The NRA has surprised many by the breadth of its media blackout following the Newtown massacre. Its Facebook and Twitter accounts are gone. Is the firearms organization acknowledging complicity, or simply biding time?
On May 1, 1999, just 11 days after the Columbine High School Massacre that took the lives of 12 students and a teacher, the president of the National Rifle Association, Charlton Heston, stepped up to a podium. He was 20 kilometers from the site of the shootings.
"Don't come here?" the 78-year-old asked, mocking the Denver mayor's request to cancel the NRA's annual meeting. "We're already here. This community is our home. Every community in America is our home. We are a 128-year-old fixture of mainstream America."
Heston: "They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead hands"
With 4.3 million NRA members and another 80 million Americans owning firearms, the NRA is a powerful force in American culture and politics. Yet while its numbers are as high as ever, the clear-eyed defiance that pervaded Heston's speech 13 years ago - the sense of disbelief, even, that his organization could be blamed for a shooting spree - has disappeared.
The semi-automatic assault rifle
Throughout America, Heston's words were ill-received. The backlash culminated with the release of Michael Moore's documentary, "Bowling for Columbine," which included clips from the speech. On forums throughout the Internet, NRA advocates claimed that Moore grossly misrepresented the NRA by cherrypicking Heston's speech.
Still, the NRA got the message - partially. It gave no public response to the Virginia Tech Massacre that left 37 dead and 17 injured, yet neither did it feel the need to update its website, which contained aggressive talking points for a speech given at the NRA's annual meeting three days earlier. The recents attacks, after all, were carried out with handguns, a relatively non-controversial firearm in American culture.
Virginia Tech is the worst single-gunman attack in US history
Yet after Heston had finished his two-term limit at in 2003, his role was taken over by Sandra Froman, a San Francisco-born lawyer and graduate of Harvard University. First among her tasks was to persuade members of US Congress - and a skeptical President Bush - to allow a 10-year-old ban on assault rifles to expire in 2004. The NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, was successful.
In the last five years, the decision to legalize those weapons has come under heavy scrutiny. Yet some see a touch of sophistry in the debate.
"The semi-automatic rifle ban was purely cosmetic," said Dr. Brian Anse Patrick, a 58-year-old professor at Toledo University and author of the book "National Rifle Association in the media." "Sure, some guns had a few different hand grips. But you could could still buy the same functional AR-15."
It was a Smith & Wesson M&P15 assault rifle and a Remington tactical shotgun that allowed 24-year-old gunman James Eagan Holmes to to carry out a massacre in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado earlier this year. This time the NRA responded via its podcast.
Reporter Ginny Simone spoke of "the unthinkable tragic shooting that shocked the country today." She ended by saying that, “at this hour the NRA is telling all media, including the NRA Daily News, that its policy is that it will have no comment until all the facts are known in this case.”
The deaths of 12 people and injuries of 58 others merited 35 seconds of the NRA's podcast.
A tough two weeks
That brings events to 11 days ago, when NRA Executive Vice President and spokesperson Wayne LaPierre gave a radio interview. In it, he criticized the media for its attempt to jump "on the back of this national tragedy to try to piggyback their anti-Second Amendment national agenda… and try to force it on Americans all over the country.”
LaPierre was not talking of recent shooting sprees, but of NFL football player Jovan Belcher. On December 1, Belcher shot his girlfriend nine times before fleeing and committing suicide in front of coaches. LaPierre went on to say that the media "sure doesn't talk about the [proverbial] woman who saved herself from getting raped by having a handgun."
That was the NRA's last public statement. Since then a 22-year-old man shot 3 people at an Oregon mall before committing suicide; 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 26 people, most of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary; and on Saturday, December 15, a deranged man fired 50 rounds outside a shopping mall in Newport Beach, California, injuring no one.
Over the last few days the NRA has removed both its Facebook page and Twitter accounts. It has also denied requests from Deutsche Welle for an interview. In response to DW's question as to when the media blackout will cease, an employee of the NRA responded that they would do so when "all the details about the shootings are in."
"This is not a snap decision," Patrick said. "This is a strategy. You'll find in a week or two they'll come up with a statement."
The future of the NRA
When the NRA does issue an official statement, it will surely take into account the mood in Washington. Senior Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa has called openly for a study of gun violence and mental health issues. On the other side of the hall, the pro-gun Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose position allows him to set the Senate schedule, has also stated a desire to place gun control on the table. Even NRA member and West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin has agreed to a debate.
In general, however, the NRA has been silent, and at times apologetic, only when attacks are carried out with semi-automatic assault rifles. Even NRA spokespersons appear to have a difficult time justifying such weaponry in the wake of a massacre.
Where handguns, hunting rifles or shotguns are involved, though - veritable staples of American gun ownership, and the weapons used in the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres - the organization remains defiant.
Regardless of the NRA's next move, Dr. Patrick has a clear prediction for the future of America's largest firearms organization."NRA membership will increase markedly because of this," the professor said. "Throughout the 1990s, the more negative coverage the NRA got, the higher the membership."