A version of this article originally appeared on the Trace.
As the child of a firearms collector tagging along to gun shows and shooting ranges in the 1980s and 90s, I soaked up a lot of lessons that never appeared in my schoolbooks. I learned, among other things, that the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderbergs controlled George H.W. Bush's administration to advance the New World Order; that David Koresh and Randy Weaver were patriots martyred by the fascist Janet Reno's jackbooted government thugs; and that a race war was definitely coming to America—the only real question was which side the government would be on.
All this I learned—before anyone had heard of Barack Hussein Obama, Infowars, Breitbart, New Black Panthers, creeping sharia, Pizzagate, and the like—from men who brandished bumper stickers that read, "I don't trust the liberal media" or, "My president is Charlton Heston."
The National Rifle Association has long benefited from and contributed to such conspiracy theories—and with them has helped to erode faith in American institutions like the government and the mainstream media. You can't trust the agents of those institutions to tell you the truth, much less to have your welfare at heart, the NRA argues. As the lobby put it in a recent, un-bylined post on its website (and labeled "News"), titled "Elites Reserve the Right to Decree What is 'Fake' and What is 'News'":
Examples of their arrogance, ethical breaches, bias, and outright political collusion are now so numerous that their reporting, especially on politically charged issues like firearm policy, cannot simply be accepted at face value.
NRA News, December 1, 2016
Take a moment to think about that. Of course you wouldn't take an arrogant, unethical, biased, politically conniving source at its word. You wouldn't ever trust it, even if it were telling the truth. You might even make a ritual, with like-minded individuals, of trashing that source's content, of reaffirming your rightness and the media's wrongness. You might be possessed by what the historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid tendency," confronted by a media with interests that "are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable" with your own, "and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise."
Rather than critically evaluating articles for their correspondence to known facts, the NRA has long encouraged its audience to dismiss these reports and the outlets that produce them as irredeemably opposed to a cherished way of life. In the NRA's view, the mainstream media not only fails to reveal the truth, its editors, reporters, and producers are inherently incapable of being honest about gun issues.
Why bash the press? Because it is a strategy that works. Many of the NRA's members are primed to trade in "fake news" precisely because of the epistemological groundwork the lobby has laid. The price of admission in this pro-gun bubble is no longer merely firearms ownership or enthusiasm for shooting sports. The NRA is speaking to any real American concerned about the intentions of those cold, timid souls in the media who just don't get gun people, much less bother to know the difference between full-auto and semi.
Growing up as one of those gun people, I saw everything that outsiders got wrong about us. But any stroll through the table literature at the Saturday gun show laid bare how much we got laughably, conspiratorially, troublingly wrong about the world outside our bubble. The gun lobby did more than just impugn the mainstream media; it created its own new media channels and other alternative "news" sites as a corrective. In short, the NRA effectively helped establish the byways and highways on which today's "fake news" travels.
Watch Michael K. Williams weigh in on gun violence and gun control in America.
The NRA didn't invent cynical, self-serving messaging. Independent of the lobby's activity, certain vocal gun people, raised in an ethos of self-reliance and fear of tyranny, have long bonded around dubious reports that reinforced the sense that they were beset by larger, sinister forces. But for decades, the NRA has provided a petri dish in which strange cultures grew.
Much has been written about the group's evolution from an occasionally pro-regulation sport-shooting club to an absolutist political lobby, culminating in a leadership putsch by more radical activists at the group's 1977 annual meeting in Cincinnati. But its conspiratorial tone and offensive against the press also benefited from domestic and global events in the decades since.
Over the years, the lobby's scope has broadened from a vigorous defense of gun rights to a passionate war against elitist threats to good gun people.
The 1980s and early 90s saw a surge in gun violence as crime increased, and the facts on how guns were used in America were not in the NRA's favor. Numerous studies into the causes and prevalence of gun deaths clearly showed that access to firearms made a difference, and that guns were statistically likelier to harm their owners than to successfully be used in self-defense. None of this information necessarily meant that the NRA was wrong about the Second Amendment conferring an individual right, or even wrong to promote gun ownership. But it had no good answers for how to slow the pace of violent crime carried out with guns.
So the gun lobby adopted an age-old strategy: Destroy the credibility of the institutions that would challenge it, through direct attacks, and then create a competing set of "facts." Crime was up because government was incompetent and heavy-handed. The alleged dangers of personal firearms were fictions created by reporters and researchers with anti-freedom agendas. Only your weapons and your lobby could help you.
Evidence-free assertions of threats to life and liberty began to flourish. The "jackbooted government thugs" line was a favorite of the NRA's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre. The NRA leaned heavily on rumor-fueled characterizations of the Waco and Ruby Ridge disasters to persuade gun owners that when the federal government was competent, it was tyrannical, violent, and determined to confiscate firearms from civilians.
And it wasn't just Washington that was the threat. The lobby co-opted persistent fears of a globalist anti-gun conspiracy, picking up on a John Bircher–style nationalist strand that ran through armed America. When a reporter asked LaPierre at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration how he'd keep NRA members engaged without a liberal bogeyman in the White House, the lobbyist replied with rare candor: "Thank God for the United Nations."
More recently, LaPierre has argued that the media and government have bumbled in their authoritarian aims, with the result that terrorists and criminals lay in wait for regular Americans. No one, he claimed, could stop the coming attack on our way of life, "whether it's through an EMP, a massive cyber attack, another 9/11, or just isolated sprees of murder and mayhem."
Over the years, the lobby's scope has broadened from a vigorous defense of gun rights to a passionate war against elitist threats to good gun people. And each time a mass shooting focuses public anger on the NRA, the lobby redoubles its attacks.
In his much-anticipated first remarks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, LaPierre accused an entire industry of having blood on its hands—not the firearms industry, but the media.
"How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame—from a national media machine that rewards them with the wall-to-wall attention and sense of identity that they crave?" he asked.
LaPierre accused the media of trying "their best to conceal" the deadly influence that violent video games and movies supposedly exercise over teenagers. He described "a race to the bottom" in which "media conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society."
"Too many in our national media... their corporate owners... and their stockholders... act as silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators," he charged. "Rather than face their own moral failings, the media demonize lawful gun owners."
In the NRA's view, Americans were beset on all sides by the tyranny of media conglomerates, which valued dollars over people or goodness or truth. Having finally stated loudly and clearly that the mainstream news media was a categorical enemy, the NRA sent its faithful looking for alternatives to that media.
One alternative came from the lobby itself, in 2004: NRA News. After a decade as a standalone website, it became one of four distinct content channels running 25 video series on NRA TV, available at home on PC and streaming devices. Most NRA TV programs are sports or lifestyle-oriented, opportunities for gun-industry sponsors to showcase their wares. But the news programming is political, and distinctly so, presented by colorful personalities like Dom Rasso, a hulking former Navy Seal, and Colion Noir, an African American host described by the NRA as an "urban gun enthusiast."
The NRA alternative to traditional media offered itself up as chicken soup for the frightened gun-owner's soul.
Shortly after NRA TV's launch in 2014, Rasso hosted a short video in which he argued that the news media was misleading audiences by using the word "shooting" to describe fatal homicides with guns. After showing a statue of Lenin superimposed with the word "propaganda," the video cut to Rasso defining the term for viewers:
"PROPAGANDA: Ideas or or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, or a government.
That sounds a lot like what I see every single day when I actually waste my time to keep up with what the news media is saying."
Rasso went on to blast news outlets' focus on the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, variants of which were used by the Aurora, Colorado, and Sandy Hook mass killers. Connecting these crimes to a specific weapon, he argued, was an act of emotion, not journalism.
"Think of the media for what they are: an entertainment business," he said. "What sounds better for them: Two random, tragic acts of violence a few months apart, or connecting those isolated events by hyper-focusing on the scary-looking gun used in both?"
This seemed an argument calibrated not to win viewers over to Rasso's stance, but to reward those who already agreed with him that the media was beyond salvation. As Hofstadter, the historian, put it in 1964, the paranoiac "seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it."
The NRA alternative to traditional media offered itself up as chicken soup for the frightened gun-owner's soul.
But as America's Big Sort accelerated, and the stridency of the most paranoid gun owners became mainstream conservative discourse, the NRA found that it could communicate with an audience far larger than its core membership. It has adapted its message to suit. New programming isn't just about guns anymore: It's about Benghazi, and government healthcare, and illegal immigration. Recent commentaries by Rasso and his NRA News colleagues include "Obama: Commander in Deceit"; "The Godless Left"; "The Media's Latest Attack on Freedom"; and "We Will Defend Ourselves." The technological revolution allows programmers and their audiences to bypass traditional media channels altogether.
A search of the NRA TV website for "Benghazi" turned up a whopping 79 clips and episodes, hours of content with titles like "The Truth About Benghazi"; "Hillary, the Violent Humanitarian"; and "How Did the Media Miss the Suburban Women Who Hate Hillary Clinton?" The gun lobby's obsession with Benghazi, culminating in a $2 million anti-Clinton political ad, mystified many observers in the mainstream media. "This seems unaccountably odd," the New Republic's Laura Reston wrote of the Benghazi spot, surmising that perhaps the lobby thought it might help down-ballot conservatives. She quoted a Washington State University professor who shrugged off a general audience's ignorance of the facts surrounding Benghazi. "They ignore facts that are inconsistent with their beliefs," he told her. "You could hit them over the head with all the evidence that Hillary Clinton was not involved, and it wouldn't make a difference."
It's not just that facts seemed to make no difference. A bombardment of facts actually reinforced the Benghazi theorists' convictions. The NRA's Benghazi obsession worked precisely because mainstream outlets had largely reported out the Libya story and decided, by election time, that it wasn't news. While that call may have been journalistically sound, it was further evidence to many gun owners that legacy media didn't care about their concerns and could not be trusted. Benghazi to them was, and is, a master narrative about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama not caring about them. The NRA's message to these voters was: We care. We listen. We take you seriously.
Perversely, the NRA builds its own credibility with supporters by offering incredible, often flat-out false stories. Some of its most notable recent offerings are these:
- "The terrorists want you to elect" Hillary Clinton.
- "Chaos is an ever-present danger to Americans today." (This prediction by LaPierre has been a perennial one, shared on the eve of at least two recent American elections.)
"Brace yourself," LaPierre wrote of his chaos prediction in 2014. "You won't hear about this from the mainstream media."
The NRA also occasionally encourages fabricated or false news promulgated by its ideological allies. During the protests and unrest that followed the death of a young black man in police custody in Baltimore last year, the NRA's Facebook page showcased a Breitbart News story suggesting that a local reporter "was saved from a mob of rioters" by the shotgun-wielding proprietor of a nearby business. Not so, the reporter clarified on Twitter: "A group of gang members surrounded me, saying they were protecting me. The guy with shotgun was protecting his business."
In 2013, shortly after the Sandy Hook murders, Slate's David Weigel charged that the NRA fed the growth of "gun massacre trutherism": conspiracy theories suggesting that mass shootings were either faked or orchestrated by insidious "black ops." He took pains to point out all the reasons the Sandy Hook truther case was false. "But what's the point of debunking any of this?" Weigel concluded:
The theories don't spread because they're credible. They spread in part because of the confirmation bias of worried gun owners. And that's actually been egged on, multiple times, by the National Rifle Association. The gun lobby might be the only credible group, with real clout, with the ability to bring presidential candidates to its conferences, to endorse the idea that the government would engage in a "false flag" operation.
'Don't Blame the Sandy Hook Truthers,' Slate
Three years later, the NRA put together a testimonial video in support of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. It suggested that Trump's opponent and longtime gun-lobby target Hillary Clinton wanted to repeal the Second Amendment. And it prominently featured Trump supporter Vince Resor—a Sandy Hook truther who maintained that the parents of several murdered children were actually paid actors.
"What is amazing here," Resor had written of the alleged Sandy Hook conspiracy on his Facebook page, "is not how despicable this is, but how unremarkable it is to learn that the mainstream media deceives us with propaganda to advance their cause. Disgusting."
It must be said that many mainstream journalists have themselves provided the NRA with a broad opening to criticize their profession. There is a great deal of misinformed, superficial, fear-based reporting and writing about firearms, often supplied by reporters who have little familiarity with the weapons they discuss, the lingua franca of gun culture, or the conception of firearms as anything more than instruments of murder. All one has to do is observe the painful public struggles of journalists to employ terminology like "automatic weapon," "machine gun," "assault rifle," or "clip" in meaningful ways not supplied by Hollywood.
But most mainstream media organizations are trying hard to do right by the facts on firearms reporting—notably, Forbes in its hiring of reporter Matt Drange, and the Guardian in adding ProPublica reporter Lois Beckett to its masthead to cover the firearms beat. Now a gun-reporting veteran, Beckett drew attention two years ago with a New York Times column that challenged liberal wisdom by showing, with reporting and hard data, how few gun murders are carried out by so-called assault weapons. Denied media credentials for the NRA's 2015 annual meeting in Kentucky, Beckett and a video crew parked outside the event and produced a remarkable, unvarnished, humanizing four-minute portrait of gun owners answering the question: "What do liberals get wrong about guns?"
The NRA reaction to Beckett's Times column is telling. On the lobby's website, blogger James Porter praised Beckett's "surprisingly accurate" reporting on the assault-weapon phenomenon—but rather than stopping there, he challenged her for not canonizing the poor, suffering would-be owners of banned assault weapons: "Beckett should go a few steps further and put human faces on victims of the 'Assault Weapons Myth,'" Porter wrote, continuing on about "venomous" gun-safety activists for another 300 words.
Note the underlying logic here: Even when a mainstream reporter gets the facts right, and the facts support an NRA position, this is treated as aberrant behavior from the reliably adversarial media—and the implication is that by just reporting the facts without offering a pro-gun gloss, the reporter is only telling half the story. Solid reporting by Beckett and others is dismissed by the gun lobby as the exception that proves the rule. To be in the NRA's club, you have to read the right websites, and ridicule the wrong ones, quite independent of where those sites' reporting may lead. The only "good" journalism is journalism that is inherently pro-gun, pro-gun owner, and Anti-Establishment.
Shortly after US Marines at the embassy in Cairo faced angry rioters on September 11, 2012, several conservative websites and pro-gun listservs announced indignantly that President Obama's administration had ordered the Marines not to carry live ammunition in their service weapons during the unrest. Military and legislative officials confirmed to me that the rumor was unfounded. But it was the latest in a long lineage of rumors that claimed a craven Political Establishment had either put troops in harm's way or tied its hands.
More recently, after the mass shootings at a Washington Navy Yard and a Chattanooga military recruiting office, conservatives and gun advocates lamented that privately owned guns had been banned from US military installations by the Clinton administration. Fact-checkers—who have also been assailed as part of the Liberal Media Establishment—swiftly and repeatedly pointed out that the military-base ban on guns originated in a directive approved in February 1992, by the George H.W. Bush administration.
The NRA's innovation has been to position itself as a moral lodestar for the people who share these sorts of rumors-as-news on Facebook and email. As with all "fake news" that percolates through social media and across the political spectrum, the stories' accuracy is less important than their use as "a marker of identity, a way to proclaim your affinity with a particular community," as Judith Donath, a professor at MIT's Media Lab, puts it. Pro-gun people engage in conspicuous media consumption to signify social and cultural status, the NRA establishes a "safe space" for this culture, and misinformation becomes an intrinsic feature of this system, not an aberration. Lobbies like the NRA provide the same sense of community that newspapers once offered.
The NRA could well become a victim of its own success. It is widely acknowledged as one of the richest and most powerful lobbies in history. It publishes more magazines than Jann Wenner; boasts of its "24/7" broadcast media empire; claims more paying members than the American Legion; and it grades, whips, and bankrolls entrenched politicians. It is, as challengers from the right—Gun Owners of America, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, the National Association for Gun Rights—have asserted, one of the largest, most insular, status quo-embracing groups in Washington. Were the NRA to suddenly find itself covered favorably in the mainstream media, how would it react?
The NRA would lose credibility with the bubble-dwelling constituency it has courted if it doesn't maintain a hard line against the press. It would face more pressure from the small, upstart right-wing gun groups that seek to challenge it. It must, in some sense, continue its war against the media, not because of what the media reports, but because of what it represents.
"The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms," Hofstadter concluded.
This is the NRA's pride and pain: It is engaged not in an exhaustive search for truth on gun issues, but in an exhausting, Manichaean struggle against everyone who doesn't understand the absolute need for absolute gun freedom.