How the NRA Uses Fear to Sell Guns in America

The "Wall of Guns" at the 2013 NRA Convention in Houston, Texas. (K Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

Crime levels are down in the United States, gun manufacturers are laying off workers and going bankrupt in the face of plunging sales and profits, yet that won’t stop the National Rifle Association from using fear to manipulate people into buying a gun.

At The New Republic, “military veteran, big game hunter, and gun owner” Elliott Woods goes undercover at the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas to learn about how the NRA marketing machine has gone into high gear to combat what they’re calling the “Trump Slump.”

Since the 1990s, the NRA has been enormously successful at stoking white Americans’ fears about their darker-skinned fellow citizens while simultaneously cultivating paranoia about left-wing politicians seeking to take away their guns. Barack Obama’s presidency was a watershed event in this dynamic. During his eight years in office, the NRA’s membership grew from three million to five million. The organization’s combined political spending during election cycles increased from about $6 million in 1998 to nearly $60 million in 2016. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of gun owners who cite “protection” as their top reason for owning a gun grew from 26 percent in 1999 to 67 percent in 2017. During roughly the same period, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, firearms manufacturers increased their annual output of handguns more than fourfold, from 1.3 million to 5.6 million. Firearms imports also surged, from about 900,000 guns in 1999 to over five million in 2016.

Last September, the parent company of gunmaker Smith & Wesson released its first-quarter 2018 earnings report: Net sales were down 37.7 percent from the previous year, and shares had lost a quarter of their value. The company had to cut 200 jobs later that year. At Sturm Ruger, another major gunmaker, the picture was equally bleak. Profits were down by half, and net sales were down by more than 25 percent. In February, Remington, which manufactured the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre, filed for bankruptcy. “Nothing was worse for the gun industry and the NRA than getting Trump elected,” Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist and author of Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist, said. “I’ve been very nervous for a long time over the [gun] issue being the province of the Republican Party, and now we see it coming to a head, because the NRA got in bed so hard with Trump.”

Viktøs, an apparel company based in Wisconsin, ran a billboard-length ad for flip-flops next to one of the escalators, with the tagline GEAR FOR YOUR DAILY GUNFIGHT. At one of the many booths promoting AR-15 accessories, I found a poster from a Florida-based custom AR-15 manufacturer called Spike’s Tactical that showed a squad of thickly muscled dudes in the foreground, backs to the viewer, dressed in jeans, black T-shirts, and ratty ball caps. Each of them wore body armor and carried some iteration of an AR-15. They stood in front of a concrete Jersey barrier, facing down a mob of ruffians wearing ski masks and bandannas who appeared to be burning down a city. None of the rioters carried firearms. The text at the top of the poster said: BERKELEY—PORTLAND—CHARLOTTESVILLE—BOSTON—>NOT TODAY ANTIFA.

I’d heard passing comments all week about the threats posed by Black Lives Matter and the so-called antifa, and I wondered how we had reached a point where conservative white Americans fantasize about taking to the streets, bristling with weapons, flanked by fellow vigilantes, prepared to violently confront other Americans who are exercising their First Amendment rights to assembly and free speech. It was one thing for the NRA and the gun industry to promote concealed carry of small pistols to defend against muggers and rapists, but it was another thing entirely to promote group vigilantism at a time when the country’s racial and political tensions are actually getting people killed.

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