'A shot in the dark': NRA takes on state gun laws with Trump in its corner

The National Rifle Association hopes its legal challenges of some tighter state gun-control laws will make it to the right-leaning Supreme Court.

The National Rifle Association hopes its legal challenges will make it to the Supreme Court

The National Rifle Association's legal challenge is giving gun advocates in California new hope. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Tommy Bushnell lifts the AR-15 rifle and aims at his target.

Some of the other shooters in this indoor gun range near the Los Angeles airport are aiming at human-shaped paper targets complete with red internal organs, but Bushnell's is just a simple outline of a blue man on a white background.

He shoots ten times. But when he retrieves the target, he's not happy with the results. The bullet holes are too widely spaced, too far from the centre mass, and one — a "flyer" — missed entirely. 

"It's not too good of a grouping there. It's quite atrocious," he says, laughing. The National Rifle Association-certified instructor may have been put off by the journalist standing next to him pointing a camera.

Or maybe he's still tense because he spent the past half hour talking about why California politicians have made the rifle he's holding a whole lot tougher to buy.

"You have to understand that this particular rifle is just a semiautomatic tool for, you know, sport," Bushnell says. "And, basically, it's everybody's right to be able to own one if they want to."


AR-15 rifles were used in the deadly attack in San Bernardino, Calif., that killed 14 people in December 2015.

In the wake of that mass shooting, California legislators passed a series of laws known to the state's gun community as "gunmageddon." Among the bills Gov. Jerry Brown signed in the summer of 2016 was a ban on the sale of semiautomatic rifles equipped with bullet-buttons that allow users to quickly replace ammunition magazines, as well as a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines, and a background check requirement for buying ammunition. 

California's gun control laws — widely considered the toughest in the country — became even more repressive, Bushnell says.

"They're just banning something by its appearance. And, honestly, it's not going to operate any differently than the Glock, the H-K (Heckler & Koch), and the Beretta," he says, pointing to a row of pistols mounted on the wall.

Tommy Bushnell, who works at LAX Firing Range, says California's stricter new gun laws are misguided because what the government calls assault weapons are no more deadly than handguns. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Bushnell believes more guns in the right hands makes communities safer. And now he has a president who believes this, too.

"You have a true friend and champion in the White House," Donald Trump said last Friday, when he became the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to address the NRA. 

"As your president, I will never ever infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms, never ever," Trump told the NRA members assembled at the organization's convention in Atlanta.

The NRA spent about $30 million to help get Trump elected. Now it's taking aim at gun control laws in states like California and Massachusetts with the help of its state affiliates. The organization launched a lawsuit in California last week against the state's revamped Assault Weapons Control Act, with more Second Amendment challenges expected to follow.

Legal long shot

But UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, believes the NRA's legal campaign is "a shot in the dark."

Historically, Winkler says, "the Supreme Court has seemed uninterested in taking these cases on." Even the lower courts aren't likely to hear the cases in the first place, he says.

"The courts have consistently upheld restrictions against military-style rifles. The lower courts are likely to just dismiss the case quickly."

UCLA law professor Adam Winkler says the NRA's legal campaign is a 'shot in the dark.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

But he suspects the NRA is playing "a long game," emboldened by Trump's appointment of NRA-endorsed Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch, and perhaps counting on the president to appoint another justice if one retires during the next three to five years it may take for the cases to wind their way through the legal system.

Meanwhile, the debate continues about whether such legislation is actually effective in controlling guns. For example, research shows many Americans are so conditioned to facing tighter gun laws after mass shootings, their first instinct is to head to the nearest gun store.

A study published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that after both the deadly mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., back in 2012 and the attack in San Bernardino three years later, California saw a "substantial increase" in handgun sales. 

"This was a large number of weapons that came into the ecosystem that we estimate would not have were it not for these shocks to the public conscience," says David Studdert, a professor of medicine and law at Stanford University and leader of the study.

A new study suggests mass shootings, combined with the potential for tighter gun laws, lead to huge spikes in gun sales. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

He found that handgun purchases rose by 53 per cent during the six weeks after the mass shooting in Newtown. After the attack in San Bernardino, sales rose by 35 per cent in most of California and grew by 85 per cent in San Bernardino County.

"It does raise the question of whether a succession of events — mass shootings, elections, firearm legislation being introduced into legislatures, terrorist events … may have an impact overall both on the number of firearms that exist in households in California and the rest of the country and then the risk to occupants of those households."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.