Bloomberg: In the days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on Dec. 14, executives with a half-dozen major U.S. gun manufacturers contacted the National Rifle Association. The firearm industry representatives didn’t call the NRA, which they support with millions of dollars each year, to issue directives. On the contrary, they sought guidance on how to handle the public-relations crisis, according to people familiar with the situation who agreed to interviews on the condition they remain anonymous.
While the Obama administration had reacted meekly to mass shootings in Tucson and Aurora, Colo., Sandy Hook would be different. Twenty first-graders were dead. The president, a gun control supporter who previously had avoided the radioactive issue, wiped away tears when talking on television about the “beautiful little kids.” As a nation, the normally stoic president added, “We have been through this too many times.” In crass political terms, he was newly reelected and had less to lose in confronting pro-gun forces. The NRA’s leadership faced a choice: Go to the mattresses as usual, or acknowledge the special horror of Sandy Hook and offer an olive branch.
That decision rested with Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s chief executive since 1991. One of Washington’s most durable and enigmatic power brokers, LaPierre arrived at the organization in 1978 with a master’s in political science from Boston College. The bookish Roanoke (Va.) native didn’t know much about firearms. Colleagues joked that duck hunting with Wayne was more dangerous for the hunters than the ducks. Nevertheless, driven by an ambition impressive even by Washington standards, he rose swiftly, a mild-mannered presence in private who developed an Elmer Gantry-like persona for speeches and interviews.
In the immediate wake of Sandy Hook, the NRA reassured nervous gun company reps that they could stand down, according to people familiar with the situation. LaPierre would handle it.
One week after the massacre, he delivered a nationally televised tirade tinged with his trademark cultural resentment and paranoia. “Is the press and the political class here in Washington, D.C., so consumed by fear and hatred of the NRA and American gun owners,” he said, “that you’re willing to accept the world where real resistance to evil monsters is [an] unarmed school principal left to surrender her life, her life, to shield those children in her care?”
As intended, LaPierre’s performance received massive media attention. It also upset many—including some gun makers. “The funerals were still going on in Newtown,” says Joseph Bartozzi. “Parents were burying their children.” A senior vice president at O.F. Mossberg & Sons, a shotgun and rifle manufacturer in North Haven, Conn., Bartozzi belongs to the NRA and applauds its stalwart defense of Second Amendment rights. But this time, LaPierre’s diatribe struck him as ill-timed and graceless.
The companies that make and market firearms might prefer a softer tone, but they rarely complain publicly about NRA fear mongering because it’s been so good for business. Corporate donations to the NRA, which together with its affiliates has annual revenue of $250 million, have risen during the past decade, a period when the organization has taken increasingly absolutist positions. Still, it’s not the industry that muscles the NRA.
“NRA leadership worries about two things above all else: perpetuating controversy to stimulate fundraising from individual members and protecting its right flank from the real crazies,” says Richard Feldman, author of a feisty 2007 memoir, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist. Feldman has worked in various capacities for both the NRA and the industry. “The idea that the NRA follows orders from the gun companies is a joke,” he says. “If anything, it’s the other way around.”
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam declined to comment for this article, as did LaPierre and other top officials at the lobby group’s Fairfax (Va.) headquarters. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun control advocate, founded Bloomberg LP, which owns this magazine.
Gun companies defer to the NRA for two main reasons: First, there’s intimidation. The lobby group has incited potentially ruinous consumer boycotts against firearm makers that fail to follow the NRA line with sufficient zeal. Second, regardless of some executives’ concerns about civil discourse, gun companies benefit financially from the NRA’s hype. Alarms about imminent gun confiscation—an NRA staple, despite its implausibility—reliably send firearm owners back to retail counters. Sales are booming. Mossberg is running three shifts a day. “Demand,” Bartozzi says, “is very strong.” [Continue reading…]