Speaking to the activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, President Trump interrupted his freeform stream of consciousness performance to take a quick poll of the audience. "If you only had a choice of one, what would you rather have?" he asked them. "The Second Amendment or the tax cuts?" When he had them applaud for each, the cheers for gun rights were far louder.
That wouldn't be the case if you could read the minds of the Republican Party's representatives in Congress, for whom tax cuts are always the highest priority. Yet over the last few years, the GOP has become not just a pro-gun party but a party utterly in thrall to the National Rifle Association and its increasingly extreme views. Some Republicans in Congress fight every suggestion of regulating guns because it's what they really believe, while others do it because they fear the NRA's wrath. But now some glimmers of change may actually be appearing. The NRA is on the defensive, and people are beginning to stand up to it.
We don't know what legislation might emerge, but it's remarkable to see even erstwhile NRA allies like Florida governor Rick Scott suggesting that we might do things like raise the legal age to buy long guns like the AR-15 used by the shooter in Parkland to 21 (it's now 18, while you have to be 21 to buy a handgun). It may be a modest measure, but to see a hard-right Republican like Scott buck the NRA on anything is evidence of a change.
Then there's the boycott. There's a fair chance that before now you didn't even know that dozens of large corporations have partnership agreements with the NRA, in some cases giving their members discounts and in others offering special products designed for members, like the Chubb insurance policy members could take out to help them in case they were sued for shooting and killing someone. But in the wake of the Parkland shooting, activists are calling attention to these partnerships. As a result, the corporations are suddenly becoming very nervous and in some cases shutting them down. Chubb won't be offering those policies anymore. High-profile companies like Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Delta, United, Symantec, Best Western, and MetLife have announced that they've cut ties with the group, and more will almost certainly follow.
These companies aren't making an ideological decision so much as an economic one. They're deciding that the added business they get from partnering with the NRA is outweighed by the stigma associated with the group. Or at the very least, the stigma they think is developing, even if it isn't as strong yet as it might turn out to be.
And that's what has changed. It isn't that there weren't lots of people who disliked the NRA before, because there were. But now there's a movement actively trying to make the NRA toxic.
It's something advocates of gun regulation used to think wouldn't be possible. But the NRA's own policy extremism and increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric have opened up a space to oppose it. Even if you believe in gun rights, it's hard not to see the NRA as a bunch of loony birds.
It's been building for years, but the Trump era has pushed the organization toward an even more extreme space than they occupied before. While in the not-too-distant past they actually supported some limited gun control measures, today the guiding philosophy of the group is that what we want is a society where as many people as possible have as many guns as possible and take them to as many places as possible.
Which leads them to oppose even something as widely supported as universal background checks, which were favored by 97 percent of respondents in a recent Quinnipiac poll. That makes the NRA not just more extreme than your average American, but more extreme than gun owners and even their own members.
Then there's the group's unhinged rhetoric. The change from a Democratic president to a Republican one necessitated a shift in emphasis; it's harder to argue that diabolical liberals in Washington are going to take away your guns any day now when Republicans are in total control of the government. But the NRA needs to tell its members that there is immediate peril which can only be met by buying more and more guns.
So they say two things. First, we live in a post-apocalyptic nightmare where the only question all of us should be asking is whether we have enough guns to see another day. This was part of their message before; as CEO Wayne LaPierre said in a 2014 speech, "We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all."
Second, the NRA focuses on guns as more than a tool to fend off the Al Qaeda strike team that is probably coming to your house, if they're not hiding in your supermarket. Guns are also instruments of deep symbolic value, whose purchase is just about the best way to tell snooty liberals where they can stick it so you can fight the culture war. As Josh Marshall pointed out, "most of the NRA's public messaging isn't even about firearms anymore. It's mostly culture war agitprop about fake news, Trump, obedience to the flag, feral leftists, socialists, antifa street gangs and other similar incitement." To get a sense of it, you can watch some of NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch's videos of barely contained rage, many of which don't even mention guns.
We shouldn't go too far in interpreting what's happening; this moment could peter out as others have in the past. But it may just be possible that conservatives will be made uncomfortable by questions about their ties to the NRA. As Wayne LaPierre once said, "If I can borrow from Mr. Churchill [sic], we have nothing to fear but the absence of fear." The NRA might, at long last, have some reason to feel afraid.