It’s 1995 and the NRA is pissed: For the past few years, America’s gun owners have witnessed the passage of the Brady Bill and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. NRA President Wayne LaPierre pens an incendiary and blunt fundraising letter that April to the organization’s then roughly 3.5 million members, describing federal officials who enforced President Clinton’s gun laws as “jack-booted government thugs” who would be empowered to “take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”
The letter is so controversial that former President George H. W. Bush resigns his NRA membership in disgust. A Time Magazine/CNN poll taken at the time finds more than two-thirds of gun owners disapprove of LaPierre’s fundraising letter. America’s gun owners are affronted.
But LaPierre’s letter looks almost quaint compared to the new flamethrower of an NRA ad fronted by conservative talk-show host Dana Loesch. In her one-and-a-half-minute screed, Loesch warns of the rise of an unnamed, unidentified “they.”
They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler” and preside over an Obama-led resistance that makes them march, protest, and “scream racism, sexism and xenophobia and homophobia and smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding — until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.”
“This is an absolutely remarkable ad,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and author of “Gun Fight: A History of the NRA.” “It’s not really about gun rights at all.”
The ad marks a dramatic cultural shift for the NRA, which calls itself the oldest operating civil rights organization in the country. And while the NRA is no stranger to pivots — gun-rights absolutists wrested control of the group from the more sports-shooting enthusiast wing in 1977 — the latest NRA ad is more of a rebrand. It makes no mention of guns, period. And even in today’s extremist-saturated digital spaces, where that kind of rhetoric is hardly uncommon, it’s controversial.
“This is about taking on the resistance and declaring war on liberals,” Winkler said.
The NRA video ad, with a caption asking viewers to “Join the NRA,” has 4.3 million Facebook views, with 35,000 shares, and counting. Outraged liberals have called the ad “disgusting” and “revolting and frightening,” with some progressive lawmakers begging the group to take the video down and asking for NRA supporters to cancel their membership.
Loesch, meanwhile, has essentially flipped the bird at her naysayers, taunt-tweeting that she’ll be reading all her hate mail on air to raise money to buy ammo for her gun stash. In a series of video and social media statements, Loesch questioned liberals “freaking out” over the ad and further argued that liberals have committed their share of violence, which she says her ad condemns, rather than condones.
But there may be consequences for the NRA acting like a fringe gun-rights group — a loss of support, and membership dues (lifetime membership costs $1,500). Some gun owners are abandoning the NRA in light of the latest ad, with many stating that the group has “gone too far.”
Alternative gun-rights groups have been taken aback by the tactics of this particular NRA recruitment drive.
Lara Smith, national spokesperson for the Liberal Gun Club, feels the “they” Loesch warned against is people like her: “This is the largest lobbying group coming after us,” Smith said, adding that she felt threatened by the ad.
In a former brand-life, Smith would have been exactly the kind of citizen you’d imagine the NRA would hope to recruit — a gun owner living in America. But Smith feels alienated by the NRA, saying she’s seen a shift in the NRA’s messaging since President Trump’s election. “I’m personally really worried about it,” Smith said. “We don’t condone violence, but we do condone self-defense. I find it extraordinary, not helpful, and disturbing. There is a radical shift here.”
A shift some people attribute to attrition. The NRA is notoriously secret about its actual numbers, though LaPierre often touts a membership roster of some 5 million. But Winkler estimates NRA membership is much lower and says it’s been steadily decreasing. A Pew study about American attitudes toward gun control released in June found that one in five U.S. gun owners (19 percent) say they belong to the NRA — a stat every researcher we talked to said is far too high.
“It [the NRA ad] really shows they are desperate to motivate and scare people,” Winkler said, suggesting the ad may end up alienating the very people it’s trying to recruit. “Instead of demonizing them, they should be building alliances with groups like Black Lives Matter. They should be appealing to millennials. Instead, they are looking to only appeal to white nationalists in the rural parts of America.”
Winkler’s critique echoes voices heard after the NRA remained silent after the shooting of Philando Castile, the black, law-abiding gun owner who was shot dead by a policeman last year.
But David Kopel, author of “The Truth About Gun Control,” said this is business as usual for the 146-year-old NRA. “The NRA has always considered itself to be at the heart of American civic virtue culture,” Kopel said. “It’s not repositioning; it’s a continuation.”
Pew’s study this year found 44 percent of all adults said the NRA has too much influence over gun legislation. But researchers like Kopel said other gun-lobbying groups and organizations take issue with the way the NRA wields that outsize influence. “Some folks say the NRA is a squishy organization that compromises all the time,” Kopel said, adding that groups like Gun Owners of America have long argued that the NRA doesn’t go far enough, and frequently makes legislative concessions.
“For the large segment of the American population — including gun owners and non-gun owners who don’t follow gun politics that closely — they may see an NRA that doesn’t compromise and always wins,” Kopel said. “They overestimate the omnipotence of the NRA.”
The NRA did not return calls from VICE News.
While the controversy around its latest video continues to flare, the NRA is working to pass two relatively big pieces of pro-gun rights legislation this year: a bill that would remove any restrictions on concealed carry between states, and another that would repeal constraints on the ownership of gun suppressors (commonly known as silencers).
Dudley Brown, president of the lobby group National Association for Gun Rights, considers himself one of the most vocal critics of the NRA. Brown, who says his organization takes a harder stance on the Second Amendment than the NRA does and opposes most forms of gun control, argued that the NRA is simply course-correcting years of pandering to lawmakers. “They had the image of being soft and weak,” said Brown. “I think they are trying to rebrand their image and look tough.”
But when asked whether he thought the ad’s rhetoric went too far, Brown said it actually resembled something his group might create. “What part is so scary?”