Opinion

In the wake of the Florida school shooting, the NRA is suddenly distinctly vulnerable

By virtue of timing and circumstance, and thanks to the well-placed outrage of those who nearly died in a hail of bullets last week, the NRA no longer seems bulletproof.

The gunman unwittingly left behind the NRA's worst nightmare: articulate, engaged teenagers

By virtue of timing and circumstance, and thanks to the well-placed outrage of those who nearly died in a hail of bullets last week, the NRA no longer seems bulletproof. (Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press)

The aftermath of mass shootings in the United States typically follow a predictable, wretched cycle. First, bodies are hauled out, then a suspect is killed or detained and ultimately identified. Victims' families demand change. Politicians offer thoughts and prayers. Outrage fills social media streams and overwhelms news cycles. And then it is promptly put out of mind until the next flurry of bullets.

The sheer volume of mass shootings — 34 since the beginning of the year, according to Gun Violence Archive — is surely part of the reason behind this apathy. The other, of course, is the National Rifle Association, which over the last few decades has convinced many Americans that their government exists solely to separate them from their guns — and that the ubiquitous and powerful NRA is the sole bulwark against this oppression.

And though these self-serving narratives have worked in the past, with U.S. gun laws remaining stubbornly slack even in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 children dead, the NRA is suddenly, distinctly vulnerable in the wake of last week's mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school.

Sam Zeif says 'time has stood still' since the mass school shooting and that he doesn't know how he'll feel safe again in public spaces 4:14

First, there are the survivors. In choosing Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as the site for his carnage, confessed gunman Nikolas Cruz unwittingly left behind the NRA's worst nightmare: articulate, engaged teenagers.

Sandy Hook survivors couldn't speak as eloquently — some of them weren't even in grade school. By contrast, the Marjory Stoneman students have directly engaged the politicians responsible for America's patently absurd lack of gun regulation. Rarely has Marco Rubio, the gun-friendly senator from gun-obsessed Florida, been stripped of words, swagger and spit as he was when Marjory Stoneman student Cameron Kasky asked him, at a CNN town hall event on Wednesday, whether he would cease taking money from the NRA. Rarer still has the truth been spoken directly to power in prime time, on live TV, to an audience of millions.

Indeed, the NRA has long sold its message by way of the politicians it supports. Yet this, too, is a façade. In 2016, the association made just $1.1 million in political donations during the 2016 election cycle, according to nonpartisan research group Open Secrets. This makes it a punter compared to the Walt Disney Company (about $10 million), not to mention the "other" NRA, the National Restaurant Association (about $1.2 million.)

The NRA political contributions are tiny, often as little as $2,500 per politician — though at $9,900 Rubio was a touch more expensive. This isn't surprising in itself, as most of the cash goes to like-minded Republicans in NRA-friendly states. Yet it seems paltry amounts can only buy limited loyalty; already, Florida congressman Carlos Curbelo, who received $2,500 from the NRA in 2016, is calling for stricter gun control measures following the Miami shootings.

Trump's conversion to the NRA came rather late. In his previous life, he actually supported a ban on assault rifles. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Then there's the matter of Donald Trump. Outwardly, at least, the 45th president is a staunch NRA supporter who has so far jettisoned calls for better gun legislation — a political nod to the rust-belt and rock-ribbed Republican states that elected him. "I will not let you down," Trump said during the 2016 presidential campaign, as he accepted the association's endorsement.

Yet as Steve Bannon and countless other former employees can attest, Trump's loyalty is often as fleeting as his attention span. Witness, for example, how he rode into the White House on an isolationist ticket, only to bomb Syrian government targets when members of his family showed him pictures of the carnage wrought by President Bashar al-Assad.

Moreover, Trump's conversion to the NRA came rather late. In his previous life, he actually supported a ban on assault rifles — including the type used by Nikolas Cruz. In 2000, he chided those Republicans who "walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions." Trump doesn't have an ideology so much as a series of competing needs, chief among them the desire to be loved. If the NRA becomes a political liability following the shootings, history suggests Trump won't hesitate to throw it under a bus.

Trump has had another adverse effect on the gun debate. Gun sales are down, and manufacturers have felt the effects. Remington, America's oldest gun maker, is planning to file for bankruptcy. Both sales and the stock of Smith & Wesson's parent company have plummeted over the last year, while Colt crawled out of bankruptcy last year.

The NRA's paranoia-steeped narrative isn't as effective when there is a Republican in the White House, making the group that much more susceptible to the whims of public opinion. By virtue of timing and circumstance, and thanks to the well-placed outrage of those who nearly died in a hail of bullets last week, the NRA no longer seems bulletproof.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Martin Patriquin

Martin Patriquin is a Montreal writer and political commentator.

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