'The NRA is imploding' -- but its ideology is still 'stronger than ever'
Wayne LaPierre speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

In the aftermath of the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, demand for gun control at the state and federal level is mounting. We speak with Frank Smyth, longtime investigative journalist who has been covering the National Rifle Association, about the gun lobby’s grip on U.S. lawmakers. He says the Democratic strategy to “find common ground” with conservatives is failing, as the growing gun rights movement refuses to do the same, and discusses how the NRA’s history of hypocrisy and corruption has weakened the formal, centralized power of the group. “The NRA is imploding … but the ideology that they have cooked at the same time they are waning is stronger than ever,” says Smyth.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Funerals are continuing in Uvalde, Texas, for the 19 fourth graders and their two teachers shot dead at Robb Elementary School last week. The state’s probe into the police handling of the school shooting is facing a major new obstacle as the police chief of the Uvalde school district, Pete Arredondo, is refusing to cooperate with state investigators. He was the incident commander who ordered officers to wait in the school’s hallways for about an hour instead of confronting the gunman, who was eventually shot dead by a Border Patrol agent. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Arredondo was secretly sworn in as a city councilmember, but no public ceremony was held.

Amidst the grief and investigations, demand for legislative action on gun control is mounting. On Tuesday, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met with President Biden at the White House, discussing how she responded to the Christchurch mosque mass shooting, that killed 51 people in 2019, by banning most semiautomatic weapons. This is Biden.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’ve been to more mass shooting aftermaths than, I think, any president in American history, unfortunately. And it’s — it’s just — so much of it is — much of it is preventable, and the devastation is amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: Bipartisan talks are reportedly now underway on a red flag law that might be able to overcome a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate and allow police with a court order to remove guns from people seen as a threat to themselves or others. Lawmakers are meeting after Texas Senator Ted Cruz, President Trump and other Republicans addressed the National Rifle Association’s annual convention this weekend and opposed calls for new gun control laws.

SEN. TED CRUZ: But many would still tell us that the evil on display in Uvalde or in Buffalo derives from the presence of guns in the hands of ordinary American citizens. It’s far easier to slander one’s political adversaries and to demand that responsible citizens forfeit their constitutional rights than it is to examine the cultural sickness giving birth to unspeakable acts of evil.

AMY GOODMAN: After his speech blaming other factors besides guns for mass shootings in the United States, Texas Senator Cruz went out for dinner and was confronted by Indivisible Houston board member Ben Hernandez.

BENJAMIN HERNANDEZ: And why did you come here to the convention —
SECURITY: Sir, you need to back up. You need to back up.
BENJAMIN HERNANDEZ: — to take blood money?
SECURITY: You need to back up. You need to back up.
BENJAMIN HERNANDEZ: Why? When 19 children died.
SECURITY: You need to back up.
BENJAMIN HERNANDEZ: Nineteen children died! And it’s on your hands! That is on your hands! Ted Cruz, that’s on your hands!

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Frank Smyth, longtime investigative journalist who’s been covering the NRA for more than a quarter of a century. He’s author of the book The NRA: The Unauthorized History.

Frank, welcome back to Democracy Now! Your history is remarkable, and reporting over the decades, whether you were exposing France supporting the Rwandans in the genocide by giving military weapons there or the same in El Salvador, the U.S. support for the murderous regime, and in Guatemala, then taken hostage in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, when your colleague Gad Gross was killed, now taking on the NRA. It’s an incredible history that you give. And I’m wondering, as we see NRA member after NRA member — the politicians, that is, not the rank and file — you know, fighting against gun control, you tell a very different history in this book. Why don’t you bring out, in a nutshell, the relevant points over the years that have been basically erased of what this organization was about?

FRANK SMYTH: The organization, the NRA — and thank you, Amy — claims to be the oldest civil rights organization in the United States. And this is a complete canard. The NRA didn’t raise gun rights at all until more than 50 years after it was already in existence, in response to a New York state gun law passed in 1911 that now, ironically, is before the Supreme Court, as well as the Bolshevik Revolution. Those two things led to the first editorial raising the alarm about gun rights in 1922, after the NRA was founded in 1871. The NRA supported gun control, including the 1934 National Firearms Act that outlawed fully automatic weapons in response to the violence of the gangsters like Al Capone during Prohibition, and it also established the first regime to control wholesale transfers of firearms from manufacturers to wholesalers. And that’s a system that the NRA doesn’t like to talk about but they still support, because it’s quite convenient.

The NRA then underwent its own, what’s known in the lore as the Cincinnati revolt, or an internal revolt, a self-coup, if you will, shifting from an organization that prioritized the shooting sports and, later, hunting and always gun safety to then prioritize gun rights or consumer access to firearms, which is what gun rights really means, above everything else. So, over the past 45 years, they have pursued an absolutist vision of gun rights, which is based on the idea that there could be no compromise between gun ownership and gun regulations, something that’s a complete flip-flop from what the NRA did for over a century before.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Frank, what was the cause or the basis for that dramatic shift in its policies?

FRANK SMYTH: It was the Gun Control Act of 1968, signed by President Johnson. And this was in response to the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, those three. It was passed in 1968. It outlawed interstate sale of long rifles like the one that was tied to the assassination of JFK. It also restricted sales of guns to minors, and a number of other measures. But there was a group, both inside and outside the NRA, that saw this as allegedly oppressive government overreach.

And the other thing is, the gun rights movement likes to claim, the NRA and beyond, that they have roots going back to the Revolutionary War. This is also a canard. America’s gun rights movement started in response to the Gun Control Act of 1968. The first gun rights group in the United States was the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, formed in 1972. Then Gun Owners of America came in 1974. And three years later, in '77, the NRA underwent its Cincinnati revolt. So, these are all things that the NRA doesn't want anyone to know. And they’ve created other myths to advance their agenda.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in essence, the change came not only in response to Lyndon Johnson’s passage of that ’68 law, but this was also the period when there were racial disturbances and rebellions in cities across the country. And I recall pictures of hundreds of thousands of people lining up at gun shops — white Americans — to buy guns because they believed at the time that there was a potential racial civil war occurring in the United States.

FRANK SMYTH: Absolutely.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What role does race play in these changes in policies, as well?

FRANK SMYTH: It played an undercurrent and had a tremendous role, even though it’s rarely talked about. That 1968 law signed by Johnson, too, the Gun Control Act, was supported by the NRA, which — that divided the gun community. But there is no doubt that the racial tension of the 1960s played a tremendous role in radicalizing people in the NRA, as well as in other groups, leading them to see consumer access to firearms as a priority and something that needed to be prioritized. And also, you can’t discount the vigilante movies of the 1970s and the crime that was rising in the early 1970s especially, and the vigilante concept captured in films like Dirty Harry, the Death Wish series of films, Taxi and others. All of this played a role in radicalizing a certain element of America’s gun movement, which led to these gun rights groups or the Cincinnati revolt, the turn of the NRA, all in the 1970s.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to 1999. The NRA held its annual convention in Denver just weeks after the massacre at the nearby Columbine High School. NRA President Charlton Heston presided over the meeting — yes, the famous actor. This is a clip of Charlton Heston speaking the following year.

CHARLTON HESTON: So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: “From my cold, dead hands.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Charlton Heston, soon after the Columbine massacre. Now, at the same time that you have him as president — you can talk about how that happened — you have Wayne LaPierre rising up in the organization. So we go from the events held after the massacre to a year after to just this last weekend, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre speaking once again right after a massacre, and this was in Houston, Texas, last weekend.

WAYNE LAPIERRE: It’s time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions. And that’s why we, the NRA, will never, ever stop fighting for the right of the innocent and the law-abiding to defend themselves against the evil, criminal element that plagues our society.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Wayne LaPierre’s rise, Charlton Heston and what we’re seeing today.

FRANK SMYTH: Well, Wayne LaPierre became — he joined the NRA in 1978, so one year after the Cincinnati revolt. And he had worked for a Blue Dog Democrat in the Virginia state House on gun legislation before. And before that, he briefly was a special education public high school — public school teacher in both Virginia and New York, which I think is somewhat interesting. So, he was a very young man, I think 28, when he joined the NRA.

He helped pass the Firearms Owners Protection Act in 1986 during the Reagan administration, which rolled back some of the 1968 law, which really gave him some credibility within the NRA. And then, in 1991, after a series of scandals and infighting in the organization, that really was threatening to bring it down, they chose LaPierre to become the executive vice president and CEO, which is the title, the combined title now that he uses, in 1991.

There was a push then to try and depose him by an individual by the name of Neal Knox, who accused everybody but him of being weak on gun rights, as a way of trying to outflank the organization on their core issue. And Charlton Heston was recruited by LaPierre and his allies to come in to defeat that challenge. So, when Charlton Heston raised that flintlock rifle and said, “From my cold, dead hands,” he was playing to the public, and he was also playing internally to the NRA, because he needed to show his gun rights credentials in order to keep — to support LaPierre and keep him in power.

Now, what’s also interesting after Columbine is LaPierre — and nobody talks about this, but CNN unearthed it recently — testified and talked about how the NRA has no problem with full background checks, that he has no problem with what we now call universal background checks. This is an amazing thing, because now they claim, and for 20 years they’ve claimed since then, that background checks pose an existential threat to liberty and could lead to genocide, because background checks wouldn’t work now, as they explain it, without gun registration, and gun registration, we all know, is the slippery slope to disarmament, followed by tyranny and genocide. This is ridiculous. But after Columbine, LaPierre said the complete opposite. So this flip-flop is something he hasn’t been held accountable for, though it would be very easy. But I think the gun reform people and the Democrats have been reluctant to challenge the NRA, and I think that is a strategic failure on their part.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Frank, I wanted to ask you — those who want to defend gun rights, supposedly, within the NRA constantly point to these mass shootings as being results of individual evil, reflective of a moral decay in society. But they never talk about comparing what happens here in the United States to other countries in the world, this extraordinary unique situation of the United States with so many guns and so much gun violence. Could you put it in perspective for people who are not aware what the situation is in other countries around the world?

FRANK SMYTH: Yeah. Thank you, Juan. Great question. Here it is. The United States has 25 times more gun violence than other advanced nations on average. Twenty-five times. So what’s the difference between us and those other advanced nations? Every one of those nations has a national system to regulate retail firearm sales, consumer firearm sales. The United States is the only advanced nation, or nation anywhere in the world, that leaves retail regulation of consumer firearm sales up to our regional governments or individual states. Nobody else does that. So, what that means is that in Chicago up to 60% of the weapons seized in crimes came from out of state, because it’s the states with weak gun laws that supply the guns that are used in crimes, to a large degree, in the states with stronger gun laws — not to mention guns that are trafficked to Mexico, Central America and throughout the Caribbean.

The NRA likes to talk about cultural sickness, as Ted Cruz put it. There’s a movement now in the gun reform community or the gun safety community to talk about it as a gun safety issue and talk about — reframe it all as a safety issue. I think that’s not strong enough. I think we should be reframing this issue in the United States, those — I’m an independent, but I support gun control, and I’m also a gun owner, by the way, and I support gun control. What we need to frame this is: Why are we the only nation that does not regulate retail firearm sales? And why is it that — 50 years ago, this was talked about by President Johnson. Why is it today that neither Republicans — though the Democrats are afraid to talk about this issue, while the Republicans are using it to derail every measure that the Democrats bring forward? It’s almost like a chess game, and the Democrats have been completely outmaneuvered by the Republicans and the gun lobby, meaning the NRA and the gun industry, and they really don’t know what to do. The Democrats are completely divided and unclear about what they want now. And that is a problem, you know, about what needs to happen going forward. And that’s because the Democrats have encouraged the gun reform people to take the approach.

The way you pass legislation is you reach across the aisle and find common ground. The whole gun lobby’s whole point is no compromise, no common ground. So, when they raise background checks, Josh Hawley a year ago talked about gun registration being a threat to liberty. And he didn’t mention it, but this is a canard based on a fabulous distortion of the Holocaust, claiming prior gun registration lists enabled it, right? This is completely untrue, but this is the kind of propaganda the gun lobby has put out that nobody has challenged yet in the United States. But if you go talk to anybody in the gun rights community, if you go to any NRA meeting, or if you go to gun clubs, and you ask people, “Hey, explain to me the slippery slope,” they’ll read it like it’s gospel truth. And this is part of the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank, we have to wrap up now, but I wanted to ask you about the fact that — isn’t the NRA at its lowest ebb, internecine fighting, corruption probes? The interaction of the NRA — and you describe this so well in your book — with the gun industry, and how much power that has, and its nexus, how it all got exposed at Sandy Hook?

FRANK SMYTH: Yeah, the NRA is imploding, in my view. And I think they will not survive a New York attorney general civil lawsuit against them for massive embezzlement, where the charges originated with the whistleblower Oliver North. People forget that, but it’s Oliver North, Iran-Contra Oliver North, who first accused LaPierre of embezzling funds. And he hasn’t backed down; he’s just gone quiet about that. So they’re in trouble.

But the ideology that they have cooked up at the same time that they are waning is stronger than ever. And this is what is — this is the legacy of the NRA and the gun lobby, and this is what I think people that want to pursue gun reform do not understand. It’s not the NRA’s money, not so much anymore — it’s still important — but it’s the ideology. It’s the fact that they’ve convinced tens of millions of Americans that any gun control poses an existential threat to their freedom. This is ridiculous and kind of remarkable that they have convinced people of this, because it’s all based on false history and convoluted theories that are as crazy as anything you’d find on QAnon, and predate QAnon, but the NRA has been up to this now for decades. And it’s having — they’ve managed to convince a great many people. And this is something that the Democrats and the gun reformers haven’t even begun to address.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank Smyth, I want to thank you for being with us, longtime investigative journalist, author of The NRA: The Unauthorized History.

Next up, it was March 29, 2018, when a U.S. drone strike hit a car with five men, all of them cousins. Four were killed. We’ll hear from the survivor. Stay with us.

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AMY GOODMAN: Larry Gatlin, the Texas country music star. This is “Light at the End of the Darkness.” He’s also known for his song “Houston.” He’s one of four musicians who refused to play at the NRA convention and has called for gun control. He said he didn’t even think the NRA convention should have taken place — he’s an NRA member himself — only if they met to have a moment of silence for the people who were killed, the children and teachers, in Uvalde.