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One Step Forward

America’s Gun Control Gridlock

Crisis at the NRA should have been a gift for gun control advocates. What went wrong?

There are about 400 million guns in the United States, of which more than nine-tenths are owned by civilians. If you gathered up all those guns and passed one out to every man, woman, and child in the country, you would still have around 60 million guns left over, about half as many as are owned by all the world’s militaries combined. These guns killed around 45,000 people in the United States in 2020, the most fatalities of any year on record. And, the gun control advocacy group Everytown estimates, the United States experiences more than a dozen mass shootings per year.

Political lines in the debate around gun violence have long been sharply drawn. In the aftermath of massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, the left argued that Congress needed to make it more difficult to purchase a gun, while the right argued that the Second Amendment prohibited such constraints, and that they wouldn’t stop mass violence anyway. Eight years later, when discussing the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, presidential candidate John McCain insisted the attack “was not caused by nor should it lead to restrictions on the Second Amendment,” while his opponent Barack Obama argued that the shooting demonstrated the need for stricter gun laws. The shooter “had a semiautomatic weapon with a clip that allowed him to take 19 shots in a row,” Obama pointed out. “The only reason you have 19 rounds is potentially to do physical harm to people.”

Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth
by Elizabeth Williamson
Dutton, 496 pp., $28.00

The massacre of 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 could have been a turning point. It seemed that the scale of the tragedy and the number of very young victims would provide momentum for real action on gun reform. Instead, Sandy Hook marked the beginning of a new era in which mass shootings increased in scale and frequency, many barely breaking into the news cycle. Even when a tragedy like the Buffalo grocery store shooting in May makes national headlines, the focus is often on the ideology that motivated the shooter rather than how he acquired the weapons he used. The law has become even friendlier to gun owners. More than 20 states now allow people to carry concealed handguns without a permit; more than 30 allow people to carry handguns in the open without a permit; more than 40 allow people to own assault rifles. Even so, Democratic politicians have all but abandoned gun control as a motivating issue for their base. What happened?

Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA
by Tim Mak
Dutton, 384 pp., $29.00

Two recent books offer clues about what sustained the gun control debate and why advocates have made so little progress. Tim Mak’s Misfire, which traces a set of crises at the National Rifle Association, shows how the decline of the gun rights organization deprived the left of its most valuable bogeyman. Elizabeth Williamson’s Sandy Hook, meanwhile, shows how a mass shooting under a Democratic president provided fodder for the far right. Both books help us understand the gun control debate as one fueled by partisanship, a debate in which each side motivated its own adherents in large part by demonizing the other, and in which no one has come close to addressing the root of the problem.

For most of the twentieth century, gun policy did not revolve around mass shootings. The first attempts to create a firearm ownership registry in the 1930s were inspired by the violent exploits of gangsters like Al Capone. The sweeping Gun Control Act of 1968, which prohibited most felons from owning guns, and which the NRA called “reasonable,” was a response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The 1993 Brady handgun bill mandated background checks and waiting periods for handgun purchases in an effort to tamp down violence in major cities. The lone exception to this rule was the 1994 assault weapons ban, inspired by a mass shooting in San Francisco. The ban lasted for 10 years before it expired, thanks to lobbying from the NRA. (Ironically enough, the mass shooting that inaugurated the modern gun control debate happened during the life span of the ban, not after it expired: The shooters at Columbine used shotguns, a carbine rifle, and a semiautomatic pistol.)

Sandy Hook made the case for restrictions on gun access urgent. The shooter, Adam Lanza, should never have been allowed anywhere near a firearm: He had severe, untreated mental health problems, spent most of his time locked in his room, and had done obsessive research on school shootings. But the Bushmaster assault rifle he used in the shooting was legal to buy in Connecticut; lawmakers needed to either ban such weapons or make it much harder to buy them. The shooting created a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation in the Senate. After an initial attempt to reimpose an assault weapons ban went up in smoke, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey worked together on a compromise bill that would expand background checks and close the loophole that allows would-be gun purchasers to avoid background checks if they buy from so-called private sellers at events like gun shows.

But Sandy Hook also activated the fight-or-flight responses of the right. At first, the NRA collaborated with the bill’s co-sponsors to fine-tune the language and provide political cover for the Republicans who wanted to back it. Then something shifted. If the shooting itself had provided urgency to the left, the threat of a new gun control law jolted the right to action. The NRA’s membership found the bill outrageous and threatened to abandon the organization if they continued to cooperate. The organization pulled its support for the bill; the bill fell a few votes short of the 60 it needed to pass and vanished.

The narrative of Tim Mak’s Misfire begins right after Sandy Hook and follows the NRA’s transformation from a traditional legislative lobbying organization into a culture-war powerhouse, a transformation symbolized by the organization’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre. To sculpt his image, LaPierre began a decades-long relationship with the expensive advertising firm Ackerman McQueen in the 1980s; in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, it was Ackerman McQueen that encouraged him to adopt a scorched-earth approach to gun control. In the days after the shooting, LaPierre held a famous press conference during which he stated that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” and suggested arming teachers. It was no longer enough to try to water down gun reform, or to mobilize against specific laws; the NRA wanted to turn its millions of members into foot soldiers for the conservative movement more broadly.

What followed was a war between two parts of the organization: the internal Institute for Legislative Action, which had long worked with Congress to strike deals on gun reform policy, and the rapidly growing Ackerman McQueen arm, which focused on firing up the organization’s base. At least in theory, both sides answered to LaPierre, who was the longtime leader of the organization, but the truth was messier. As Mak tells it, LaPierre was the worst imaginable leader of a gun rights nonprofit: Not only did he not know how to use a computer, he didn’t even know how to fire a gun. He once “slept in and missed a golf outing with former vice president Dan Quayle—a pretty important meeting for an NRA lobbyist.” He was also infamous for his inability to make concrete decisions: As one source has it, he had the “backbone of a chocolate eclair.”

The NRA had retained a formidable political influence, despite constant infighting, thanks to its legendary mailing list: The organization could whip its millions of members into a fury about this politician or that policy proposal with just a few strokes of the keyboard. Yet on other fronts, it was flailing. In the years that followed Sandy Hook, even as the NRA attracted much more attention from liberal groups, LaPierre paid out millions of dollars to Ackerman McQueen for ill-conceived projects like the failed NRATV streaming outlet. Funds were quickly draining from the institutional coffers.

NRA membership traditionally falters under Republican presidents, when gun owners see less reason to worry that new regulation will be introduced. Accordingly, when Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, membership took a hit. But LaPierre just kept spending, held in thrall to the demands of his lieutenants. In 2018, a group of whistleblowers went to the New York state attorney general’s office to report what they alleged was a pattern of fraudulent spending by LaPierre and his wife—the couple had used charitable funds to buy tailored suits and expensive hotel rooms and had disguised the spending through a system of sham invoices. Around the same time, senior members of the NRA started to cozy up to Maria Butina, a redheaded gun rights activist from Russia who claimed to have access to Putin’s inner circle. It was obvious that Butina was a spy, but the NRA brass welcomed her into the fold anyway, and she soon began a romance with a political consultant who offered to help her arrange a back channel between the NRA and Russia.

These concurrent scandals all became public over the course of 2019 and 2020, causing a mass defection among the NRA’s leadership and damaging its credibility with the conservative public. Membership numbers aren’t public, but revenue from membership fell by 34 percent in 2019 alone. As the New York attorney general’s investigation continued, the organization tried to file for bankruptcy protection to escape a harsh judgment, proposing to transfer its operations from Virginia to Texas, but a court struck down the move.

As one might expect from a book written by a scoop-oriented political reporter, Misfire is light on big-picture analysis, but to the extent it has a thesis, the thesis is that the people in charge of the NRA were self-serving and stupid. The organization had millions of fervent members and struck fear into the hearts of lawmakers in both parties, and yet its leaders managed to drag it into crisis. At the time of writing, state Attorney General Letitia James’s case against the NRA is ongoing, though a state court in March blocked her attempt to dissolve the organization.

It has become an article of faith among liberals that the NRA is the primary obstacle to gun control legislation. It was this belief that inspired the creation of Moms Demand Action, later Everytown, a grassroots activist group funded by Michael Bloomberg: If the left wanted to fight the political power of the NRA, the logic went, it needed to build a group of equal power on the other side of the issue. Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg, the co-founder of March for Our Lives, espoused a similar view of the problem, running an ad in which he asked, “What if our politicians weren’t the bitch of the NRA?”

The decline of the NRA offered an answer to this question, and it wasn’t a promising one. Gun control groups outspent the NRA for the first time in 2018, but the policy landscape didn’t change, and even Bloomberg’s personal presence on the debate stage in the 2020 primary couldn’t make guns into a wedge issue; indeed, some on the left, such as labor reporter Kim Kelly, have defended gun ownership as a necessary self-defense measure against violent fascists. Now that the NRA is back on its heels, it’s become clearer than ever that gun control advocates are fighting not against the might of a single organizational behemoth but against a looser network of long-standing gun rights supporters (many of whom share a range of other political affiliations), as well as political apathy and congressional gridlock, which are far less energizing enemies. By late 2020, a mere 5 percent of voters ranked gun control as one of the most important political issues. Even thoughts and prayers were hard to come by.

By the same token, there was no renaissance of conservative fear about gun seizures when Joe Biden took office, despite the fact that he has long been a stalwart proponent of gun control. This was in part because the NRA was struggling, but it was also because Biden himself had refused to make gun control a major policy plank. He took executive actions to target so-called ghost guns (guns without serial numbers) and certain pistol attachments, and he issued the usual calls to Congress for reform, but the president’s major strategy for fighting violence was to “fund the police,” not to take guns out of people’s hands. Even the fantasy-prone right found it hard to see Biden as the all-powerful villain that Obama had been for them, which meant there was no similar rebound in NRA membership. This was a continuation of the decline that began under Trump: For the institution to grow, gun owners need to believe there is a threat for them to fight against. Ten years after Sandy Hook, it’s harder than ever to make that case. The NRA may have been engulfed in turmoil, but only after achieving almost total success in shifting the terms of the gun control debate.

If Americans have long failed to agree on gun control law, they had until recently been able to agree that every gun death is an unspeakable tragedy. But on this matter, too, Sandy Hook marked a turning point. In the face of a horrific act of mass murder, a portion of Americans chose not to mourn the dead but to claim that their deaths never even happened. A basic consensus was, unthinkably, gone. In her new book about the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Elizabeth Williamson states up front that it’s “not a treatise on gun policy”; indeed, it isn’t even a book about mass shooting events. As the subtitle notes, it’s a book about An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth. Williamson is a features writer for The New York Times, and, like Mak, she arrived at her subject well after the shooting itself. She started reporting on the issue only in 2018, when the victims’ families were facing a particularly cruel campaign of harassment.

This campaign began in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when Alex Jones said on an InfoWars broadcast, “My gut is, with the timing and everything that happened, this is staged.” Within a year, a group of other conspiracists had sprung up around him, propounding a wide variety of theories that all suggested the shooting was a false flag staged by the Obama administration to promote gun control. These conspiracy theorists overwhelmed officials with frivolous records requests, filmed themselves crashing victims’ memorials, and even urged families to dig up the remains of their dead children. (The town government demolished the school, and some of the parents concealed the grave sites.) This campaign went on for more than six years before a group of victims’ families sued several of the conspiracists for libel and eventually won large payouts from a few of them, including Jones.

After the opening chapters, Williamson spends very little time writing about the long-term effects of the shooting on the community of Newtown itself, instead preferring to focus on the experiences of the families who were most active in fighting disinformation. The centerpiece of the story is a man named Lenny Pozner, a former InfoWars listener himself who lost a son in the massacre and spent years fending off death threats and doxing attempts from Jones’s followers. At first, Pozner tried to reason with the conspiracists, joining one of their Facebook groups and engaging in arguments with them for hours. When that didn’t work, he turned his attention to social media, putting together a network of volunteers to report conspiracy content one video at a time and later lobbying Facebook to ban Jones and his ilk from the website outright. Eventually, frustrated with the slow progress he was making, he sued Jones and another conspiracy theorist named Wolfgang Halbig, who alleged he had faked his son’s death certificate. Even as Pozner notched victories against Jones, he and his family had to leave Connecticut and move houses several times thereafter as the most dedicated conspiracy theorists continued to ferret out his new addresses.

Thus the central narrative of the book is the battle between fact and fiction. Williamson sees the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory as one of many “sinister theories that place democratic governments at the center of dark plots to control, sicken, and murder their own citizens,” from the anti-vaccine movement to the January 6 riot—conspiracies spread at a time when “societal chasms between adherents to truth and consumers of fantasy are widening.” The Sandy Hook theory had its origins in conservative distrust of government, but over time it distorted adherents’ way of engaging with the world, leading them to stalk and harass the victims of an appalling spree of violence. The internet had helped to breed a new kind of political actor, one whose beliefs did not stem from personal experience or material circumstances and who was therefore impenetrable to reason.

If you view the Sandy Hook shooting as part of a story about the growth of misinformation in American society, then for Pozner to beat back that misinformation seems like a meaningful victory. The book ends when Jones and his ilk get kicked off social media and when the victims win a defamation lawsuit against him, and the last line goes to Pozner, who says, “I’ve won.”

Yet disinformation is only one front in the war over guns, while actual guns continue to claim tens of thousands of lives per year. Five of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history have occurred since Sandy Hook, and none of those other shootings provided the same fodder for conspiracy theorists that Sandy Hook did. While Williamson investigates what leads people to invent, disseminate, and believe conspiracy theories, she devotes little space to the deeper question of violence and the ways in which the proliferation of firearms both enables and legitimizes that violence. That guns are the primary means of violence in the United States is so obvious that it’s easy to take it for granted, but most commentators still have precious little to say about the relationship between the Second Amendment and the psychological and social distortions that make people want to murder their fellow citizens for no reason at all.

The most promising avenue for gun control may be one to which Williamson gives surprisingly little attention. After the failure of the Manchin-Toomey background check bill, a group of Sandy Hook families sued the Remington Arms Company, which manufactures the Bushmaster assault rifle that Adam Lanza used in the shooting. The suit argued that Remington was liable for the shooting not because it makes lethal weapons but because it markets those weapons to violence-prone young men: The plaintiffs noted that Remington ads referenced battle situations, and that one magazine ad said to “consider your man card reissued.” Gun manufacturers in the United States have long been protected from such suits by a liability shield, but the Connecticut Supreme Court allowed the case to move forward, ruling that Remington had violated a trade law by marketing a military-style weapon to civilians. In February, the company awarded the victims’ families a $73 million settlement.

It is unclear whether the Remington case will open up a precedent, but the company was in dire financial straits even before the lawsuit—it has gone bankrupt twice in the last five years—and it’s easy to imagine a world in which the threat of legal action induces gun manufacturers to stop producing military-style rifles. This would not bring about the end of gun violence or even of mass shootings, but it would keep the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous people. The Buffalo shooter also used a Bushmaster rifle.

That the greatest gun control victory in a generation might be the result of a legal technicality offers an object lesson about political mobilization. Even on an issue like gun control, where a major obstacle to reform has collapsed, and where the left occupies the clear moral high ground, the Democrats have proved unable to make substantive reforms through the legislative or the executive branch, and indeed have ceded a great deal of rhetorical ground to the other side. It’s not for lack of trying, but the only thing the Democrats can offer their voters after each new shooting is the very thing they castigate Republicans for offering—thoughts and prayers.