NRA’s usual fans seeing differently

NRA’s usual fans seeing differently
Copyright 2019 CNN
The NRA's recent troubles may impact its effectiveness as a lobbying group during the election next year.

The pressure is on the National Rifle Association from typically friendly corners — President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress — after last week’s deadly mass shootings in Ohio and Texas.

At the White House Friday, the President reiterated his interest in pursuing “meaningful background checks” for firearm purchases, an idea the NRA opposes. Trump, who spoke with NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre multiple times on the phone earlier this week, told reporters he expects the nation’s biggest pro-gun lobby group to come around.

Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill say the NRA’s voice has been noticeably absent. “Arrogantly quiet,” was how one GOP Senate aide described the NRA’s response in the days following the El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, attacks, noting the group had made just a few calls in opposition to background checks on the Hill and thought that was sufficient.

For years the NRA has relied on a familiar approach to respond to mass shootings, according to two sources familiar with the process. A small team of the group’s core figures and top executives at its trusted advertising agency, Ackerman McQueen, would craft a crisis communications plan to decide who at the NRA would respond, what they would say and when and where they would say it. The group’s political arm, meanwhile, worked to reassure and pressure allies in Congress to hold fast against strong forces for gun reform.

But now, the NRA’s tight-knit circle is broken. Its top lobbyist, Christopher Cox, has departed. Oliver North, its well-known president and public face, has been pushed out. The NRA’s chief ad man, Angus McQueen, died last month. LaPierre, the NRA’s combative CEO, has just emerged from an attempted coup and finds himself mired in legal battles with Ackerman.

This leaves LaPierre and the NRA in uncharted territory. El Paso and Dayton present them with a crucial test, and many observers — in Congress, among the NRA’s membership and from within the pro-Second Amendment community — are waiting to see how the most influential gun-rights lobby handles this moment.

“This is the first mass shooting that the NRA is kind of on their own,” one former employee with the group’s streaming service NRATV told CNN. “The people that Wayne would reach out to to craft their message are gone.”

Even NRA critics from the left notice a difference.

“They’re horribly distracted,” said Kris Brown, the president of Brady United, a gun violence prevention advocacy group. “They have a really hard time focusing on what they’re supposed to be focused on.”

A messy breakup

What’s missing most immediately in the NRA’s arsenal is the close relationship between LaPierre and Angus McQueen, the former CEO of the Oklahoma City-based advertising firm Ackerman McQueen that counted the NRA among its biggest and most important clients for 38 years. McQueen, who died last month at age 74 after suffering from lung cancer, was personally involved in crafting the NRA’s media and communications response to mass shootings.

But that relationship was damaged earlier this year after the NRA brought two lawsuits against the firm, claiming Ackerman failed to live up to its contractual obligations. The agency responded with its own lawsuit against the NRA. In May, Ackerman dropped the NRA as a client.

Frequently joining LaPierre and Ackerman in these strategy sessions was Ackerman’s executive vice president Bill Powers, who was responsible for writing speeches and talking points for LaPierre and others at the NRA, according to two sources familiar with the process. Powers declined to comment to CNN, citing the ongoing legal fights between Ackerman and the NRA.

The strategy developed by Ackerman and deployed for decades hewed to standard pattern. The organization would remain mostly silent in the immediate days after a mass shooting, issuing perfunctory statements expressing sympathy for gun-violence victims and denouncing “politicization” of mass shootings. LaPierre and the NRA did not issue a response to the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017 for four days after the incident. And it took a full week for LaPierre to issue a public comment in December 2012 after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

If the call for more restrictions on guns became louder, national spokesmen or even LaPierre himself would make a speech or public appearance to stand up forcefully on behalf of the Second Amendment and cast calls for new laws as exploitative. LaPierre, for example, gave his first public response more than a week after the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, criticizing “the opportunists” and the “breakback speed of calls for more gun-control laws and the breathless national media eager to smear the NRA.”

So far, the NRA seems to have approached its response to El Paso and Dayton with its familiar playbook. Beyond an initial statement on August 4 expressing sympathy with the victims and pledging not to “participate in the politicizing of these tragedies,” the NRA and its leadership has been relatively quiet. On Thursday, the group tweeted a long statement calling for enforcement of existing laws, the protection of due process, and calling for “real solutions” to gun violence. In a separate statement released by the NRA on Thursday, LaPierre confirmed he had spoken with Trump.

“I’m not inclined to discuss private conversations with President Trump or other key leaders on this issue. But I can confirm that the NRA opposes any legislation that unfairly infringes upon the rights of law-abiding citizens,” he said.

It’s unclear if LaPierre or any other figure from the NRA is preparing to make a speech or conduct a press conference about the recent shootings.

A spokesman for the NRA did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Another consequence of the severed ties between the NRA and Ackerman is the shuttering of NRATV.

The 24-hour live streaming programming service featured news and commentary from a pro-gun perspective and was produced by Ackerman until June. Now without NRATV’s live programming, the organization has been dark on one of its primary messaging platforms.

And with the end of NRATV, many of the most visible faces of the NRA are gone as well, including national spokeswoman Dana Loesch. Like most of the streaming channel’s personalities, Loesch was paid by Ackerman, not the NRA.

Impact of Cox’s departure

The departure of Cox, the NRA’s longtime lobbyist, has also raised concerns from gun-rights supporters about how effective the organization can be in the current moment. Cox built decades of relationships on Capitol Hill, especially among Republicans in Congress. Following past mass shootings, GOP lawmakers have looked to Cox to steel their nerves and defend against efforts to pass more gun restrictions.

Multiple sources say Cox is also close with the Trump White House and with Donald Trump Jr., an avid hunter, in particular. Cox’s departure earlier this year means that backdoor into the President’s circle of influence may be closed, at least temporarily.

Cox declined to speak to CNN for this story, but his absence is already being felt this week on Capitol Hill, with multiple GOP aides telling CNN that the NRA has seemed less engaged with lawmakers.

Aides say that Cox’s absence may be in part why the NRA has seemed removed from the discussion, even as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledges to revisit gun reforms when the Senate returns in September.

“Is that unusual? Maybe it is a little bit unusual,” one GOP Senate aide told CNN. “The NRA is kind of hit or miss. Now that Chris Cox is gone, it is probably a little different. My sense is they may be more focused on the White House right now.”

Aides on the Hill say one reason for the lack of outreach from the NRA to the rank-and-file in Congress could simply be that the organization is focused at the moment on changing Trump’s mind. The other reason, of course, is that members aren’t even in Washington during the ongoing August recess.

Nevertheless, Republican Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham is taking Trump’s lead and moving forward on a bill to fund existing laws at the state level that would allow some confiscation of guns from people identified by local law enforcement as dangerous. The NRA has not closed the door on supporting these emergency risk protection orders, known as “red flag” laws. But it’s unclear how active a role a diminished NRA will play in any debate over red flags.

Congressional aides stress it’s important to remember that even without aggressive outreach, Republican members still have to hear from their conservative constituents for whom the gun issues are well understood and ingrained. Just because the NRA is not descending aggressively on the Hill during recess (when members are scattered out across the country anyway) doesn’t mean that members are going to suddenly reverse long-held positions.

Strength through numbers

The NRA’s influence never came from its fundraising or its lobbyists in Washington alone. The group claims to have around 5 million members, and the perception that gun owners have strength through numbers is powerful. Overall, there are an estimated 393 million guns in the United States, according to the 2017 Small Arms Survey.

A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found 57% of American adults live in households without a gun while 42% either own a firearm or live with someone who does.

“Does the NRA still have power? Hell yes they do, but their power comes from their membership,” says one Republican aide on Capitol Hill.

But some pro-gun activists who are frustrated with the NRA’s leadership echo Republicans on the Hill who say that so far, the NRA is missing at a crucial moment for gun rights.

“The National Rifle Association seems to be impotent right now and not able to play a role that they should be able to play at a time like this,” said Mark Walters, a nationally syndicated radio host. “As longtime members of the gun rights activist movement, it’s hard for us to understand.”