In the winter of 2008, shortly after the election of Barack Obama, my fiancee and I stopped into a local gun shop in Austin, Texas to buy ammunition for target practice, a hobby we enjoyed once or twice a month. Though we hadn’t asked, the clerk behind the counter told us that all the AR- and AK-style rifles were back-ordered. We could get on the waitlist, he offered, but the delay might be a couple of months — “if it’s still even legal to buy one then.”
Eight years later, gun rights in America appear not only to have survived the Obama administration but to have thrived. Gun sales broke records almost every year of the past eight. As president, Obama signed legislation allowing guns onto Amtrak trains and into national parks, where they were previously prohibited, and his executive orders after the Sandy Hook massacre had no perceptible effect on most gun owners. Then we elected Donald Trump — a long-shot candidate who earned an endorsement from the National Rifle Association before he had even consolidated the support of his own political party. In April, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president since Ronald Reagan to address the NRA’s annual meeting. He told the cheering crowd that he was their “true friend and champion in the White House” and proclaimed that “the eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms” was over.
Perhaps the NRA shouldn’t have cheered. For years, the gun lobby has built its narrative around the idea that powerful forces in government are conspiring to ban and confiscate privately owned guns. That premise drove gun owners to sporting-goods stores as well as to the polls. Trump’s election, coinciding with conservative majorities in both houses of Congress and on the U.S. Supreme Court, has tanked gun sales and undermined the NRA’s most effective messaging. And with several Republican congressmen targeted this past week in a shooting in suburban Washington, the familiar political rhetoric about guns now seems dissonant.
When the NRA sells T-shirts depicting a rifle-wielding eagle above the slogan “Because you can’t fist fight tyranny,” the implication is that you can fight tyranny (however you perceive it) with guns. It should be no surprise that someone would shoot democratically elected representatives when we’ve been told for decades that that’s the patriotic redress to political grievances. How will the NRA’s anti-government message resonate in the absence of a gun-grabbing bogeyman, and when its own A-rated politicians are targeted by gun violence? And who will represent gun owners’ actual interests while the NRA chases an antagonistic strategy that now seems entirely played out?
The idea that the NRA speaks with one voice for America’s 100 million gun owners has never really been credible. The organization claims to have 5 million members, a figure that can’t be independently verified and that doesn’t jibe with its magazine circulation. That tally also includes people like me: intermittent NRA members who joined as a prerequisite for something else. (Local gun clubs, certain insurance policies and even some employers require NRA membership or subsidize it as a benefit.) In any case, the political agenda of the organization doesn’t necessarily reflect the will of rank-and-file members. Of the 76 directors who lead the NRA, annual-dues-paying members elect only one. A small committee nominates candidates to fill the other 75 positions, for which only lifetime members may cast votes.