The National Rifle Association has arguably been one of the most successful lobby groups in American history. It was not always that way. For much of the 20th century, the NRA, which was founded in the wake of the Civil War by a New York Times reporter concerned about poor marksmanship, quietly confined itself to promoting hunting and target shooting. But that changed after a small group of right-wing activists, believing they needed to be armed to protect themselves from rising crime and emerging militant groups like the Black Panthers—who had begun to exercise their own Second Amendment rights by, among other things, walking into the California State Capital with loaded shotguns—took over the association in 1977.
Almost overnight, they shifted their focus away from hunting and toward the need for unlimited access to firearms.
And this new NRA succeeded, overwhelmingly. Not only were restrictions on high-powered weapons rolled back, but the NRA also ensured that the very machinery of gun control was gummed up. For example, it helped pass a law that forbade federal gun ownership records from being digitized, meaning background checks would require a clerk to physically thumb their way through stacks of dusty card catalogs.
The result has been nothing short of remarkable. Since 1968, while firearm ownership rates in countries like Canada or the United Kingdom declined, they doubled in the United States. According to the Congressional Research Service, there are more than 320 million, which is more than one for every man, woman, and child. This is three times more per capita than in Canada or Germany, four times more than Australia, and 17 times more than in the United Kingdom. And, perhaps more profoundly, the NRA managed to place the gun at the very centre of the national identity. Owning a firearm has become synonymous with patriotism, strength, and proof you are a “real” American.
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For the last couple of decades, thanks to its ferociously effective lobbying, advertising and grass roots organizing, the NRA has always had its way. And politicians at every level, recognizing it is a powerful friend and dangerous enemy, have courted the association feverishly. Consider Congressman Steve Scalise who, even after being shot during a practice for a charity baseball game, continues to boast in his official bio that his “pro-gun stance has earned him an A+ rating” from the NRA.
As more guns circulated, and as gun deaths per capita outpaced every other western nation, advocates for gun control took it as an accepted fact that the NRA was the unsolvable problem. In other countries, massacres shocked politicians to bring in more effective restrictions. But in the U.S., any hope of change was blocked by the unassailably powerful position of the NRA.
Until Parkland. On the surface, it was simply another school shooting (the fact that those four words can be so easily written together is incredible), no different from the dozen or more that had already occurred this year alone. It followed a familiar pattern: a troubled loner with a high-powered semi-automatic rifle wandered through the halls, killing randomly as he went. But this time, the victims spoke. It wasn’t parents sobbing on camera, or advocates arguing talking points; it was furious student survivors deftly pinning politicians to the board, mocking their inaction and helplessness.
The cracks in the NRA armour started to show almost immediately. On a CNN town hall, students ran circles around the NRA spokesperson, asking questions better than any journalist or politician. Republican donors announced they were cutting off funding until the party acted. The mayor of Dallas told the NRA to take its planned convention elsewhere. And students across the country rapidly began organizing anti-gun rallies seemingly everywhere.
Three days after the massacre, I messaged an American writer that something felt different about this time. A week later, there is no doubt. America may still be flooded with weapons, but the tide is turning. And I think a convergence of three things is responsible.
First, the motivation for change has never been greater. Last year, gun deaths reached an all-time high among American teenagers, accounting for over 2,600 killed per year. At the same time, the NRA’s traditional argument that the only way to lower gun violence is to arm more people (or ban video games) has been definitively unmasked as preposterous in the face of plummeting gun deaths in other western countries that have enacted firearms restrictions.
Second, anti-gun activists now have the means to fight the NRA in ways they never could in the past. Social media has made gun deaths far more immediate; the live-streaming of terrified students hiding from an active shooter is exponentially more moving than any front page story. Social media is also being harnessed to organize opposition and isolate gun advocates. Once the NRA could boast about its 5 million members; now those numbers seem paltry when compared to the fact that 70 per cent of Americans support greater gun control, according to a new poll by SSRS.
Third, and most importantly, there is hope. For perhaps the first time ever, the NRA seems vulnerable. Dozens of its corporate sponsors have cut ties, almost as soon as activists called for it. The decision to support Donald Trump and to tie its brand so closely to the president is proving to be a strategic blunder as his poll numbers remain at historic lows and as more moderate Republicans distance themselves from the administration. And if gun control becomes the ballot question in the midterms, which the Democrats are increasingly favoured to win, this could easily translate into new legislation.
The motivation to end a great social injustice. The means to mobilize. And hope that things can change. Those three things have accomplished a great deal in the past. Gay marriage once seemed impossible, as did desegregation before that, and universal suffrage before that. When considered in this light, the end of the NRA’s influence doesn’t just seem possible—it seems inevitable.
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