Yet the apology by chief lobbyist Chris Cox, who called the original critique a “mistake,” suggests to some that grass-roots groups like Open Carry Texas, which has been staging heavily armed demonstrations in support of more open-carry, are the ones who are driving the national gun agenda and forcing the NRA’s tiller.

“Legislators … and the media perceive the NRA as being the big gorilla in the room, but the reality is that, since the advent of the Internet, grass-roots organizations have been increasing their strength to the point” where the NRA no longer has any wiggle room, as it did in the 1990s, to compromise on gun legislation, says Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, a powerful state gun lobby.

Case in point, says Mr. Valone: Thirty-eight state gun rights groups played a role in forcing the NRA to take a no-compromise stance on the post-Sandy Hook gun-control package touted by President Obama – a stance that may have doomed what many Americans saw as a “common sense” approach to gun control.

The NRA began as a grass-roots organization itself, but its stakeholder base has diversified to include everyone from individual gun owners to gunmakers.

But as grass-roots groups stage increasingly bold demonstrations in the counter lines at retail outlets such as Starbucks, Chipotle, and Home Depot, the NRA confronts the delicate task of keeping intact both its coalition and its capacity to cut legislative deals in Washington.

Does the NRA “represent Joe Six-Shooter or the good folks at Bushmaster, Browning, and Smith & Wesson?” Jacob Weissman mused in The Atlantic, shortly after the December 2013 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn. “The messy truth is, as you might imagine, somewhere in-between.… [But] in any event, it’s clear that the NRA isn’t just representing your average Joe Six-Shooter.”

On May 30, the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA's lobbying arm, posted a statement on its website criticizing Open Carry Texas and its members for their open-carry protests, which have led some corporations to ask gun owners to not carry firearms on their properties.

“To state the obvious, that’s counterproductive for the gun owning community,” the NRA statement read.

The stance sparked fervent debate in the “gun-blogosphere” – where some influential gun bloggers agreed with the NRA’s criticism – and was lauded among moderates.

“It was a rare, welcome sight for the American mainstream – the NRA agreeing with the public and endorsing a position in line with common sense,” writes Steve Benen, for

Meanwhile, Open Carry Texas lashed out at the NRA criticism on its Facebook page: "If they do not retract their disgusting and disrespectful comments, OCT will have no choice but to withdraw its full support of the NRA and establish relationships with other gun rights organizations that fight for all gun rights."

In walking back the original comments, Mr. Cox said they represented one staffer’s personal views.

“Ultimately, what this comes down to is a tactics discussion,” Cox said in an interview with NRA News. “Some people believe that the best way to effectuate that sort of policy change is in protest. And what they did in Texas is, some people decided to protest the absurdity of the ban on … open carry of handguns by carrying their long guns openly, and legally.”

Chiding those activists as “weird or somehow not normal was a mistake,” Cox added. The NRA, he said, “unequivocally” supports open carry laws.

In response, OCT, also on its Facebook page, thanked and applauded Cox and the NRA for "clarification on their stance."

“It was preordained that they would walk that statement back,” says Valone of Grass Roots North Carolina, which he says at times has been forced “to bloody the nose” of the NRA over state legislative disagreements. “They might be able to get away with comments like that behind closed doors, but if they state it publicly, the grass roots will eat them alive.”

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