Why the NRA Wants to Wear the Black Hat in the Gun-Control Debate

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The National Rifle Association came out swinging in its first comments since the Newtown shooting, a sign the group sees a tough fight ahead.

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Reuters

The National Rifle Association could have struck a conciliatory pose. The group had promised it would offer "meaningful contributions" to the debate about gun violence that has engulfed the nation since last week's mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. In the past, its strategy has been to lie low in the heated aftermath of a tragedy, then stall any proposed legislation behind the scenes.

That was the opposite of what happened Friday, when the gun lobby's CEO, Wayne LaPierre, took the podium in a Washington hotel ballroom to offer a scorching denunciation of the media, the president, the culture, mental illness, and violent video games -- and to propose that armed volunteer guards be stationed at every school in America.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun," LaPierre said, "is a good guy with a gun." (His full statement can be read here.)

The fact that the press conference was held in the first place was a signal of the NRA's recognition that the tenor of the debate has changed and that public and political sentiment is moving in favor of gun control. LaPierre's remarks, which were immediately met with an outpouring of ridicule and scorn, seemed further evidence that the group is desperate to change the terms of the debate. (Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, called the press conference "very disturbing.") The press conference, at which LaPierre and his colleagues took no questions and were twice interrupted by protesters, was a sign that the NRA is more than ready to play the bad guys in the coming debate over guns.

What was behind this aggressive posture? A few thoughts on what the NRA was hoping to accomplish:

* Stoke fear: LaPierre repeatedly invoked the specter of more attacks on kids and cast himself as the only one with their safety in mind. "Does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn't planning his attack on a school he's already identified at this very moment?" he asked. While others dither, he said, the NRA alone is proposing meaningful action to protect America's children from the pervasive, evil menace.

* Polarize the debate: While gun control is a contentious, hot-button topic in the abstract, there's broad public consensus around some individual gun restrictions, such as requiring every gun buyer to undergo a criminal background check -- something even 80 percent of gun owners support. But the NRA has been extremely successful in making any gun debate into a binary between those who would take everyone's guns away on one side, and those who favor the Second Amendment on the other. That makes it harder for politicians to make the more nuanced claim that they support gun ownership while also calling for a renewal of the assault-weapon ban, for example.

* Cast blame elsewhere: LaPierre lashed out at the media for glorifying killers, concealing the truth about video games, and making factual errors in describing the specifics of weapons. He cited "video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse" as well as "blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers." Signs proclaiming schools to be "gun-free zones" are practically an invitation to killers, he contended, while policy lapses like the failure to prosecute dangerous criminals, the lack of a national database of the mentally ill, and insufficient funding for school security have contributed to the danger.

* Play to the base: LaPierre's words may have struck the media and much of the public as out-there, but he had a different audience primarily in mind: the 4 million members who pay dues to the group, never more so than when they feel they're under attack. In the week since Newtown, the NRA has reportedly signed up 8,000 new members a day. The type of red meat LaPierre served up on Friday is likely exactly what the NRA's most fervent partisans want to hear.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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