In the days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on Dec. 14, executives with a half-dozen major U.S. gun manufacturers contacted the National Rifle Association. The firearm industry representatives didn’t call the NRA, which they support with millions of dollars each year, to issue directives. On the contrary, they sought guidance on how to handle the public-relations crisis, according to people familiar with the situation who agreed to interviews on the condition they remain anonymous.
While the Obama administration had reacted meekly to mass shootings in Tucson and Aurora, Colo., Sandy Hook would be different. Twenty first-graders were dead. The president, a gun control supporter who previously had avoided the radioactive issue, wiped away tears when talking on television about the “beautiful little kids.” As a nation, the normally stoic president added, “We have been through this too many times.” In crass political terms, he was newly reelected and had less to lose in confronting pro-gun forces. The NRA’s leadership faced a choice: Go to the mattresses as usual, or acknowledge the special horror of Sandy Hook and offer an olive branch.
That decision rested with Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s chief executive since 1991. One of Washington’s most durable and enigmatic power brokers, LaPierre arrived at the organization in 1978 with a master’s in political science from Boston College. The bookish Roanoke (Va.) native didn’t know much about firearms. Colleagues joked that duck hunting with Wayne was more dangerous for the hunters than the ducks. Nevertheless, driven by an ambition impressive even by Washington standards, he rose swiftly, a mild-mannered presence in private who developed an Elmer Gantry-like persona for speeches and interviews.
In the immediate wake of Sandy Hook, the NRA reassured nervous gun company reps that they could stand down, according to people familiar with the situation. LaPierre would handle it.
One week after the massacre, he delivered a nationally televised tirade tinged with his trademark cultural resentment and paranoia. “Is the press and the political class here in Washington, D.C., so consumed by fear and hatred of the NRA and American gun owners,” he said, “that you’re willing to accept the world where real resistance to evil monsters is [an] unarmed school principal left to surrender her life, her life, to shield those children in her care?”
As intended, LaPierre’s performance received massive media attention. It also upset many—including some gun makers. “The funerals were still going on in Newtown,” says Joseph Bartozzi. “Parents were burying their children.” A senior vice president at O.F. Mossberg & Sons, a shotgun and rifle manufacturer in North Haven, Conn., Bartozzi belongs to the NRA and applauds its stalwart defense of Second Amendment rights. But this time, LaPierre’s diatribe struck him as ill-timed and graceless.
The companies that make and market firearms might prefer a softer tone, but they rarely complain publicly about NRA fear mongering because it’s been so good for business. Corporate donations to the NRA, which together with its affiliates has annual revenue of $250 million, have risen during the past decade, a period when the organization has taken increasingly absolutist positions. Still, it’s not the industry that muscles the NRA.
“NRA leadership worries about two things above all else: perpetuating controversy to stimulate fundraising from individual members and protecting its right flank from the real crazies,” says Richard Feldman, author of a feisty 2007 memoir, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist. Feldman has worked in various capacities for both the NRA and the industry. “The idea that the NRA follows orders from the gun companies is a joke,” he says. “If anything, it’s the other way around.”
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam declined to comment for this article, as did LaPierre and other top officials at the lobby group’s Fairfax (Va.) headquarters. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun control advocate, founded Bloomberg LP, which owns this magazine.
Gun companies defer to the NRA for two main reasons: First, there’s intimidation. The lobby group has incited potentially ruinous consumer boycotts against firearm makers that fail to follow the NRA line with sufficient zeal. Second, regardless of some executives’ concerns about civil discourse, gun companies benefit financially from the NRA’s hype. Alarms about imminent gun confiscation—an NRA staple, despite its implausibility—reliably send firearm owners back to retail counters. Sales are booming. Mossberg is running three shifts a day. “Demand,” Bartozzi says, “is very strong.”
The two-story red brick Mossberg factory in North Haven stands behind barbed-wire-topped fencing just 25 miles east of Newtown, where the Sandy Hook children died, along with six educators. On the fatal morning, dazed company workers ran the production line with tears in their eyes. “They’re neighbors,” Bartozzi says. “Something like that, 20 little kids dead—what’s the answer?”
Founded in 1919 and still owned by the wealthy Mossberg family, the company manufactures more pump-action shotguns than anyone else in the world. For generations, hunters, trap shooters, police departments, and the Pentagon have purchased its highly regarded weapons. In 2011, Mossberg began making the sort of large-capacity, military-style semiautomatic rifle used by the Newtown madman. The killer fired a Bushmaster Firearms International model, but it could just as easily have been a Mossberg. On the day I visited, a rack of black phosphate-finish MMR Tactical Rifles accommodating 30-round magazines awaited packaging and shipping near the loading dock. They retail for about $1,000 each.
Bartozzi, a former plant manager, has worked in the firearm industry for 33 years. He knew Sandy Hook would reignite gun control hostilities in Washington and the state capital of Hartford. “I get it,” he says. “Politicians want to do something.” Sure enough, Congress and Connecticut legislators were soon debating proposals to ban the sale of semiautomatics like those 30-round MMR Tactical Rifles. The instantly vicious tone of the debate, however, took even Bartozzi by surprise. The NRA, he says, should have “waited longer and tried to be more respectful of people who might disagree with them and still be struggling with grief.”
Reaching out to those who disagree with him isn’t the LaPierre way. A former legislative aide in the Virginia statehouse, he joined the NRA staff just after a brutal putsch by Second Amendment firebrands ousted the cadre of more reticent sportsmen who had traditionally dominated the group. The NRA made its first-ever presidential endorsement in 1980, when it backed Ronald Reagan. The sharper-edged gun organization joined conservative evangelicals and anti-abortion activists as ascendant players in the Reagan revolution.
Even after taking the NRA’s helm in 1991, LaPierre fenced with the likes of Neal Knox, a lobbyist known for even more inflammatory, conspiracy views. Knox, who died eight years ago, insinuated in a gun periodical in 1994 that the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were part of a liberal plot to justify government confiscation of firearms.
LaPierre performed a remarkable high-wire act, trying to consolidate power, marginalize the Knoxites, and keep member contributions flowing. He became a “skilled hunter,” according to the NRA’s website. In 1995 he spiced a fundraising appeal with references to “federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms” who “seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” Those comments struck some NRA members as over the line, especially after April 19, 1995, when insurrectionist Timothy McVeigh blew up an Oklahoma City building housing federal agents, killing 168 people. Former President George H. W. Bush quit the NRA in protest.
The Columbine (Colo.) high school massacre, which took 13 innocent lives in April 1999, prompted LaPierre to lean slightly in the other direction. At an NRA convention in Denver shortly afterward, he endorsed gun-free schools. “We believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools,” he told attendees. “That means no guns in America’s schools, period.” In congressional testimony, he urged lawmakers to expand the computerized Federal Bureau of Investigation background check system for sales by federally licensed retailers to cover “private” transactions at weekend gun shows and elsewhere.
LaPierre’s Columbine response earned him no affection from gun control backers and mostly disdain from “the base,” says Feldman, the former NRA operative. “Wayne took incredible grief among the more extreme elements, and he must have resolved, ‘never again.’ ”
To understand LaPierre’s reaction to Newtown, it’s crucial to know that his organization does not possess a monopoly on the gun rights movement. Smaller, even more confrontational groups jostle with the NRA for attention and give LaPierre heartburn, say people who have worked with him over the years. Gun Owners of America, for example, calls itself “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington,” an unsubtle dig at the NRA. Two days after the elementary school massacre, Larry Pratt, leader of the Springfield (Va.)-based GOA, jumped in front of LaPierre with a blistering op-ed in USA Today: “In addition to the gunman, blood is on the hands of members of Congress and the Connecticut legislators who voted to ban guns from all schools in Connecticut. They are the ones who made it illegal to defend oneself with a gun in a school.” Pratt’s group says it has 300,000 members; the NRA claimed 4 million before Newtown and says it has added hundreds of thousands since.
With Pratt on the warpath, LaPierre did not want to repeat what he saw in retrospect as his Columbine mistake, according to people present at the time. In his Dec. 21 appearance, he called for armed security in all schools, scorning gun-free classrooms as an enticement to “every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.” More broadly, he described the country as plagued by surging bloodshed and dislocation. “Add another hurricane, terrorist attack, or some other natural or man-made disaster,” he said, “and you’ve got a recipe for a national nightmare of violence and victimization.”
Apocalyptic rhetoric reverberates through American gun rights circles. Matt Barber, vice president of Liberty Counsel Action, a Christian-right advocacy group, warned in a Jan. 11 article on the WorldNetDaily website that by pushing gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook, Obama was “playing a very dangerous game of chicken” with firearm owners: “I fear this nation, already on the precipice of widespread civil unrest and economic disaster,” he wrote, “might finally spiral into utter chaos, into a second civil war.”
At a Jan. 20 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont noted that Second Amendment advocates have taken more extreme positions over the years. The Democratic senator asked LaPierre about his past support for background checks at gun shows. As with gun-free schools, LaPierre said that he had abandoned his earlier stance. Then he went further, condemning the background check system for licensed dealers: “I mean, we all know that homicidal maniacs, criminals, and the insane don’t abide by the law.”
That’s not how a lot of the gun industry sounds. In mid-January, a month after Sandy Hook, the industry held its annual meet-and-greet, the SHOT (Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade) Show in Las Vegas. In a keynote speech, Steve Sanetti, the president of the sponsoring trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, boasted that the industry had helped invent computerized background checks in the 1980s, years before they became mandatory under federal law. “There have been 147 million background checks since 1998,” he said proudly.
Sanetti, a former general counsel for gun manufacturer Sturm Ruger, didn’t rail about the breakdown of law and order, let alone a second civil war. He stressed that the U.S. has a vibrant gun culture: “Over 300 million firearms are owned by almost half the households in America.” (Gallup reports that “nearly 1 in 3 Americans personally owns a gun, and nearly half of households do.”) “Firearm ownership among normal, law-abiding citizens has undeniably increased,” he continued, “and over the last 30 years, despite the growth in firearm ownership, the homicide rate has declined by 50 percent, and violent crime has dramatically decreased to record lows not seen since the early 1960s.” That’s a far cry from Barber’s or LaPierre’s dystopia.
Over a couple of days, my interviews of executives and trade association officials at the SHOT expo revealed a significant patch of potential common ground between the industry and the White House. There was little opposition to expanding background checks to cover private sales, a proposal that the administration has identified as its top priority. A beefed-up check system would not necessarily stop a determined mass killer, but proponents argue that it would provide a deterrent to a range of questionable transactions.
The businesspeople I spoke to in Las Vegas weren’t brave about their views. Their not-for-attribution logic went like this: Licensed gun retailers, from giant Wal-Mart Stores to mom-and-pop Main Street shops, already do background checks. These gun sellers would not mind seeing their unlicensed dealer competition forced to comply with the same rules. Most gun manufacturers, meanwhile, are agnostic on the issue. They sell their products to wholesalers, which in turn do business with licensed dealers.
On March 5, the Washington Post quoted Sanetti as saying that comprehensive background checks “are more the NRA’s issue.” He added: “From the commercial side, we’re already there, and we’ve been there, and we were the ones that have been the strongest proponents of an effective, complete background check.” The same day, Sanetti clamorously retreated in a press release, saying that the newspaper “incorrectly implies” that his statement put him at odds with the NRA.
The gun industry has not always been so timid. For a brief period in the 1990s, executives at some companies rethought their relationship with the NRA. Feldman says LaPierre’s likening federal agents to Nazis particularly stirred apprehension. “Gun companies wanted to sell guns to law-abiding citizens and cops. They didn’t want to be associated with McVeigh and the black-helicopter crowd,” he says.
In October 1997, senior executives from Smith & Wesson, Glock, and other handgun manufacturers trooped to the White House Rose Garden for a photo op with Bill Clinton—a gesture of cooperation with a Democratic president unimaginable today. Feldman, then the executive director of a trade group called the American Shooting Sports Council, had orchestrated the televised event. Clinton praised the gun companies for volunteering to ship a trigger lock with every handgun. The manufacturers did so as an alternative to a proposed federal lock mandate. Before the ceremony, Feldman joked with Clinton that there would be hell to pay from the NRA: “I want to thank you, Mr. President,” Feldman recalls saying, “for offering to find me a spot in the federal witness protection program.” Clinton chuckled.
LaPierre was not amused. He sent a vitriolic open letter to the executives who visited the Rose Garden. “Firearm safety—as it’s being pressed by the Administration—is a phony,” LaPierre wrote. “It is simply a stalking horse for gun bans.” Rather than herald an era of gun control détente, the Rose Garden episode turned out to be the high point of tension between gun makers and the NRA. In 1998 and 1999, gun control activists working with big-city mayors and the Clinton administration launched a series of lawsuits against the industry en masse—an attempt to imitate earlier litigation against cigarette manufacturers. While the much larger tobacco companies could afford to settle (ultimately for $246 billion to be paid over a quarter-century), the U.S. gun industry at the time had total annual sales of only about $1.3 billion. Defense lawyer fees alone threatened some firearm companies’ financial viability.
This created an opening for the NRA. “Your fight has become our fight,” ex-Hollywood star Charlton Heston, then the group’s ceremonial president, told executives at the winter 1999 SHOT Show. In 2000, when Smith & Wesson tried to resolve its liability problems by negotiating a truce with the Clinton administration, under which S&W agreed to unprecedented federal regulation, the NRA helped incite a consumer boycott that nearly destroyed the company. Smith & Wesson renounced its settlement and was readmitted to the fold. The NRA then pressed successfully for state and federal statutes that summarily extinguished the municipal lawsuits.
Along the way, most gun companies, with the NRA’s encouragement, branded the wheeler-dealer Feldman persona non grata and shut down his trade group. Today he leads a small organization called the Independent Firearm Owners Association, which promotes gun rights but also backs expanded background checks. “I think you could say that the industry learned a lesson,” Feldman says: “If you cross the NRA, you will pay for it.”
Having rescued the gun companies from death by lawsuit, the NRA informed the industry in 2005 that a reward would be appropriate. Over the next six years, various companies donated a total of between $14.7 million and $38.9 million, according to the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center, which analyzed NRA records. About three-quarters of NRA corporate donors came from the firearm industry, others from fields such as insurance and advertising.
The corporate generosity continues. During the past year, the NRA has welcomed Smith & Wesson to its Ring of Freedom program for donations exceeding $1 million. At the NRA’s annual meeting last year in St. Louis, Sturm Ruger presented a check for $1.25 million.
Drawing on the Violence Policy Center’s research, activist groups such as MoveOn.org have focused their post-Newtown politicking “on who the NRA really is and who really calls the shots, which is the gun companies,” according to Garlin Gilchrist II. MoveOn’s Washington-based national campaign director, Gilchrist adds that the NRA “is the mechanism by which the gun industry is spreading the money around to block common-sense reforms and preserve loopholes in existing laws.” In an online campaign called “The NRA Doesn’t Speak for Me,” MoveOn is promoting gun owners who favor greater restrictions. “We’ve never seen a reaction from our members like this on any issue,” Gilchrist says. MoveOn has raised nearly $1 million in donations on the gun issue since Jan. 1.
By accelerating its corporate buck-raking, the NRA opened itself to MoveOn’s critique. The question, though, is whether liberals are accomplishing anything other than gathering money and mirroring their foe’s conspiracy talk. There’s no indication that attention to NRA financing has propelled legislation in Washington, where it remains uncertain whether the Democratic-controlled Senate will pass something ambitious. The House, dominated by Republicans, is even less likely to approve gun control measures.
Corporate dollars, moreover, still make up only a modest fraction of the NRA’s budget. Most of its money comes from individual dues and contributions, ads sold by NRA publications, and merchandise. During a Jan. 13 interview with CNN, David Keene, the NRA’s president, said corporate fundraising will continue, adding: “We get less money from the industry than we’d like to get.”
Mossberg doesn’t appear on the NRA’s roster of the top 93 corporate donors, but it does promote NRA membership to its customers. The Mossberg family typically keeps a low profile, and its company doesn’t disclose its financial results. Bartozzi will say that, like the rest of the industry, his employer has been enjoying strong revenue, in part because of the “Obama surge,” a buying spree that began in late 2008 in response to the NRA’s warnings that President Obama eventually would make it more difficult to acquire certain guns. Industrywide sales for 2011 were $4.3 billion, up 30 percent since 2008. “We have shown a year-over-year increase in sales for several years,” Bartozzi says. He expresses gratitude to the NRA. The group, he says, “protects Second Amendment rights, and those rights protect the ability to buy our products.”
The current round of gun control debates would have had less effect on Mossberg had the company not begun, in 2011, to manufacture the military-style rifles referred to within the industry as AR-15s or, by gun opponents, as assault weapons. “We’re late to the AR game,” Bartozzi says. “We sell those because that’s what people want. Our customers drive our decisions.” Mossberg invested $4 million last year in plant improvements, largely to accommodate its AR-15 products for hunting and law enforcement. Industrywide, some 4 million AR-15s have sold in the past decade.
Bartozzi frames his arguments in practical terms. He doesn’t expect bans of military-style weapons or large magazines to pass Congress. The Connecticut legislature is another story. Mossberg’s home state appears poised to approve new restrictions on certain rifles, as Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, insists that Newtown demands a dramatic response.
The NRA and the Connecticut Citizens Defense League have organized popular opposition to the state curbs, including a March 11 rally in Hartford that featured a caricature of Governor Malloy as a British redcoat with a proclamation that it’s “1775 all over again.” Connecticut gun executives, including Bartozzi and officials with Colt’s Manufacturing, based in the state since the mid-19th century, have been lobbying in less emotional terms. In an interview, Bartozzi suggests that Connecticut companies should get an exemption from any legislation that would allow them to continue manufacturing AR-15s, even if in-state sales of the rifles became illegal. Such an anomaly seems odd: Go ahead and build the weapons, but make sure to sell them elsewhere. Bartozzi says it would be justified, in part, because of Connecticut’s special role in firearm history. “Eli Whitney started the American gun industry in Connecticut in the 1700s,” he says. “It would be a shame to destroy that good and long history. Also, Connecticut needs the jobs.”
The Mossbergs reside in the state and want the company to continue operating there, he says. But depending on the regulatory landscape, the family will have to consider moving more, or all, of its operations to a Mossberg plant in Eagle Pass, Tex., which already employs a majority of the company’s 670 workers.
“We know we’re going to get some kind of legislation in Connecticut,” Bartozzi says. “All we’re asking is that we be at the table to lend our expertise and work out a way for people to keep making firearms in this state. Otherwise, we’ll just make them somewhere else.”