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.

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.

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.

Other NRA brass predict that the Second Amendment could be repealed within the next five years.

They are statements that, by many measures, are at odds with current trends in statehouses and Congress. High-ranking Democrats, including secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Attorney General Eric Holder, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, have promised to "pick the time and place" (in Senator Feinstein's words) for more gun restrictions. The NRA points to such statements as proof that the Second Amendment is under attack. Conversely, they can also be seen as underlining the current strength of the gun lobby, which has won several important victories on the legal, political, and electoral front.

•Polls show that Americans are increasingly cautious about gun restrictions, with support for an assault-rifle ban falling by about one-third in the past 18 years.

•A proposal for the Army to stop selling spent shells to reloading firms was quickly overturned this spring.

•Mr. Obama stunned gun-control advocates last week when he upheld rules to keep gun-buying data secret, reversing a campaign promise to victims of gun violence.

•The Supreme Court's Heller decision last year said the Second Amendment guarantees the individual's right to own a gun, and the NRA recently won a similar court fight in San Francisco.

Despite these successes, Mr. Lapierre, the NRA CEO, spoke almost in doomsday terms this weekend about opponents of the Second Amendment. "The bomb is armed and the fuse is lit," he said. "They are going to come at us with everything they've got, and we are going to be ready for them. If they want to fight, we will fight."

To critics, it is rhetoric completely out of proportion to the current threat. "Despite the fact that they won their Supreme Court case, they act as if they lost," says Josh Sugarmann, founder of the Violence Policy Center in Washington. "The NRA uses language as if things occur in a vacuum – in the abstract. But for every guy that takes it as inspiration, who gets involved in local politics, who believes that the government is coming for his guns, there's a growing idea that it's the guys with the guns who make the rules."

Saul Cornell, author of "A Well Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America," has simpler take:

"Even when [gun owners] win, they freak out," he writes in an e-mail.

Yet the NRA's ability to mobilize opposition is also one reason that a proposal introduced to Congress last week to cut down on gun-show "loopholes" that allow "paperless" gun sales will face major hurdles.

The concern is that the amplitude of the rhetoric on the issue of gun rights is creating a certain hysteria. At a major gun show in Phoenix two weeks ago, Daniel Guier, a gun owner from Chandler, Ariz., witnessed an entry queue that snaked around an entire coliseum, people standing five abreast.

"There's a paranoia now that I've never seen before due to the unpredictability of Washington and the idea that, sooner or later, Obama will put up the fight," says Mr. Guier. "Unfortunately, that means that a lot of people who probably shouldn't be owning guns are buying guns."

But Bill Peets, for one, isn't buying the argument that gun owners are overreacting. The California gun dealer says that liberals want to undermine America's gun culture, not with another assault-weapons ban, but with "a barrage" of new rules. The theory echoes down every aisle of the convention as attendees tell stories of law-abiding citizens – including a disabled Iraq war veteran – who were caught up in Byzantine gun rules and thrown in jail. Meanwhile, real criminals are getting off scot-free, they say.

"The fear is that the government is going to come in and nitpick your rights away," says Mr. Peets.

Barry Brummett, who studies rhetoric at the University of Texas at Austin and is a gun owner, says he's fascinated by the political shift over gun rights in the past half century. In the 1950s and ’60s, he says, it was liberal activists who spoke publicly about arming the population for a revolution, and "nobody on the left seemed the least bit trouble." At the same time, he says, conservatives "were all scared about ordinary people getting themselves armed."
Now, Professor Brummett says, "firearms rights and ownership is largely in bed with the political right, and that mystifies me, frankly."

Republicans are keen to tap into NRA member's natural distrust of Democratic leadership – particularly now, when the party is casting about for new ideas and direction. In this context, the NRA could emerge as an organizing force among the ranks of mostly white conservatives.

"In itself, the NRA can't win an election, but in any kind of close election, they can swing it," says Brian Anse Patrick, a communications professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio.

Indeed, for many gun owners, this year's NRA show isn't the beginning of any armed insurrection, but rather a part of a conservative soul-searching as an out-of-power political minority seeks a new role.

"I want us just to relax and be Americans and not be at each other's throats like this all the time," says Junior Sampson, a gun owner from Tucson, Ariz. "At the same time, I think a good government is one that is slightly scared of its citizens."

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