The National Rifle Association's Culture Shock

Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

Following intense legislative fights over gun safety legislation in 2013, the fight over gun policy exploded into the cultural world in 2014. And in that sphere, the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby are losing.

The NRA is losing because it's forced to defend -- lest it offend its most hardcore activists -- gun extremists who openly carry assault weapons into shops and restaurants as a form of political protest. The gun industry, and the NRA by proxy, is losing as mainstream America begins to recognize the gun industry's trade group is less focused on hunting and sporting and more devoted to backing the NRA's extreme no-compromise agenda. The NRA is losing because commentary offered by two new projects that hope to reach out to minorities, women, and young people is so bizarre that it limits rather than expands the gun group's brand. And the NRA is losing because its most recognizable celebrity backer, board member Ted Nugent, has become a political liability, even for conservative Republicans.

Moms Demand Action Scores String Of Victories Against NRA-Backed Open Carry Advocates

Gun safety group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America won several victories while advocates for the open carrying of firearms further damaged their brand in 2014, as a series of retailers and restaurants made it clear that guns were not welcome in their stores.

2014 saw the explosion of a tactic by open carry advocates to bring firearms into retail stores in order to make a political statement. In many states, openly carrying firearms, including even assault weapons, is legal and does not require a permit.

The purported goal of open carry activists is to create a cultural shift where Americans will feel comfortable with the presence of handguns and assault weapons in public life. These advocates, however, have been poor ambassadors for their cause due to their use of intimidating tactics and their expression of extremist views about guns and the Second Amendment. (A high-profile member of Open Carry Texas is alleged to have shot to death her husband and stepdaughter this month, while the leader of another Texas open carry group has called for violent revolution and written that the two-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting that left 20 children and six educators dead was "a [sic] open carry kind of day.")

A successful 2013 campaign by Moms Demand Action that culminated in Starbucks asking patrons to leave their guns at home set the stage for victories in 2014.

Moms Demand Action tracked where open carry demonstrators staged events and mobilized their supporters to pressure those retailers to disallow the open carrying of firearms in their stores. The gun safety group also helped to promote shocking images of assault-weapon toting men posing in popular chain stores which frequently circulated in social media.

By the end of May, Moms Demand Action convinced Sonic, Chili's, and Chipotle to ask customers to leave their guns at home. These victories caused grumbling in the gun rights movement, with prominent gun blogger blogger Bob Owens calling Texas open carry activists "[t]he most effective gun control group in the United States."

The open carry movement also turned into a major headache for the National Rifle Association. On May 30, the NRA issued a lengthy statement on its lobbying website criticizing the open carrying of long guns in public as "downright weird" and arguing that the practice could scare the public and therefore was "counterproductive for the gun owning community." After a Mother Jones article brought the statement widespread attention, gun rights activists revolted against the NRA.

On June 3, the NRA entered damage control mode and apologized for the statement. During an appearance on the NRA's radio show Cam & Company, NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox called the statement "a mistake" that "shouldn't have happened." According to Cox, the official position of the NRA is that the gun group "unapologetically and unflinchingly supports the right of self-defense and what that means is that our members and our supporters have a right to carry a firearm in any place they have a legal right to be."

The NRA may have appeased some of its hardcore members with that statement, but in doing so the group was forced to adopt a position far outside of the American mainstream.

A month after the NRA dustup, Moms Demand Action scored a major victory. After delivering nearly 400,000 petition signatures to Target, the group announced an agreement by the big box retailer to ask its customers to not bring firearms into stores nationwide.

Moms Demand Action's advocacy on open carry continues in several areas, the most prominent of which is a campaign asking the Kroger grocery store chain to ask customers to leave their guns at home.

America's Mainstream Flees The Gun Industry's Trade Show

2014 saw an erosion of support for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which puts on an annual gun industry trade show, as a major NBC television division changed course in declining to sponsor the trade event and a television icon backed out of an agreement to participate in the 2015 event after learning of the NSSF's extremism on the gun issue.

Every January, gun retailers, manufacturers, and others with ties to the firearms business meet for the annual Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show. The show attracts tens of thousands of gun industry professionals who browse the wares of an estimated 1,600 exhibitors who display the latest firearm products including assault weapons and tactical shotguns. The SHOT show also attracts gun celebrities. At the 2014 event, National Rifle Association board member and Outdoor Channel spokesperson Ted Nugent called President Obama a "subhuman mongrel" and compared a Jewish film executive to a Nazi in interviews with the gun press.

Like the NRA, the NSSF, which operates out of Newtown, Connecticut, opposes popular gun safety measures, such as expanded background checks on gun sales.

In a statement to Media Matters, NBC Sports announced in October 2013 that it would not sponsor the 2014 SHOT Show "because it does not make business sense for us at this time." NBC Sports had been a longtime sponsor of the trade show, even sponsoring the 2013 show that occurred the month after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

NBC Sports' announcement that it would not participate in the 2014 show came days after the network canceled an NRA-sponsored hunting show after its host -- who had longstanding ties to the NRA -- compared critics of elephant hunting to Hitler. The network told Media Matters earlier this month that they also would not sponsor the 2015 SHOT Show.

The 2015 SHOT Show lost its top billed performer in November after Jay Leno backed out of his scheduled appearance after learning about the nature of NSSF.

Leno was asked to cancel his appearance by numerous gun safety groups including Newtown Action Alliance, the Campaign to Unload, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action. A joint statement from several of these groups argued that Leno's appearance at an NSSF event would be "helping to legitimize a crass commercialism which values profit over human lives." The statement noted that NSSF has "lobbied against even the most modest" gun safety initiatives and "has done nothing to reach out to the families whose children were killed in the [Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting], despite the fact that the association is headquartered in Newtown."

Leno quickly canceled his appearance, telling Mother Jones, "I understand it's Newtown, and of course I get it. It's just sometimes, mistakes get made." A Leno spokesperson later explained that he "was asked to do what was positioned as a sportsman show, and when he found out it was a pro gun lobby show, he cancelled."

NRA's Attempt To Reach Women, Minorities, And Younger People Is Met With (Unintended) Laughter

Two efforts launched by the NRA in 2014 to expand its brand, NRA Freestyle and the NRA News commentator series, were met with largely negative press coverage, sometimes from conservative sources.

For the past several years, the NRA has made a concerted effort to have more women join the organization. While the NRA often claims anecdotal success, the fact remains that attendees of the NRA annual meeting are overwhelmingly male and women as a demographic lag far behind the average gun ownership rate.

In May, the NRA launched its online NRA Freestyle network featuring flagship show Noir, which is hosted by popular gun video blogger turned NRA News commentator Colion Noir. The show, which promised to report on "the latest on firearms, fashion, pop culture and other hot topics," was an obvious attempt to reach someone other than the NRA's aging male demographic.

Noir's premier episode -- which was essentially 16 minutes of product placement and lame pop culture and sports references awkwardly interspersed between features on high-powered, expensive-looking firearms -- was roundly mocked, even by libertarian outlet Reason. Prominent gun blogger Robert Farago wrote, "NRA PR called me today. They wanted to know why [The Truth About Guns] hadn't given Colion Noir's new show Noir any love. The simple answer: I didn't have any love to give."

Gawker's Adam Weinstein described the show as "hilariously bad poser garbage." Writing for Vocativ, Mike Spies summed up the show as "public-access television: Think Wayne's World, but with a focus on sleek weapons" and concluded that "NRA employs millenial-friendly tropes to attract younger members -- and fails miserably." Spies imagined the show being "produced by aliens who spent an hour studying American pop culture."

The show also had a problem in how it talked about women. In two spots that drew criticism, Noir provided voiceover work apparently describing all of the positive attributes of a woman displayed in the video. Only when the final shot came was it revealed that Noir wasn't actually talking about the woman shown on the screen, but rather a high-powered assault weapon (in one case manufactured by NRA Freestyle sponsor Daniel Defense).

Midway through season one, Noir went on hiatus, and when it returned the show was more about a sport Noir calls "athletic shooting" and less about pop culture.

The NRA also debuted a group of NRA News commentators that were more female, more ethnically diverse, and younger than the NRA's demographic. While the point was to offer edgy commentary on relevant gun issues, instead the short NRA News commentaries served up one harebrained idea after the other.

In the most widely mocked video, NRA News commentator Billy Johnson imagined a compulsory education system that would require children to become proficient with firearms, just like "reading and writing," even "if they didn't want to learn" in order to advance in school. Johnson, who calls himself "a thinker" also wondered, "What if instead of gun free-zones we had gun-required zones?"

Attempts to comment on current events also did not end well. In a September video, Colion Noir offered commentary on the release of video footage showing NFL running back Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious during a domestic altercation. As many Americans condemned Rice's despicable conduct, Noir made a bizarre leap of logic to claim that "all anti-gunners around the world" are "providing an example to young men that it's okay to beat women as long as you can throw a football of course." In keeping with his tendency to insert pop culture references into everything, Noir described Rice as "some knuckle-dragging hothead who 'Tiger Uppercuts' his fiancée into a momentary coma."

Johnson and other commentators also attempted to play snarky semantic games with issues relating to gun violence, but were repeatedly mocked for their efforts. Among Johnson's arguments:

  • A man who shot to death three people and wounded eight more with a gun during a May mass killing near Santa Barbara, California, shouldn't be referred to by media as a "shooter" or "gunman" because some victims were also stabbed. (Undermining their own point, the NRA originally released the video with the title "Santa Barbara Shooting," but later changed the title to "Santa Barbara Stabber." Johnson's argument wasn't new for the NRA; one of Johnson's fellow commentators previously had slammed the media "trick" of using the word "shooting" to describe mass shootings.)
  • Guns can't intimidate because they are "just bits of plastic and metal."
  • Americans who oppose the carrying of guns in public are "paranoid" because they are afraid of an "inanimate object." In the video, Johnson added, "if you are someone who legally carries a gun concealed, you are probably getting tired of being portrayed as paranoid. I know I am."

Johnson wasn't alone in pushing laughable NRA logic. NRA News commentator Natalie Foster argued that blaming Bushmaster, the manufacturer of the assault weapon used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, is "like blaming Kleenex for the flu." (Some families of Newtown victims disagree. They recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against major NRA donor Bushmaster.) Another NRA commentator video pushed the tried-and-true NRA tactic of using the Holocaust to fearmonger about gun regulation.

The NRA's Celebrity, Ted Nugent, Becomes More Toxic Than Ever

Although for years NRA board member Ted Nugent has been known for his racially charged rhetoric and misogynist commentary, the 70s rocker crossed a line in 2014 by calling President Obama a "subhuman mongrel" at a gun industry trade show.

Unfortunately for the NRA, he is probably the group's most recognizable celebrity backer and is the creator of the song "I Am The NRA." At the same time, his mere appearance with mainstream Republicans now causes controversy.

Nugent made the "subhuman mongrel" comment in January, but controversy erupted in February after it was announced that Nugent would campaign with then-Texas gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott. New attention was given to Nugent's "subhuman mongrel" comment while media also scrutinized his past comments about women and immigrants. After a week-long controversy in the national news media where Nugent was roundly condemned for his comments -- even by prominent Republicans -- Nugent offered a half-hearted apology, though "not necessarily to the president." He then attacked Obama as a lying, law-breaking racist who engages in Nazi tactics.

Nugent's 2014 concert tour was also affected by his history of nasty rhetoric. The City of Longview, Texas, canceled a planned Fourth of July concert and paid him $16,000 (reportedly half his fee) not to show up. Two American Indian tribes also canceled three planned August concerts after learning about Nugent's past commentary and his appropriation of American Indian headdresses. Other concerts went on in the face of substantial protests. In typical fashion, Nugent lashed out at his critics, describing protesters in one instance as "unclean vermin." He also described one group of American Indian protesters as "stinkyass unclean dipshit[s]."

In one embarrassing incident, Nugent insulted the host of his concert who had stood by him during controversy over his appearance. The Toledo Blade had invited Nugent to perform at its August 8 festival. After a petition campaign by Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, The Blade declined to cancel the concert but apologized for the invitation and strongly suggested he wouldn't be invited back in the future. Nugent, who somehow thought The Blade was responsible for the petition asking The Blade to cancel his appearance, repaid the paper during his performance, telling the crowd, "So as long as you know the Toledo Blade hates you, you're a good American."

According to music industry experts interviewed by Media Matters reporter Joe Strupp, Nugent's continued diatribes could spell trouble for his future music career. As a Rolling Stone contributing editor who covers the rock concert business told Media Matters, "I'm guessing that he needs to tour to make money and if his comments are preventing him from doing that he may well have to rethink how he handles his public image. He has said some incredibly offensive stuff in the past few years, now maybe it is hitting home."

In 2014, Media Matters also put online for the first time a 1990 Detroit Free Press Magazine interview where Nugent defended apartheid in South Africa, said that he uses racial expletives because he "hang[s] around with a lot of niggers," and described the bizarre steps he claims to have undertaken to avoid military service during the Vietnam War.

Given its new outreach efforts, the NRA could not have a worse spokesperson than Ted Nugent. As Coalition to Stop Gun Violence executive director Josh Horwitz puts it, "I just don't understand how they can keep a guy like Ted Nugent on their board, who has called President Obama a subhuman mongrel and then expect to go out there and recruit African-Americans."

At the same time, Nugent remains essential to the NRA as it placates its most active members. Nugent is second only to Iran-Contra figure and Fox News host Oliver North in votes for the board, and according to reporter Alexander Zaitchik, who has written several features on the NRA's annual meeting, "at their conventions every year Ted Nugent is their biggest draw. You've got capacity overflowing crowds cheering on his every word and they have to continue to feed the people paying dues with one eye on the future, and it's not an enviable position."

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