The NRA vs. America

How the country’s biggest gun-rights group thwarts regulation and helps put military-grade weapons in the hands of killers

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Fredrik Brodén
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Eleven days after the massacre, Wayne LaPierre – a lifelong political operative who had steadied the National Rifle Association through many crises – stood before an American flag and soberly addressed the nation about firearms and student safety: "We believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools. That means no guns in America's schools, period," LaPierre said, carving out a "rare exception" for professional law enforcement. LaPierre even proposed making the mere mention of the word "guns" in schools a crime: "Such behavior in our schools should be prosecuted just as certainly as such behavior in our airports is prosecuted," LaPierre said.

This speech wasn't delivered in an alternate universe. The date was May 1st, 1999, at the NRA's national convention in Denver. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's rampage at Columbine High School in nearby Littleton, Colorado, had just killed 13 students and teachers, shocking the conscience of the nation.

Wayne vs. Wayne: When the NRA Chief Endorsed Gun Control in Schools

The disconnect between the NRA chief's conciliatory address on that day 14 years ago and his combative press conference in the aftermath of the slaughter of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut, could hardly be more jarring. In his now-infamous December 21st tirade, LaPierre ripped the gun-free zones he once championed as an invitation to the "monsters and predators of this world," advertising to "every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk."

LaPierre then offered what he called a "proven" solution to school gun violence – one that would open a lucrative new market for the gun industry while tidily expanding the power of the NRA itself. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," LaPierre insisted, before proposing that armed, NRA-trained vigilantes should patrol each of the nation's nearly 100,000 public schools.

The shift in LaPierre's rhetoric underscores a radical transformation within the NRA. Billing itself as the nation's "oldest civil rights organization," the NRA still claims to represent the interests of marksmen, hunters and responsible gun owners. But over the past decade and a half, the NRA has morphed into a front group for the firearms industry, whose profits are increasingly dependent on the sale of military-bred weapons like the assault rifles used in the massacres at Newtown and Aurora, Colorado. "When I was at the NRA, we said very specifically, 'We do not represent the fi rearm industry,'" says Richard Feldman, a longtime gun lobbyist who left the NRA in 1991. "We represent gun owners. End of story." But in the association's more recent history, he says, "They have really gone after the gun industry."

Today's NRA stands astride some of the ugliest currents of our politics, combining the "astroturf" activism of the Tea Party, the unlimited and undisclosed "dark money" of groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, and the sham legislating conducted on behalf of the industry through groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council. "This is not your father's NRA," says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a top gun-industry watchdog. Feldman is more succinct, calling his former employer a "cynical, mercenary political cult."

The NRA's alignment with an $11.7 billion industry has fed tens of millions of dollars into the association's coffers, helping it string together victories that would have seemed fantastic just 15 years ago. The NRA has hogtied federal regulators, censored government data about gun crime and blocked renewal of the ban on assault weaponry and high-capacity magazines, which expired in 2004. The NRA secured its "number-one legislative priority" in 2005, a law blocking liability lawsuits that once threatened to bankrupt gunmakers and expose the industry's darkest business practices. Across the country, the NRA has opened new markets for firearms dealers by pushing for state laws granting citizens the right to carry hidden weapons in public and to allow those who kill in the name of self-defense to get off scot-free.

Gabby Giffords Speaks on Gun Control: 'The Time Is Now'

The NRA's unbending opposition to better gun-control measures does not actually reflect the views of the nation's gun owners or, for that matter, its claimed 4 million members. A May 2012 poll conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz revealed surprising moderation on behalf of NRA members: Three out of four believed that background checks should be completed before every gun purchase. Nearly two-thirds supported a requirement that gun owners alert police when their firearms are lost or stolen. "Their members are much more rational than the management of the NRA," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, tells Rolling Stone. "They're out of touch."

That's by design. Today's NRA is a completely top-down organization. It has been led since 1991 by LaPierre, its chief executive, who serves at the pleasure of a 76-member board that is all but self-perpetuating. Only one-third of the board's membership is up for re-election in any given year. Voting is limited to the NRA's honored "lifetime" members and to dues-payers with at least five consecutive years of being in good standing. Write-in candidates occasionally pepper the ballot, but in practice, the tiny slice of eligible members who bother to vote rubber-stamp a slate of candidates dictated by the NRA's 10-member nominating committee – one of whose members is George Kollitides II, CEO of Freedom Group, which manufactures the Bushmaster semiautomatic that Adam Lanza used to slaughter children in Newtown.

The NRA's board is stocked with industry brass. Pete Brownell, president of Brownells – an Internet arms superstore that features "ultrahigh-capacity magazines" – campaigned for his seat touting the importance for the NRA to have "directors who intimately understand and work in leadership positions within the firearms industry." Another board seat belongs to Ronnie Barrett, CEO of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, whose company produces .50-caliber sniper rifles capable of piercing armor from nearly a mile away. Barrett's firm also sells scope-mounted ballistics computers that enable clueless civilians to hit targets like they were special-forces snipers. The ammunitions side of the industry finds a voice in board member Stephen Hornady, whose company peddles armor-piercing bullets and trades on the slogan "Accurate. Deadly. Dependable."

These NRA directors are representative of a firearms sector that knows lethality sells. "The industry has changed," says Tom Diaz, former Democratic counsel to the House subcommittee on crime, a longtime gun-violence policy analyst and author of a forthcoming book on the industry, The Last Gun. "In terms of what sells and what is marketed most successfully, we're now talking about guns that are derived directly from military design."

Of the top 15 gun manufacturers, 11 now manufacture assault weapons, many of them variants of the AR-15 – derived from a military rifle designed to kill enemy soldiers at close-to-medium range with little marksmanship. The industry loves these "modern sporting rifles" because they can be tricked out with expensive scopes, loaders, lights and lasers. "Most of the money is in accessories," says Feldman.

As one gun rep recently boasted to an industry publication: "The AR platform is like Legos for grown men." And a 2012 report from Bushmaster's parent company boasted that the industry's embrace of these guns has led to "increased long-term growth in the long-gun market while attracting a younger generation of shooters." The campaign certainly seems to be working. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster. Twenty-five-year-old James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, was in many ways the dream customer of the surging industry. He bought an AR-15 .233-caliberSmith & Wesson assault rifle – a category the company's CEO bragged was "extremely hot" – tricked it out with a 100-round ultrahigh-capacity magazine and then purchased thousands of rounds from BulkAmmo.com, spending nearly $15,000 on his greater arsenal.

The changes in the industry are underscored by dispatches from industry websites and publications, like this one from Shooting Wire, in which the NRA is an advertiser: "The net of all the numbers is that if you're a company with a strong line of high-capacity pistols and AR-style rifles, you're doing land-office business. If you're heavily dependent on hunting, you are hurting."

Conservatives Have their Worst Week Ever

The NRA insists in its publications that it is "not a trade organization" and that it is "not affiliated with any firearm or ammunition manufacturers or with any businesses that deal in guns and ammunition." That is a lie. NRA's corporate patrons include 22 firearms manufacturers, 12 of which are makers of assault weapons with household names like Beretta and Ruger, according to a 2011 analysis by the Violence Policy Center. The report, drawn from the NRA's own disclosures, also identified gifts from dozens of firms that profit from high-capacity magazines, including Browning and Remington. Donors from the industry and other dark reaches of the corporate world – including Xe, the new name of the mercenary group Blackwater – had funneled up to $52 million to the NRA in recent years.

More disturbing, the NRA receives funds directly from the sales of arms and ammunition. The "Round-Up" program, launched by arms retailer Midway USA, encourages customers to increase their purchases to the nearest dollar and sends the extra coin to the association. Midway customers alone have contributed nearly $8 million in this way to support NRA's lobbying division, the Institute for Legislative Action.

In 2011, Ruger set out to be the first gun company to "build and ship a million guns in one year." So it ginned up a promotion that would give a dollar to the NRA for every weapon sold between the 2011 and 2012 NRA annual meetings. The company broke its own sales goal, sending $1,254,000 to the NRA-ILA. Glock – whose pistols have been used in at least six mass murders since 1991, including the Virginia Tech and Gabby Giffords shootings – has been shipping an offer for discounted NRA memberships with its handguns. In 2007, the NRA thanked Glock for helping it recruit 10,000 new members.

Top corporate patrons are treated like royalty. Those whose giving to the NRA reaches $1 million or more are inaugurated into an elite NRA society called the "Golden Ring of Freedom" in a ceremony where they're presented with a silk-lined golden blazer with a hand-embroidered crest. Industry honchos seen in "the million-dollar jacket" include the heads of Ruger, Beretta, Midway and Cabela's, an outfitter that sells 12 models of semiautomatic rifles.

Much like elite funders of a major political party, these Golden Ringers enjoy top access to decision-makers at the NRA. Their interests, not the interest of the $35-a-year member, rule the roost. "They've got this base of true believers that they mail their magazines out to," says policy analyst Diaz. "But the NRA is really about serving this elite."

In more than three decades of service to the NRA, Wayne LaPierre has done more than any other man alive to make America safe for crazed gunmen to build warlike arsenals and unleash terror on innocents at movie theaters and elementary schools. In the 1980s, he helped craft legislation to roll back gun control passed in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations. And since the late 1990s, twice he has destroyed political deals that might have made it hugely difficult for accused killers like Holmes and Lanza to get their hands on their weapons.

A predecessor once characterized the NRA as being "one of the world's great religions," and 64-year-old LaPierre is a strange fit to be its pope. LaPierre did not come from gun culture. He wasn't a hunter, a marksman, a military man or a Second Amendment activist. "He's not a true believer," says NRA biographer Osha Gray Davidson. "He's the first NRA chief you can say that about."

According to NRA legend, LaPierre is actually a menace with a gun. NRA's PR team once thought it would be sexy to film LaPierre at a firing range. "It was a nightmare," an NRA staffer told Davidson. LaPierre was aiming downrange for the camera when an engineer called for a sound check. To answer the man, LaPierre swung around, but he failed to lower his rifle, aiming it directly at the engineer – before someone took the gun away from LaPierre. The incident, terrifying at the time, became a dark joke at NRA headquarters. Staffers behind on their projects were threatened that they'd have to "go hunting with Wayne." (The NRA's press office did not reply to Rolling Stone inquiries.)

Between 1978, when LaPierre was hired as a lobbyist, and 1991, when he took over as CEO, the NRA had been on a historic roll. In those early days, LaPierre served at the knee of a revolutionary NRA executive named Harlon Carter, who transformed an old-time shooters club into a political powerhouse – an "NRA so strong," Carter boasted, "that no politician in America mindful of his political career would want to challenge [our] goals." The NRA started grading politicians on guns – a process Bob Dole kvetched was "a litmus test every five minutes" – rewarding allies with campaign cash and subjecting foes to the backlash of millions of rabid, single-issue gun-owning voters. In 1980, the NRA made its first-ever presidential endorsement with Ronald Reagan, and by 1986 had the Gipper's signature on legislation, overseen by LaPierre, that would usher in a new era of unregulated gun shows.

By the late 1990s, however, the once mighty NRA was reeling on LaPierre's watch: It had suffered stinging legislative defeats – the passage of the Brady Bill in 1993 and the Assault Weapons Ban a year later. Despite being credited by President Clinton for the GOP takeover in the House in 1994, the association was riven by factionalism and money troubles that had many writing the association's obituary.

Instead, LaPierre orchestrated a stunning turnaround, rebuilding the NRA's power, this time as the voice of the industry. In so doing, he destroyed a historic gun-control effort.

Cities around the country, emboldened by the success of the legal action that had humbled Big Tobacco, had begun suing gun manufacturers, claiming that the industry was liable for the social costs of gun violence. These suits argued that firearms manufacturers had negligently marketed guns to criminals and profited from illicit gun sales by turning a blind eye to their distribution networks. The Clinton White House, in an initiative driven by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, announced its own class-action, suit over gun violence in the nation's housing projects.

"The liability fight was an existential threat to the firearms industry," says Feldman. "They thought that if those lawsuits continued, let alone were successful, it would drain the industry." In the industry's moment of peril, LaPierre saw an opportunity to expand the NRA's power: The NRA would get out in front of gunmakers and, through its membership, lead their fight. Charlton Heston, then NRA's president, brought a stark message to the industry's biggest trade show in 1999: "For a century, we have thrived independently," Heston said. "But now your fight has become our fight." Under LaPierre, the NRA went to work at the state level, securing bills that would ban localities from suing gun manufacturers. It also began to draw up a national campaign to get Congress to immunize gun manufacturers from liability for their deadly products.

Smith & Wesson, at the time America's biggest handgun manufacturer, was hesitant to bank on the NRA's legislative moonshot, deciding that the best way to limit the damage would be to negotiate a settlement with Cuomo. "We have to save the business," said CEO Ed Schultz." So we're talking, instead of hiding our head in the sand like the National Rifle Association."

In exchange for immunity from product liability lawsuits, Smith & Wesson agreed to make safer guns and to clean up distribution networks. The measures included changes to the guns themselves, such as internal locks, triggers that couldn't be operated by kids and making new guns incompatible with old, high-capacity magazines whose manufacture was now illegal thanks to the Assault Weapons Ban. Smith & Wesson also promised to ship only to dealers who ran background checks at every sale, including at gun shows, and who refused to sell grandfathered assault rifles. With Smith & Wesson on board, Cuomo was confident that other manufacturers would fall in line.

But LaPierre would tolerate no defections. Determined to kill off any comprehensive gun-control agreement, he decided to hurt Smith & Wesson like the NRA had punished so many wayward politicians, by riling up the membership and organizing a consumer boycott that left the company reeling. Cuomo's negotiations with the industry soon collapsed.

So too did the effort to pass new gun restrictions in the aftermath of Columbine, underscoring the NRA's resurgent power. Three guns used in the Columbine massacre had been picked up at a gun show, where, thanks to a loophole in the Brady Bill, the purchases weren't subject to background checks. The Senate quickly passed an amendment to close the gun-show loophole, with Al Gore casting the decisive vote. But the NRA made its stand in the House. A month later, when the amendment came up for a vote, it got stomped, 193 to 235. Democrats, mindful of the punishment of 1994, contributed 49 nay votes.

The dual defeats left Cuomo disillusioned. He gave a speech in June 2000 that was stunningly bleak. "If we engage the enemy in this town, we will lose," he said. "They will beat us in this town. They are too strong in this town. Their fortress is within the Beltway."

LaPierre had helped gunmakers dodge two bullets as the Clinton years drew to a close. But to lock in these gains, the NRA needed an ally in the White House.

The NRA backed Bush to the hilt in the 2000 race. According to one tally, one in three dollars spent by outside groups to support the Bush ticket was spent by the NRA, and in the end Bush beat Gore among gun owners by 25 points. "The gun issue cost Al Gore the White House," says Feldman. "Forget the couple of hundred chads in Palm Beach. Absent the gun issue, he would have won Tennessee, Arkansas and West Virginia."

The Bush administration rewarded the NRA as few could have imagined. Bush appointed NRA favorite John Ashcroft as attorney general, who, in May 2001, announced that for the first time in the nation's history the Justice Department had adopted the view, long championed by the NRA, that the Second Amendment confers an individual, not a collective, right to bear arms.

In the aftermath of 9/11, when other constitutional protections were being trampled, nothing would shake this conviction, not even the fact that a jihadist training manual found in Afghanistan instructed Al Qaeda operatives living in the United States on how to, legally and without arousing suspicion, "obtain an assault weapon, preferably an AK-47 or a variation." The Bush administration continued to press the NRA's expansive vision of the Second Amendment until it was even adopted by the Supreme Court in 2008.

It wasn't only restrictions on the sale of military-grade weaponry that the NRA fought. It also fought to keep Americans in the dark about the relative dangers of such guns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms compiles detailed records about what firearms are used in what types of crime, and even published a list of the top 10 crime guns. To block the release of that data, Todd Tiahrt, a GOP congressman from Kansas and an NRA ally, tacked a rider onto a 2003 appropriations bill that forbids ATF from spending any money to share the data it collects with the public – or even with Congress. "If you wanted to know how many Bushmasters have been used in what kinds of crime for the last five years, that information is in ATF's files," says Diaz. "But it can't be released because of the Tiahrt Amendment."

With Bush in the White House and the public now blindered to the perils of semiautomatic weapons, the Assault Weapons Ban was on a glide path to expire in 2004. And the NRA, hellbent to free the gunmakers and dealers from any responsibility resulting from the use of these dangerous weapons, continued to press ahead in its fiercest fight: a federal bill immunizing the industry from liability.

In 2004, the NRA had gathered its forces in the Senate and pushed them to bring a liability bill to the floor. A gun-control group, Americans for Gun Safety, made the decision that it was willing to stop fighting the bill, whose passage seemed all but certain, if it could somehow force the NRA to accept renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban and the closure of the gun-show loophole in the bargain.

The compromise bill had a clear path to victory. The gun-control activists believed they'd backed the NRA into a corner. Their thinking, says Jim Kessler, who directed policy for AFGS, was that the NRA would say, "OK, we gotta take this because who knows what will happen in 2005. John Kerry could be president."

Then something extraordinary happened: The NRA blew up the deal, letting senators know that any votes for the bill would be recorded as votes against the NRA. "You could see them on the Senate floor looking at their BlackBerrys and changing their votes," says Kessler. The bill died by a vote of 8 to 90.

This was becoming a pattern. Just as he'd done by upending the White House settlement talks with the industry in the late 1990s, LaPierre had once again cut the bottom out of a hard-fought political compromise to impose meaningful gun restrictions. "There is not a middle ground with the NRA," says Diaz. Indeed, LaPierre had laid this strategy in a 2002 speech to his membership: "We must declare that there are no shades of gray," he said. "You're with us or against us."

Bush rolled to re-election, and the NRA continued to roll up victories. The Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004, reopening the market for the high-capacity magazines favored by mass murderers. And in 2005, the NRA finally secured clean passage of a law immunizing manufacturers, importers, distributors and dealers from any civil liability. After President Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that October, LaPierre called it "the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in 20 years." Who did it benefit? LaPierre made no pretenses: "History will show that this law helped save the American firearms industry."

The NRA, severely weakened just years earlier, seemed once again an invincible force in Washington. And Democrats, tired of losing elections on the issue, made gun control the new third rail of Washington politics. In the 2006 election cycle, two longtime foes of the NRA, Rahm Emanuel and Charles Schumer, were responsible for recruiting and funding attractive Democratic candidates. And they decided to drop guns as an issue altogether. "People didn't care about what your position was on guns," says a top Democrat. The party would support you either way.

They recruited pro-gun candidates who won the kind of races Democrats usually get trounced in. Among the ranks of the 2006 class of gun-friendly Blue Dogs was one Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. The gun lobby welcomed its new amigos with open arms. "I always bent over backwards to help Democrats," says Feldman, the former lobbyist. "A Democrat who was supportive of my issue was worth 10 Republicans."

Though Barack Obama had campaigned on modest gun-control proposals, he ducked any fights over the issue. "His view was never that we shouldn't move on these things," political strategist David Axelrod says. "His view was that such moves would be largely symbolic because of the power of the gun lobby to stop them."

Bloomberg doesn't buy that excuse. "The first two years of the Obama administration, the Democrats had the White House, the Senate and Congress," says Bloomberg. "And they did nothing." In early 2009, after Attorney General Eric Holder casually mentioned that renewing the Assault Weapons Ban was a priority, Rahm Emanuel, then the president's chief of staff, sent a characteristically profane message to Holder on the gun issue: "Shut the fuck up."

In fact, Obama moved to expand gun rights as though Bush were still in office. He signed laws to allow guns in checked baggage on Amtrak trains and to allow conceal-carry permit holders to pack heat in national parks. In 2009, the Brady Campaign gave Obama a report card with seven F's.

While Jared Loughner's assassination attempt on Giffords was met with a national presidential address and tearful pieties, the aftermath stopped short of meaningful legislative or executive action. "In response to a horrific series of shootings that has sown terror in our communities, victimized tens of thousands of Americans and left one of its own bleeding and near death in a Tucson parking lot, Congress has done something quite extraordinary," Giffords wrote in January. "Nothing at all."

Like every other element of today's modern conservative machinery, the NRA works in the background to expand corporate power – while pretending in public to advance the interests of the little guy. The NRA continues to put forward its members as the face of the organization. But dues from members bring in less than half of the association's yearly expenses, which include spending heavily on a sophisticated telemarketing campaign to sustain its membership.

To stay afloat, the NRA relies on tens of millions in grants and gifts – increasingly linked to the gun industry. Such funds totaled $71 million in 2010 and have been growing twice as fast as membership dues have. And the NRA, looking to bring in even bigger bucks, is now fishing for donors with Koch-size wallets. On its website, the NRA lists a donor tier for those who give $25 million or above, which it calls the "Charlton Heston Society."

The Citizens United decision has fundamentally transformed the way the NRA operates politically. The NRA can now tap into unlimited donations from individuals and corporations to engage in direct political advocacy – running TV advertising calling for the defeat of individual candidates. The NRA gets to play like a Super PAC. But unlike groups that sprang up to support Mitt Romney (Restore Our Future) or Barack Obama (Priorities USA), the NRA does not have to disclose the names or contributions of its donors.

That's because the rifle association is incorporated under the same provision of the tax code that shelters Karl Rove's "dark money" operation, Crossroads GPS. "The NRA is a 501(c)(4) organization," it advertises to potential donors, "which enables it to be involved in political processes including lobbying and political campaign activities." Such groups must be primarily engaged in "social welfare" activities. While that's a source of legal concern for groups like Rove's, the NRA has so many tentacles – from shooting clubs to youth education programs to magazines – that it's perfectly positioned to benefit from the dark-money boom.

The NRA's traditional, regulated PAC is as strong as ever. It spent $16.6 million in national political races in 2012. But it was joined by a newly empowered NRAILA, which kicked in an additional $7.4 million from undisclosed sources, making the NRA the eighth-largest dark-money group in the country. In a startling collusion among right-wing powerhouses, NRA-ILA's efforts were actually funded by a $600,000 grant from Rove's GPS group.

President Obama's Missing Executive Order on Gun Control

The NRA is not simply working for the industry on the national stage. In 1987, only 10 states had "right-to-carry" laws permitting citizens to pack heat. By 2010, the NRA celebrated its efforts in converting the 40th state. A former NRA lobbyist once crowed to The Wall Street Journal: "The gun industry should send me a basket of fruit – our efforts have created a new market."

Yet for many gun owners, carrying a gun in public has been a source of anxiety. It's one thing to keep a weapon in the nightstand to guard against intruders. It's quite another to take a gun out in public. That's where the notorious "stand your ground" law comes in. The brainchild of former NRA president Marion Hammer, stand-your-ground makes it legal for a person who is attacked in public to use lethal force as a first resort. The first such measure was passed in 2005 in Florida – championed by an ambitious state legislator named Marco Rubio and signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

At the time, LaPierre said Florida was just the beginning – the "first step of a multistate strategy." To keep its efforts below the radar, the National Rifle Association partnered with the American Legislative Exchange Council to steer similar laws through other state legislatures. Since 2005, the NRA, through ALEC, has taken stand-your-ground nationwide, helping to pass laws in 24 other states. At least 10 of those laws are all but identical to the language of the Florida legislation.

Conceal-carry and stand-your-ground laws do nothing to suppress crime, but they do boost gun sales. "This now expands the scope of where people are going to be carrying guns," says Diaz. "And you're more or less insulated from liability if you feel like you have to kill somebody." In Florida, Trayvon Martin's home state, "justifiable homicides" tripled between 2005 and 2011. A new study out of Texas A&M found that by "lowering the expected costs associated with using lethal force," these stand-your-ground laws "induce more of it" – driving an eight percent increase in murders and manslaughters.

These numbers are profoundly disturbing to most Americans. But to LaPierre and his allies in the gun industry they add up to something else: opportunity. "We live in the most dangerous of times," LaPierre warned the gathered activists at the NRA's 2012 convention in St. Louis. America has been infiltrated by terrorists and Mexican drug criminals, he said, who "are lurking and plotting to murder us." LaPierre railed against "the Obama crowd" for "conspiring with the world's dirty-handed, thug governments" and telling "lies" about the "coming realities" – catastrophic events that he insisted could "freeze our transportation systems, black out our cities, shut down our distribution of fuel and food" and bring an "unprecedented breakdown of social order." LaPierre told his flock, "Americans are facing the reality that they're on their own."

But like any good preacher, LaPierre did not simply paint a lurid portrait of hell – he also laid out a path to salvation: "We are the millions of Americans who have found faith in the Second Amendment," he said. "People are anticipating dangerous times and are responding in the only sensible, logical way possible – they're buying guns!"

With a twinkle in his eye, LaPierre added that "America's women are leading the way! . . . The more women who buy and own and shoot guns, the safer and better off we'll all be!"

Twenty tiny coffins have again put the NRA on the defensive. In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, which Adam Lanza perpetrated with his mom's arsenal, public support of new gun-control laws is overwhelming. Today, 92 percent of the country support background checks for gun buyers, and 63 percent support limiting the capacity of gun magazines. "If there's a conflict for some members of Congress between their politics and their conscience, they should ponder that 92 percent number," says Axelrod.

There's also new leadership in the gun-control movement. Bloomberg tells Rolling Stone that his mayors' group will be bringing local pressure on national elected officials and orchestrating coordinated visits by the nation's mayors to congressional and Senate offices, with delegations of voting constituents in tow.

"These people want to get re-elected," says Bloomberg of Congress. "If they think the public wants gun control, they'll do it. If they think the NRA is more powerful than the public, they'll follow the NRA. We've got to convince them that the NRA is not that powerful."

To beat the NRA in Washington, however, the gun-control crowd is going to need more than constituent visits. It's going to need money. In the 2012 election cycle, the NRA spent more than $24 million in both regulated and dark money. Compare that to just $3,000 in campaign spending by the Brady Campaign. And such yawning disparities don't begin to account for the NRA's advantage in organizing activists at the level of every congressional district in the country. "If you think about politics as a tug of war," says Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, "when all the strength is on one side, it's not surprising where the rope ends up."

Republicans who control the House have already declared that gun control is off the table. Even newly elected Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of gun-loving North Dakota has called the president's push for new gun laws "wrongheaded."

Andrew Cuomo's bleak declaration – "If we engage the enemy in Washington, we will lose" – may hold as true today as it did in 2000. But Cuomo himself is demonstrating that there's another path to victory that doesn't rely on a cowed Congress. In January, Cuomo, now governor of New York, passed the nation's strongest gun-control law, limiting magazine clips to seven rounds, strengthening the state's ban on assault rifles and requiring mental-health professionals to notify police about patients who threaten violence – before they go postal.

Cuomo is fulfilling the prediction he made as a 42-year-old HUD director: "We're going to beat them state by state, community by community, because we have the ultimate weapon with us, the American people."

The NRA wins because Americans lose focus. Because our outrage fades after each new heartbreak. Because by November 2014, most of us won't be thinking about the victims of Newtown. Most of us won't be thinking about guns at all – while millions of activists, riled by Wayne LaPierre and the NRA, will be thinking of nothing else. If this time is going to be different, Americans have to act different, give different, vote different. In his speech laying out his gun-safety agenda in January, President Obama was absolutely right: "This will not happen unless the American people demand it."

This story is from the February 14th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1176: February 14, 2013
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