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Inside the NRA's War Against Hillary Clinton

After years of warning that President Barack Obama is coming after Americans' guns, the NRA eagerly embraced a new target, directing its deranged doomsday predictions toward the new Democratic presidential candidate.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

News of Hillary Clinton's official entry into the 2016 White House race fell like a divine revelation upon Nashville's Music City Center this weekend, where more than 70,000 members of the National Rifle Association had gathered for the annual meeting of the nation's largest and most powerful gun organization. After years of warning that President Barack Obama is coming for America's guns, the NRA eagerly embraced a new target, directing its doomsday predictions toward the new Democratic presidential candidate.


NRA Executive Vice President and leading gun-rights agitator Wayne LaPierre gleefully led the charge, with a 20-minute speech devoted almost entirely to deranged, almost poetic Clinton-bashing.

"She's been coming after us for decades, degrading law-abiding gun owners all over this country and trying to dismantle our Second Amendment freedoms," he told a packed auditorium Friday. "Gun bans, magazine bans, import bans, federal licensing and registration of every gun and gun owner in America. Hillary Clinton hasn't met a gun-control bill that she couldn't support. She even used the White House to run Rosie O'Donnell's so-called 'Million Mom March!'"

He was just getting warmed up. "Whitewater-gate, Cattle-gate, Gennifer Flowers–gate," he chanted, ticking off Clinton scandals, some long forgotten by most of the general public. "Monica-gate, Benghazi-gate, Email-gate, Wiped Server–gate. Hillary Clinton has more 'gates' than a South Texas cattle ranch, and Americans know it.

"She will not bring a dawn of new promise and opportunity," he concluded ominously. "Hillary Rodham Clinton will bring a permanent darkness of deceit and despair forced upon the American people to endure."

The apocalyptic message was repeated everywhere this weekend, by the parade of Republican 2016 presidential hopefuls who showed up to woo gun voters—"If Hillary Clinton is going to join with Barack Obama and the gun-grabbers that come after our guns, then what I say is come and take it!" roared Ted Cruz—and by the rank-and-file NRA members who descended on Nashville for the three-day confab. Wandering between the tactical weapons vendors and antique firearms auctions, it wasn't hard to find those who despised the Democratic heir apparent.


"I don't even want to talk about her, I'll just get too upset," said Dick Pagel, an NRA member from Michigan. "I'm hoping that 2016 won't bring another president who wants to take away our Second Amendment rights. I think that some Democrats think gun owners are the enemy, and they want to take away our constitutional rights. You're already seeing them caving on the East Coast."

"I don't think you're going to find a person here who supports Hillary Clinton," laughed Larry Corbett, an NRA member who had come down from Ohio with some shooting buddies to hear the GOP candidates. "I liked Bill Clinton," he added, "but now I don't understand why Republicans are on our side and all of the Democrats are against us."

There are lots of reasons why gun-rights activists might be skeptical of Clinton. As a senator, she supported a national gun registry and a reinstatement of the assault-weapons ban, both of which have been staunchly opposed by the NRA and other Second Amendment–centric groups. More recently, she has come out in support of universal background checks and said last May that she believes US gun laws are "way out of balance." It doesn't help that her husband signed the most significant gun control measures in recent history, including the 1993 Brady Bill, which mandated federal waiting periods and background checks for handgun purchases, and the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban.


Surprisingly, though, none of this came up at this weekend's NRA meeting. In interviews and onstage, Republicans mostly ignored Clinton's record, resorting instead to vague attack lines about Benghazi and Big Government. "I'm not pro-gun, per se," said Chris Holdren, an autoworker from Pennsylvania. "A gun is part of American culture. But I'm looking at a broader spectrum of issues—nationally, foreign policy." He added that he doesn't like Clinton because of Benghazi. "We need to watch what's coming at us," he explained. "I don't want no Obama for a third term."

At a conference entirely devoted to guns and Second Amendment cheerleading, policy issues were remarkably absent from most of the political speeches. As more than a dozen likely GOP presidential candidates took turns revving up the crowd Friday, the NRA meeting became virtually indistinguishable from any other gathering of Republican voters. Guns, ostensibly the main issue of the event, became merely a vehicle for other conservative themes: American exceptionalism, border security, the nanny state, and so on.

To most people, the fact that the NRA has become synonymous with the GOP isn't new. But it hasn't always been the case—at least not to the extent seen at this year's NRA meeting. There is nothing inherently Republican about liking guns or supporting the Second Amendment. In fact, many of the NRA members I spoke to in Nashville admitted that they'd voted for Bill Clinton and even Al Gore and John Kerry. But if there were any liberal-minded Democrats in the audience this weekend, they were drowned out by cheers for Indiana's religious liberty bill, and likely fled for the hills when Rick Santorum started warning about that Marxist Howard Zinn.


"Even ten or 15 years ago, there would have been plenty of Democrats on that podium—It wasn't as partisan as it is today, and I think that's very dangerous for gun owners," said Richard Feldman, a veteran gun industry lobbyist who worked for the NRA in the 1980s. "It's one thing if one group isn't going to help you, it's something else if they are out to hurt you. It's nice to have friends in both parties. And that does seem to have changed, dramatically."

Some of the shift, Feldman explained, can be attributed to the decline of pro-gun Democrats. In Congress, members of the Blue Dog coalition—more moderate Democrats who tend to fall to the right of their party on issues like gun control and economic policy—has shrunk dramatically in recent years, falling from more than 40 members in 2010 to just 14 after the 2014 midterms. In the meantime, support for gun control continues to be strong among Democratic voters, with 71 percent now favoring stricter firearms laws, according to a recent Gallup survey.

"A lot of the craziness in the gun issue is now a result of the fact that the Democrats, not intentionally, are without a constituency of gun owners… that kept the issue grounded," Feldman said. "When there's no more Democrats to care about, all of a sudden, it allows the issue to drift into this ideological purism. You heard it at the convention, everybody's trying to be more pro-gun than the next guy."


At the same time, the NRA has swung to the right. Since Obama took office in 2008, the organization and its leaders have claimed that that the president harbors a secret desire to confiscate American guns and freedom. The fearmongering has ginned up gun sales and contributions—the NRA grossed $348 million in revenue in 2013, up $92 million from the previous year. But it also solidified the divide between pro-gun conservatives and the left, alienating moderates and liberals who might otherwise support gun rights.

"The NRA itself has been pushed farther to the right, I think further than the leaders would want to go," said political scientist Robert Spitzer, who has written five books on gun policy, including Guns Across America, which will be released by Oxford University Press next month.

"The reason why is because the NRA in the last 20-plus years has fed its followers a steady stream of angry, defensive, apocalyptic rhetoric about the government, about gun laws, about Democrats, about liberals," Spitzer added. "It has really worked aggressively to fan the flames of what I would label paranoia among its base, and they are now a captive, to some extent, of that base."

A turning point, Spitzer said, came amid the bipartisan push for new gun control measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. When news came out that NRA lobbyists were giving input on a bipartisan bill to expand background checks, the organization's members freaked out, forcing the group to withdraw its support from the measure. Since then, the NRA has fervently opposed anything that even smells like gun control, most recently forcing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives to abandon its plan to ban so-called"green tip" ammo.


"This base of their movement, their organization, is so hard right that to a great degree the leaders are captive to it," Spitzer said. Within the GOP, he added, "the gun rights movement has been a fairly important part of the Tea Party movement and other very hard right-wing elements of the Republican base, so they've become very much fused with that movement within the Republican Party."

For the most part, the alliance has been mutually beneficial, with the NRA propping up Republican candidates who in turn help block any new attempts at gun control. After successfully quashing attempts to expand federal gun control laws, the NRA has recently gone on offense, calling on the GOP-controlled Congress to pass a bill that would require state concealed-carry permits to be recognized nationwide.

Public support for tighter gun laws has also dwindled since the days after Newtown. A December survey by the Pew Research Center found that, for the first time in two decades, more Americans now support gun rights than gun control, and nearly six in ten say gun ownership protects people from violent crime. According to Gallup polling, the percentages of Americans in favor of tighter gun sale laws and handgun bans have also dropped to near-record lows.

Given these numbers, it's not surprising that Republicans have turned Clinton into a Second Amendment bogeyman. "The NRA needs somebody to hate, whether it's Obama or Clinton or whoever," said Spitzer.


But at the annual meeting this weekend, there were signs that the NRA, with its one-party loyalty and insistence on ideological purity, could run into the same problems that have hurt the GOP in recent years. No one I talked to would go on the record criticizing the gun-rights group, but a few told me privately that they were turned off by the overtly partisan politics on display at this year's event.

"I think eventually it's going to end up hurting them," said one NRA member, who declined to be named for fear of hurting his company, an online gun retailer. "They're going to end up alienating young blood like me, who are not that conservative, particularly on social stuff like gay rights."

The comment underscores a broader demographic problem for the NRA: Most gun owners are white people over age 50 who primarily live in the South, Midwest, and rural areas—a shrinking group that the GOP is desperately trying to look beyond as it tries to broaden its appeal in 2016.

As NRA members flooded out of the auditorium after Cruz's speech Friday, one woman I spoke to pointed out this problem: "Look around you—what do you notice?" she asked me. "It's very white isn't it? And very old. Where are the young people? Where the Asians? Where are the Latinos? If this is the audience of the Republican Party we're not going to win."

Paradoxically, this could actually open space for Clinton to carve out a more moderate position on gun rights—provided she can balance public support for gun rights with the left's sustained demand for stricter laws. "I think you'll find that when she talks about the issue it'll be fairly sympathetic to gun owners, and she may have some success at defusing that—partly because unlike Obama she has shown some strength among blue-collar, white voters, and that may be helpful to her," said Spitzer. "So she has the opportunity to appeal more as a friend to gun owners in a way that Obama could not."

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