The NRA Muddles Its Message in Surprise CPAC Speech

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - FEBRUARY 22:  Vice President of the NRA Wayne LaPierre speaks during CPAC 2018 February 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. The American Conservative Union hosted its annual Conservative Political Action Conference to discuss conservative agenda.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Vice President of the NRA Wayne LaPierre speaks during CPAC 2018 February 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. The American Conservative Union hosted its annual Conservative Political Action Conference to discuss conservative agenda.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—There was some intrigue about whether the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre would be making an appearance at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) after last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. His absence from the conference’s online schedule early this week–evidently as a precaution against anti-gun protesters–was in itself remarkable. The Washington Examiner pointed out in an article on the mystery that LaPierre has spoken at CPAC “every year for at least the past decade.”

The question was finally resolved on the printed schedules made available to attendees upon their arrival. LaPierre was given a 10 a.m. slot, shortly before Vice President Pence was slated to take the stage, ensuring a big audience for a speech that was ultimately a bit tepid by LaPierre’s usual rabble-rousing standards. He opted, wisely, to begin with pseudo-solemnity. “We have serious discussions ahead, and serious issues that impact each and every one of us,” he said. “Just a week ago, we were all horrified by another terrible tragedy at an American school. Each and every member of the National Rifle Association mourns the loss of the innocent and continues to keep their families and that community in our prayers. We share a goal of safe schools, safe neighborhoods, and a safe country.”

That dreary business aside, he settled into his preferred mode. “In the midst of genuine grief, and a very understandable passion, as millions of Americans search for meaningful solutions, what do we find?” he asked. “Chris Murphy, Nancy Pelosi, and more cheered on by the national media eager to blame the NRA and call for even more government control. They hate the NRA. They hate the Second Amendment. They hate individual freedom.”

“They,” as he would explain over the remainder of his speech, included not only Democratic politicians and the media, but a few more usual suspects: Black Lives Matter, antifa, Occupy Wall Street, professors assigning the Communist Manifesto and so on—the parties he warned would necessitate armed vigilance in his speech to CPAC last year. “The left’s message is absolutely clear,” he’d said. “They want revenge. You have to be punished. They say you are what is wrong with America. And now, you have to be purged.”

Even conservative listeners were presumably expecting a little more than bile this time around, as Republicans have seemingly been cornered by the unexpected activism in the wake of the shooting into actively considering solutions for gun violence. Much of the conversation about gun control in the wake of Stoneman Douglas has centered around restricting gun ownership for those with mental health issues. On this, the NRA has mixed its messaging. LaPierre dedicated a section of his speech to condemning an Obama administration rule repealed by Trump that put Social Security recipients who had their finances managed by others due to mental illness into the background check system. “Good, law-abiding people were automatically and unjustly declared mentally incompetent and put on a new government list,” he said. “And oh how socialists love to make lists. Especially lists that can be used to deny citizens their basic freedoms.” Yet, minutes later, LaPierre was stressing that “anyone adjudicated as mentally incompetent or a danger to society should be added to the check system and prevented from getting their hands on a gun.”

This echoed statements from Dana Loesch’s in her appearance in CNN’s Parkland town hall Wednesday night. “He should, A, never have been able to get a firearm, she said of Stoneman Douglas shooter Nikolas Cruz. “B, people who are crazy should not be able to get firearms.”

In a piece early Thursday, the Washington Post’s Phillip Bump noted both that legal gun purchasers with clear signs of mental illnesses have been responsible for a minority of mass shootings and the NRA’s contradiction. “The NRA opposed the Obama rule and advocated for its repeal,” he wrote early Thursday. “But this is theoretically what Loesch wants to see: determinations of mental fitness that can be used to guide gun ownership. How else could a gun store owner know whether he was selling a firearm to someone whose mental fitness was compromised?”

In her speech preceding LaPierre, Loesch offered, rather than answers to such questions, barbs aimed at the FBI, protesters she claimed had rushed the stage at CNN’s town hall screaming “burn her” and legacy media outlets. “Many in legacy media love mass shootings,” she said. “Crying white mothers are ratings gold to you and many in the legacy media in the back. And notice I said crying white mothers because there are thousands of grieving black mothers in Chicago every weekend, and you don’t see town halls for them, do you?”

You do, actually. MSNBC held one last year. But the line fired up the crowd anyway—almost as much as LaPierre’s closing to his own speech. “Lean in, listen to me now and never forget these words: To stop a bad guy with a guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun.”