CHICAGO — Mass shootings used to follow a reliable script: tragedy followed by outrage, vigils, calls for stronger gun laws, and vague promises from elected officials. Sooner or later, the outrage fades, legislation stalls, elections come and go, and nothing changes.
But then Parkland happened.
At this year’s Gun Rights Policy Conference in Chicago, one thing was clear: The gun lobby was blindsided by the national youth-led anti-gun violence movement that grew out of that Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the pro-gun movement needs to adapt to deal with it.
“Parkland has changed one thing: The other side now has grassroots, for real. It’s not Astroturf anymore. And that is a tremendous change,” Gene Hoffman, co-founder and chairman of the CalGuns Foundation, a gun rights group in California, told the audience at the conference last weekend. “That means we’re going to have to change what we do to effectively counter those people.”
The conference, hosted by the Second Amendment Foundation and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, is one of the biggest not-NRA gun events of the year.
Many attendees and speakers at the conference this year reached the stark consensus that the gun lobby has lost control of the conversation. The success of the Parkland activists in keeping the heat on legislators in a critical midterm-election year has opened up a period of self-reflection among Second Amendment advocates, especially those outside the well-oiled, moneymaking machine of the NRA.
Beyond the NRA
For the broader gun community, countering the fresh-faced energy of the new anti-gun movement may mean distancing itself further from the 146-year-old NRA, which has spent the last several years focusing on culture war themes far beyond the Second Amendment. Some gun rights activists believe that by playing to a narrow base of older, conservative, white men, the NRA is harming efforts to win over other demographics.
“American gun culture is shifting, and we can’t simply feign an interest in diversity”
“The NRA hasn’t done a good job of lobbying, in terms of changing minds,” Rob Pincus, a self-defense trainer who serves on the board of directors of 2AO, a firearms training and advocacy group, told VICE News during the conference’s reception on Saturday night. “We’ve allowed our leaders to ignore huge swaths of our society who share our interests. American gun culture is shifting, and we can’t simply feign an interest in diversity.”
At the conference, that meant hammering home a commitment to diversity – and bending over backwards to elevate the contributions of gun rights advocates who don’t fit the NRA stereotype. This was especially evident at the “Second Amendment Defender” awards ceremony.
Erin Palette, a transgender woman who founded Operation Blazing Swords, which connects LGBTQ people with LGBTQ-friendly firearms instructors, received a defender award. And so did Rhonda Ezell, a black woman from Chicago who founded “Chicago Guns Matter,” and was the lead plaintiff in a the Ezell v. Chicago case, which overturned the city’s ban on firing ranges. Likewise for Lara Smith, spokesperson for the Liberal Gun Club, and, notably, Kyle Kashuv, the student survivor of the Parkland shooting who’s been a conservative counterpoint to the student-led anti-gun violence movement. Kashuv took home two awards.
Palette, who lives in Daytona Beach, Florida, said she decided to found Operation Blazing Swords in the days following the 2016 massacre at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, after she saw a number of firearms instructors on Facebook offering training to people in the LGBTQ community. “The stereotype is that gun owners are far-right, they’re conservative, they’re almost always white heterosexual, and they hate queer people,” Palette said. “As gun owners, we’re saying, ‘Your life has value. I want you to be able to defend it.’”
Pink Pistols and Blazing Swords
On a Sunday panel titled “Growing Gun Rights in the LGBT community,” Palette took the stage alongside Nicole Stallard, head of the California chapter of the Pink Pistols, an LGBTQ gun-rights group. Palette announced that Pink Pistols and Operation Blazing Swords were merging operations, and that she'd be taking the helm.
The news sent a buzz through the audience, with attendees lining up afterward to congratulate Stallard and Palette on the move. One member of Illinois Gun Owners Together excitedly told Stallard that his organization had recently rolled out a rainbow pride bumper sticker, and had been discussing the possibility of putting together a float at next year’s Chicago gay pride parade. He wanted to know if Stallard would consider riding on it.
“For a lot of people in this world, I’m the first person in the trans community they’ve ever met”
“For a lot of people in this world, I’m the first person in the trans community they’ve ever met,” Stallard later told VICE News.
The diversity on display was much more visible at this conference than the NRA itself, and gun-rights advocates said that’s a good thing. “We used to work together a lot more, maybe 12 years ago,” Pincus said. “But then there was disillusionment.”
Linda Walker and Willes Lee, both NRA board members, were given a 15-minute slot to update the conference on NRA activities. But otherwise, the NRA was basically invisible at the two-day event. There was no NRA-TV parked alongside gun rights broadcasters such as “Armed American Radio” and “Gun Talk Radio.” The NRA did not have a table, and though most of the audience members and speakers were NRA-credentialed firearms instructors, few mentioned the NRA at all.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the NRA would be less relevant to liberal gun owners, but conference attendees said the organization has actively alienated gun owners by tapping into cultural resentments. For example, when the children’s TV show "Thomas the Tank Engine" introduced a new Nigerian character in September, NRA-TV Dana Loesch accused the writers of being overly politically correct, and published a meme showing the trains in Ku Klux Klan hoods.
Some members of the gun rights community were also upset when the NRA picked the wrong side in the July 2016 death of Philando Castile, a licensed gun owner who was shot dead by St. Paul, Minnesota, police as he was getting his concealed carry paperwork out of his glove compartment. The NRA suggested the officer was right to shoot Castile, a black man, because there was weed in the car.
“I really think the NRA is doing tremendous harm to gun owners by doing stuff like this”
“I really think the NRA is doing tremendous harm to gun owners by doing stuff like this. They’ve taken this strategy of ‘We don’t care about the broader gun community and we’re only going to play to the base,’ and I think that’s incredibly harmful to gun owners,” said Smith of the Liberal Gun Club. “I think they’ve lost focus, and I think that’s a problem.”
Rolling out the red carpet for people like Smith, whose political views don’t square with those of the majority of the gun community, is especially critical now, with the midterm elections just around the corner. As some of the speakers pointed out, the Parkland students have not only kept the heat on Democrats to push through gun control bills but also started to sway Republicans to accept a modicum of gun legislation, like Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott.
“You can no longer just look at the red and blue box and decide which one is going to respect your right to bear arms,” Sean Caranna, founder and co-executive director of Florida Carry, Inc, a pro-gun group, told the audience during the conference. “We’re losing so much ground in the Republican Party. We’ve got places where we have more pro-gun Democrats than Republicans. And we’re having to readjust to that new paradigm.”
Stallard says she went to her first gun conference in 2007, in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. “My friends in the LGBTQ community were in fear of my personal safety,” she said. But since that first foray more than a decade ago, Stallard says, the pro-gun movement has become more inclusive and tolerant.
“The vast majority of the gun community, especially leadership, wants to expand the base,” Stallard added. “A lot of the old stuff – sexism, racism, and all that – people don’t care anymore. That’s, like, so last century.”
In what’s described in the industry as “Gun Culture 2.0,” members of the gun community say that more minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ communtiy are taking up arms or getting concealed carry permits to protect themselves, rather than for recreational purposes.
While there’s no historical national data to support that claim, a Pew study last year looking at demographics among gun owners showed that they’re not a monolith. Thirty-six percent of white Americans said they owned a gun, versus 24 percent of black Americans and 15 percent of Hispanics. Only 19 percent of gun owners said they were also a member of the NRA. Twenty percent of Democrat-leaning respondents said they owned a gun, versus 44 percent of Republican-leaning respondents.
One study by the Crime Prevention Research Center, a pro-gun organization, reported a surge in concealed carry permits among black women from 2000 to 2015. Rick Ector, a black firearms instructor from Detroit, linked the recent uptick in crime to more black women getting concealed carry permits to protect themselves.
“Over the years, there have been more women, more minorities involved, there’s a steady growth in that area,” Ector told VICE News. “There’s more women, more LGBTQ people. This is a safe place but it’s on us to show people that. In any demographic there’s always going to be a certain stereotype, like old, white, fat guys at the gun conference.”
But for those who don’t fit the stereotype, it’s been an uphill battle to gain a legitimate foothold in the mainstream gun community and avoid the trap of being tokenized.
“I’m not tokenized because I’ve worked really hard not to be. I’ve done a lot of work to build personal relationships,” said Smith. “It’s important that I be here, to gain legitimacy. If we want to save this civil right, we have to be here.”
Cover: People browse firearms in an exhibit hall at the NRA's annual convention on May 4, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo: LOREN ELLIOTT/AFP/Getty Images)