It’s been a strange few days in the American gun debate—with teenagers shaking an otherwise moribund discourse into new territory, senators being cowed on national television, and President Trump edging toward minor gun regulations. In the wake of the shooting, the Conservative Political Action Conference decided not to put National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre on its list of speakers.*
But LaPierre spoke, and it was a stemwinder. Over the course of 35 minutes, LaPierre was combative and provocative. At a moment when students and others are challenging the gun consensus, he opted to escalate rather than conciliate.
“As usual, the opportunists wasted not one second to exploit tragedy for political gain,” LaPierre said of last week’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “The elites do not care one whit about America’s school system and schoolchildren. If they truly cared, what they would do is they would protect them. For them it is not a safety issue, it is a political issue.”
This is a false binary, and it is difficult to take seriously elite-bashing from LaPierre, who has for years led one of the nation’s most powerful lobbies and earns millions from his work. But LaPierre was just getting started. He argued that the constitutional right to bear arms “is not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.”
Elsewhere in the speech, he said even centrist Democrats Andrew Cuomo and Cory Booker were “European-style socialists” and said that Karl Marx was “the most assigned economist” on American college campuses.
LaPierre’s comments are, to borrow a phrase often applied to President Trump, shocking but not surprising. Year after year, LaPierre delivers fiery and controversial speeches, whether at CPAC or at the NRA’s own events. Given the frequency of mass shootings in the United States, these often come not long after some sort of massacre. It happened in 2012, after Newtown; in 2013; in 2015; in 2017; and probably on other occasions that don’t come to mind immediately. As Elspeth Reeve wrote a few years ago, this has been going on since at least 1987, when LaPierre called subway shooter Bernie Goetz a “political prisoner.”
Every time, LaPierre’s comment elicit outrage, often rightfully so; and every time, there are predictions that LaPierre has finally gone too far. Perhaps this moment really is different. The impact of teenagers from Parkland speaking out has been unpredictable and wide-ranging. During a CNN town-hall event Wednesday night, Senator Marco Rubio seemed genuinely knocked back and unprepared for the heated questioning he faced, and he made some notable concessions, including supporting the idea of raising the age limit for buying a rifle and reconsidering limiting high-capacity magazines. The president has timidly stepped toward regulation, too, backing a ban on “bump stocks” and tighter background checks. Meanwhile, LaPierre is not the only one making outlandish statements. Dana Loesch, an NRA spokeswoman, also delivered some outrageous and untrue comments at CPAC on Thursday, saying that “many in legacy media love mass shootings” and that “crying white mothers is ratings gold.”
But more often, post-shooting discussions have reverted to stalemate, and as LaPierre knows, stalemate favors the NRA. Existing gun laws are relatively loose, and all the NRA needs to win is to prevent immediate action, or else limit regulation to tinkering around the margins.
LaPierre’s claims will upset and alienate many Americans, but from the NRA’s standpoint, that’s the point. When LaPierre says wild things, the mainstream media covers them; when the mainstream media covers them, it gins up NRA supporters, who renew memberships, send new money, or rededicate themselves to lobbying their representatives. It doesn’t matter that most people will be angry at what LaPierre says. After all, poll after poll after poll has shown majority support for a range of gun-control measures, but the NRA has learned to achieve its goals with a small but staunch base.
This kind of base-oriented strategy is reminiscent of Trump’s approach to politics. It’s probably not a coincidence that LaPierre, echoing Trump, attacked “the unbelievable failure of the FBI” Thursday morning. Trump also tweeted supportively before LaPierre’s speech: “What many people don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, is that Wayne, Chris and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing.” The danger for Trump is that it’s hard to be reelected with a small, embattled base and massive disapproval. Not so for the NRA, which functions quite effectively that way.
Even for LaPierre, there is a risk in his strategy of provocation. Someday he may go too far and incur a backlash even from his supporters. Perhaps this is that day, though there’s no particular reason to believe that at this point. The thing to remember is that outlandish statements at venues like CPAC aren’t an unforced error or a lapse in judgment. They are a carefully calibrated, and thus far highly successful, strategic choice.
* This article originally identified Wayne LaPierre as the president of the National Rifle Association. We regret the error.