Harry Reid admitted this week that the assault-weapons ban is a nonstarter in the Senate, but the National Rifle Association is not relishing any victories. The group’s director of public affairs, Andrew Arulanandam, tells National Review Online that, as far as the NRA is concerned, it has not succeeded in killing the ban yet. “Whoever says that it’s dead doesn’t know what they’re talking about. All you need to do is look at the Bloomberg-Biden presser yesterday,” he says, referring to the avowals from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and vice president Joe Biden that they plan to pressure lawmakers to back the ban. “We’re going to do whatever we can” to take down both the weapons ban and the background check bill currently up for debate.
This attitude reflects the aggressive posture the organization has adopted in the wake of the December’s massacre in Newtown, Conn. Arulanandam declined to discuss the group’s legislative strategy, but it’s clear the NRA has mobilized its leadership and communications team in a high-profile effort to push back against the administration and the media, and to shore up its base.
A week after the Newtown shooting, Wayne LaPierre, the organization’s executive vice president, was unapologetic. He not only pointed his finger at the “callous, corrupt and corrupting” video-game industry, but also at its “silent enablers” in the media and their corporate owners and stockholders. And he wasn’t finished. “Let them be damned,” LaPierre said of “elitists” and the mainstream media at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
This is red meat for the NRA’s base, which has been electrified LaPierre’s rhetoric. “We’re not here to be popular,” Arulanandam tells me frankly. Denying there is anything aggressive about LaPierre’s stance, he says only, “The one thing that you say can about Wayne is that he is truthful.”
This attitude has extended also to the organization’s online advertisements, which have taken its critics to task in similar terms. One, which assailed the president for keeping his daughters under the protection of armed guards while calling for restrictions on guns, slammed Obama as an “elitist hypocrite” and asked provocatively, “Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” It drew criticism from Republican governor Chris Christie and even from one of the NRA’s own lobbyists.
This is precisely, it seems, what appeals to the organization’s supporters. The group raised $1.6 million last month according to Federal Election Commission filings; that comes on the heels of $1.1 million raised in January and is the most money the NRA has raised in over a decade. Its membership has also reportedly surged during the administration’s latest legislative offensive. Arulanandam, though, attributes this success not to the NRA but to its opponents – in particular, to President Obama and California senator Dianne Feinstein, the author of the assault-weapons ban. “Every time they open their mouths and start talking about gun control,” he explains, “Americans listen and they don’t like what they hear. They join the NRA and they go out there and buy a gun.”
This isn’t to say that the group isn’t facing challenges. On the communications front, the visceral emotion surrounding mass shootings poses an impediment. “People often forget that we hurt like the rest of the country,” Arulanandam tells me. “Everyone thinks that when we look at these tragedies, we look at them differently. We don’t. We look at them with the same kind of horror.” The difference, in his eyes, is that the NRA is proposing substantive solutions while their opponents are offering ineffective feel-good measures.
Which leads to the NRA’s major hurdle: communicating the facts and dispelling “a bunch of baloney” on relatively technical matters, at least by the standards of the political debate. With regard to the assault-weapons ban, the Arulanandam complains that politicians are “always referring to machine guns and fully-automatic weapons” – which are in fact regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934. The assault-weapons ban merely targets semi-automatic weapons with certain cosmetic characteristics; gun manufacturers, he says, will quickly adjust to the law. Disseminating these facts in a tone-deaf media environment leads to “a sense of frustration.”
The NRA has given former Arkansas representative Asa Hutchinson the responsibility of formulating its official response to the Newtown shooting, which will come in an April 2nd press conference at the National Press Club. It is likely to go beyond a call for armed guards in schools to address the nation’s mental health system and how to spot those “pre-disposed to violence” before they strike. “From what I’ve heard, putting armed security in schools is just one part of the program,” Arulanandam says.
Those proposals, we can be sure, will be advanced and defended with vigor.