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What Happened to Gun Culture

Firearms


Wayne LaPierre, the longtime head of the National Rifle Association, is one of the most successful lobbyists in American history, one of the central hubs of the conservative movement, and quite possibly a complete and utter buffoon. “Wayne is a clumsy, meek, spastic man with a weak handshake,” the journalist Tim Mak writes in his new, character-rich book on the N.R.A., “Misfire.” In Mak’s account, LaPierre oversleeps and misses a golf outing with former Vice-President Dan Quayle. He stands up his bride at the altar while he decides whether or not to marry her. (Once he makes up his mind to go through with the wedding, his own best man skips the reception.) He eschews technology but is forever scribbling notes on yellow legal pads and begins travelling with a roller suitcase stuffed full of them. At a conference, he runs into his longtime N.R.A. second-in-command Chris Cox and introduces himself as though the two men have never met: “Hi! I’m Wayne LaPierre!” (“Wayne, what are you talking about?” Cox replies.) A former N.R.A. board member, Wayne Anthony Ross, once said that LaPierre has the “backbone of a chocolate éclair.”

LaPierre’s characteristic self-absorption now threatens to bring him down. In a 2020 lawsuit seeking to break up the N.R.A., the New York Attorney General, Letitia James, charges that LaPierre and other leaders of the organization awarded lucrative contracts to close associates and family members and spent millions of the group’s dollars on themselves. The documented expenditures, some of which were paid by the N.R.A.’s longtime advertising firm rather than by the gun lobby itself, are a little comic: LaPierre spent tens of thousands of dollars on private jets to fly his niece in and out of North Platte, Nebraska; nearly two hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars at the Zegna store on Rodeo Drive; and almost two hundred and fifty million dollars on vacations to destinations including Lake Como, the Bahamas, and Budapest. There is something comic, too, in Mak’s sketches of the powerful figures around LaPierre: the clean-cut lobbyist Chris Cox, who helped make the N.R.A. into a linchpin of a hyper-partisan Republican machine; the bullying ad man Angus McQueen, who looked after LaPierre’s image and the organization’s (“You’re a fucking poodle,” he once told LaPierre); the cigar-chomping consigliere Tony Makris, who once advised Charlton Heston and presides over an upstairs lounge in Old Town Alexandria frequented by the N.R.A.’s grandees; the powerhouse lobbyist Marion Hammer, an eighty-year old woman with a pageboy haircut who is the central force behind Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

Mak’s book reminded me of a feeling I’ve sometimes had when reporting, that conservative institutions in Washington are oversupplied with preening characters and undersupplied with playwrights. It also suggested that the real dramas of the modern N.R.A. might not have taken place in the smoke-filled rooms that are its principal setting. During LaPierre’s thirty years at the head of the organization, annual gun sales have more than doubled, and military-style weapons have come to define gun culture. If all of these people were so caught up in their Old Town Alexandria cigar-lounge intrigues, then who was making these changes? And, if their leader is such a buffoon, why do three hundred and thirty-three million of the rest of us live in their world?

A second book about the N.R.A.’s world was published this month, “Gunfight,”by a gun-industry insider named Ryan Busse. His is a memoir of disenchantment. Having grown up hunting as a ranch kid in northwestern Kansas, Busse went to work in the nineteen-nineties for the sales department of a small gun manufacturer named Kimber, which had, in his view, a magnificent product line. As the company grew, so did Busse’s reputation as a gunrunner (his own term), until he was a two-time finalist at N.R.A. conventions as the industry’s Person of the Year and friends with governors, senators, and some of the most senior N.R.A. figures in Washington. Slowly he came to distrust this world, then to fear it, and eventually quit the gun industry, in 2018, having seen the politics that he’d watched develop at industry conventions culminate in Trumpism. The story that Busse tells is not just of the gun industry’s long political turn, in which a rural coalition of rifle owners became a partisan voting bloc, but also of the cultural change that the N.R.A. coaxed along, of the militarization of the gun world. He describes how a lobbying group took a political base of hunters and nurtured a new, expanded audience of gun guys.

The part of the gun industry that Busse entered was, in his own telling, a kind of idyll. Kimber’s products were beloved by gun enthusiasts, and the company allowed him to work from Kalispell, Montana, where, from his porch he could see three mountain ranges whose beauty moved him to tears. Many of his sales targets were small-time, knowledgeable vendors (Vern’s in Salmon, Idaho; a retired Chicago cop who toured the Southwestern gun-show circuit from Albuquerque), which made it easier to think that he was selling high-quality guns to people who understood them and would use them responsibly. He told himself that only a real relic would ever use a gun like the ones Kimber made in a crime. To court the high-profile gun writers whose endorsements are especially important for a niche brand like Kimber, he staged annual prairie-dog hunts on his father’s Kansas ranchland. To build Kimber’s corporate presence, he began to attend N.R.A. conventions, and, over time, he became a familiar face to the powerful. In Montana, he also joined conservation organizations and came to help run them. For a while, he saw no contradiction between advocating for environmental protections and working in the gun industry.

From Montana, Busse saw the beginning of the age of mass shootings, starting with Columbine, in 1999. Each time, when legislators responded with gun-control proposals, the N.R.A. chose not to seek a compromise position but instead to double down and fight all legislation, blaming the media for turning the topic to guns at all. (“Why us? Because their story needs a villain,” then N.R.A. president, Charlton Heston, told the organization’s annual convention, just eleven days after Columbine.) Mak recounts the N.R.A.’s internal debates over how to respond to these shootings, in which some officials did make the case for accommodation and apology. But they never won, and one reason may be that, by the late nineties, the N.R.A. had committed itself to a maximalist defense of guns. In 1995, LaPierre had authored a fund-raising letter that referred to government agents as “jack-booted government thugs.” When, that same month, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, there was a furor about the fund-raising letter, and former President George H. W. Bush resigned his lifetime membership in the organization. George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, did not follow suit; that year he signed a concealed-carry law, pushed by the N.R.A., that was a model for others across the country. Such laws committed the N.R.A. to a theory made explicit by LaPierre after the Sandy Hook massacre: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Gun-lobby politics reached Busse in 2000, when Ed Shultz, the C.E.O. of Smith & Wesson, cut a deal with several Democratic attorneys general. In return for immunity from lawsuits over mass shootings, the company agreed to put trigger locks on all its guns and to eventually develop “smart guns” that could only be fired by the owner. The rest of the gun industry responded with outrage over one company making its own deal. The N.R.A. criticized Smith & Wesson in the press, and gun manufacturers pressured gun dealers to boycott Smith & Wesson. Busse writes, “I went to work calling and faxing dealers, imploring them to stop selling Smith & Wesson products and to send back the guns they already had.” The boycott worked; the company’s sales tanked, Schultz resigned within six months, and, not long afterward, Smith & Wesson was sold to a group of investors from Phoenix for the measly sum of fifteen million dollars. In Busse’s story, this is the moment when it became clear that the N.R.A. had become something like a cartel. “All executives knew the unspoken org chart,” Busse writes. “Nobody would develop innovative new products without the NRA’s approval. It even became standard practice to seek new-product-development and marketing advice from top NRA staffers.” Gun manufacturers began to stick an N.R.A. membership card inside every new package, and some even paid new owners’ membership fees. Most gun companies, Kimber among them, begin to spend “inordinate amounts” of their advertising budget on N.R.A. magazines and media. “We all complied partially because NRA members had become the core customer base for us all,” Busse writes, “but mostly it was fear.”

The received wisdom in the gun industry is that sales spike when Democrats hold the White House (because of fears that your guns will be taken away) and plummet when Republicans do. But, during the George W. Bush years, Busse noticed that sales weren’t plummeting at all. Amid the war on terror, with its implication that threats were nearby and also on the battlefield, LaPierre encouraged his membership to see themselves as self-deputized defenders of what he called the “homeland.” Busse highlights LaPierre’s speech at the N.R.A. convention a few months after the 9/11 attacks, in which he implored members to take note of “people who are not citizens of our homeland, who don’t belong in our homeland along with aliens on work visas, or green cards, or student passes.” In 2004, President Bush allowed the Clinton assault-weapons ban to lapse, effectively authorizing the sale of AR-15s, and, in 2005, he signed a law immunizing manufacturers from lawsuits. The first change meant that the manufacturers could sell military-grade weapons in the United States; the second meant that they could market them as military weapons. “Those fucking Democrats can’t touch us now,” Kimber’s owner, Leslie Edelman, called Busse to crow. In 2003, approximately three hundred and eighty thousand “modern sporting rifles” (the category that includes AR-15s) were produced. By 2016, the number was 2.3 million. It took a while for Kimber to join the rush, but eventually the company did. Busse writes,“Barely a couple of weeks went by without Leslie calling me to suggest that Kimber should get into America’s AR-15 business.”

To this point, Busse has described himself as ambivalent about the gun industry, but, writing about the dawn of the Obama Administration, he begins to sound scared. Of Sandy Hook, he writes, “the horror was overwhelming.” But in the office much of the talk was about the “post-Sandy Hook boom” in gun sales. At the N.R.A. convention in St. Louis in 2012, he is greeted by twenty-foot banners of LaPierre and two of his deputies—“head shots of the organization’s great triad,” Busse writes. “Or was it a trinity?” Busse’s efforts to persuade the N.R.A.’s lobbyists to back the pro-gun Democratic Jon Tester in his Senate race in Montana go nowhere; when he sells a Kimber rifle to the state’s Democratic Governor Steve Bullock, who uses it to go deer hunting with his son, one of Busse’s colleagues texts him: “Why did you sell one of our rifles to a fucking Democrat?” A young influential writer arrives at Busse’s annual prairie-dog hunt and, as the group is headed out, unsheathes his weapon of choice: an AR-15.

That little scene at the prairie-dog hunt was an early indication of the turn that the industry was taking, toward tactical weapons, styled and marketed with military imagery. At first, when the young buyers started showing up in the marketing data, old-timers at Kimber and elsewhere made fun, calling them “couch commandos” and “tactards.” But, quite quickly, it became apparent to Busse that this group was driving sales. Domestic manufacturers eventually applied a “desert tan” finish to guns sold for hunting or self-defense, to mimic what was on the battlefields. “I called big accounts to see what was selling,” Busse writes. “The answer was clear: ‘Anything in desert tan.’ ” The tactical-weapons movement eventually spawned its own influencers. There was the former Delta Force sergeant major Kyle Lamb, who helped to popularize another wave of military-style rifles (this time in black). And there was Mat Best, who, Busse writes, “made a habit of posting pictures of himself sleeping on a bed made of his large collection of AR-15s.” When Best, whose main enterprise is a gun-themed coffee business called Black Rifle Coffee, published a memoir, it débuted at No. 5 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list; when he released a rap song (titled “Bitch, I Operate”), it started out at No. 36 on the Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative chart. When Donald Trump, Jr., early in the 2016 Presidential campaign, announced a “Second Amendment Coalition” of gun leaders, co-chaired by the N.R.A.’s Chris Cox, Busse was unsurprised, because he had watched the industry be taken over by a generation very much like Trump, Jr. “See?” a friend tells Busse, at an industry fund-raiser where the younger Trump is speaking. “He’s one of us.”

Both Mak and Busse are telling the story of a gun lobby that grew more powerful and darker. Both also seem to harbor a suspicion that the world of guns and gun-owners might always have been at least a bit like this, rich with paranoia and warlike thinking. Busse relates an episode from his father’s Kansas childhood, when a retreatist gun obsessive named Tolly Bolyard murdered one of the senior Busse’s close friends and his friend’s father, because Bolyard became convinced that they were encroaching on his land. The N.R.A. itself has worked hard to leave the impression that the ideology of gun ownership has been constant, emphasizing a Second Amendment politics that flattens the distinction between the eighteenth century and the present, and marketing AR-15s as if they were made for hunting. But, by the time of Sandy Hook, the gun culture that Busse saw around him was all new: the treatment of lobbyists as charismatic leaders, the black-rifle influencers, the military weapons in the stores, and the military imagery used to market them. What he is documenting is not a timeless gun culture but the world that the N.R.A. built.

Personally, Busse sees LaPierre much as Mak does—he describes the N.R.A. leader as “a nervous man.” But he also has known many of the people around LaPierre for decades, and they, he writes, are talented and committed, the backbone of “the organization that brainwashed an entire country.” The allegations against LaPierre may weaken the N.R.A., but the tactical culture that consolidated under his watch appears more durable. The sort of people who, not long ago, Busse might have characterized as “couch commandos” are everywhere on the American right—in power, and also on the fringe. Kyle Rittenhouse, who, at the age of seventeen, got an AR-15-style rifle from a friend and brought it to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he killed two men and wounded another, fits Busse’s account of the “tactard” perfectly. So does Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Colorado, who owns a gun-themed restaurant in Rifle, Colorado; supported the storming of the Capitol; and has posed frequently with AR-15-style rifles. The slate of Trump-endorsed candidates for office in 2022 includes several people—including the former Army Ranger and military-thriller writer Sean Parnell, who is running for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania—for whom the roles of politician and gun influencer blur. It seems entirely predictable that, when online sleuths tried to track down the extremists who broke into the Capitol building, they identified one of them by his Black Rifle Coffee cap.


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