The National Rifle Association is the boogieman for the anti-gun left in this country. During the recent campaigns, plenty of politicians talk about how they were going to stand up to the NRA, how they were going to put the NRA in their place.
This is the same NRA that’s embattled at every flank, of course, yet still apparently managed to pose enough opposition to prevent a $100 billion effort by Micahel Bloomberg and company from yielding any fruits. At least, that’s what happened if you believe the NRA is the only barrier to anti-gun Utopia.
However, it seems that some on the left are starting to brush up against the understanding that the NRA isn’t what they need to worry about.
On a frigid Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this year, Philip Van Cleave brought out the big guns to Richmond. As he stood on the steps of the Virginia State Capitol, Van Cleave—a 68-year-old balding and mustachioed software programmer—delivered a stern warning to the Democrats who had recently gained control of the state government: “We’re here today to remind Governor [Ralph] Northam and the general assembly that the last election was not a referendum on gun control.” In front of him, an ocean of pro-gun protesters whooped in solidarity. Nearly all were armed, many gripping AR-15-style rifles or other assault weapons. A good number were decked out in paramilitary outfits and tactical gear. Confederate and Gadsden flags waved high and wide.
It was a scene that once would have been credited to the National Rifle Association—the nation’s oldest gun rights group, which, over the past several decades, has inflamed and radicalized a broad coalition of conservative gun owners through alarmist messaging, especially during the Obama administration, and cemented itself as a formidable political force. But the NRA has since dwindled in power, and the rally was the work of Van Cleave’s Virginia Citizens Defense League, a no-compromise, far-right gun rights group that he once boasted was “proud” to have been labeled an “extremist” organization.
The rally was a bellwether: the sudden downfall of the nation’s most powerful gun group and the rise of more radical pro-gun organizations and militias seeking to take its place. Since 2016, the NRA has seen a steady decline in its ranks. Meanwhile, there’s been a boon in membership for more extreme groups like the VCDL and the Second Amendment Foundation, which recently filed a number of lawsuits challenging state gun control laws, and the National Association for Gun Rights, which paints itself as a more conservative alternative to the NRA.
There’s no doubt a void to be filled by the NRA, but it’s unclear what groups will dominate. “We’ve got 100 million gun owners in this country,” says Joshua Powell, the NRA director’s former chief of staff. “Whether it’s the NRA or some other group, somebody’s going to have to fill those shoes.” Powell was fired from the NRA last year amid allegations of sexual harassment, and he’s since published a memoir detailing the behind-the-scenes corruption within the organization. “It is important to have an institution that represents Second Amendment supporters, gun owners,” Powell adds. “This is part and parcel to the fabric of our country. The Second Amendment is not going anywhere.” Van Cleave is also confident that there will be a group, or a splintered coalition of smaller groups, to step into the NRA’s shoes. “There’s not going to be a void there,” he says. “Somebody’s going to fill that.”
See, while Mother Jones still clings to the idea that the NRA has radicalized gun owners, they also manage to point out that a lot of the newer groups are far more “extreme” in their beliefs.
What they don’t get is that much of the NRA’s membership woes stem from people believing that the NRA is too soft. They think the NRA is too willing to play ball. A case in point is the bump stock ban. The NRA was apparently willing to play a little ball to let the ban happen. They’ve also issued suggestions on how red flag laws should be implemented.
Now, I’ve spoken with NRA officials in the past and I understand the thinking. The NRA’s approach–a wise one, in my opinion–is to try to lessen the impact of measures that are probably going to happen anyway.
For example, Congress was moving forward with a bump stock ban that was also going to hit us far harder than the ATF reclassification of bump stocks ever would have. It would have potentially made it so anything other than a stock trigger would be illegal since the wording included pretty much any modification that might increase your rate of fire. Want a lighter trigger? Nope, that would have been illegal.
Instead, the ATF reclassified bump stocks. I still disagree with the move, of course, but I get the thinking.
A lot of people on the gun rights side don’t, though. They’re upset with the NRA–the group that supposedly is responsible for all the ills of the gun control crowd–for not being sufficiently immovable.
Honestly, the NRA is catching it from both sides.
See, the NRA doesn’t set the tone. For all the ink spilled about how the NRA was taken over to become what it is today, people need to remember that membership demanded that takeover. If not, it would have evaporated overnight. The NRA doesn’t set the tone for gun owners, it’s reflective of it. Any current membership ills is because the NRA has either failed to communicate it well enough to the membership or the membership has failed to accept the explanations.
Yet if the NRA’s membership is really more anti-gun, as some have alleged, then why are these other more “radical” groups doing so well?
Gun rights supporters aren’t interested in red flag laws and assault weapon bans. We want our rights. All of them. That includes the ones previously taken away.
If the New York attorney general is successful in destroying the NRA, they’re not suddenly going to find no opposition to gun control. The NRA may be the 800-pound gorilla in the gun debate, but it’s also not the only gorilla.
We, the gun rights supporters, are the ones who have set the tone. The NRA and all the other groups are just trying to meet the demand.