Wayne's world, party-time.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

NRA Shows Its True Color

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Last weekend's National Rifle Association annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, had something for everyone. For mainstream NRA members, there were guns aplenty. For the gullible, there was a discussion of "no-go zones" -- U.S. neighborhoods living under the iron hijab of sharia law. For liberals and gun-regulation advocates, there was seemingly endless fodder for snark

There may even have been an answer to a crucial question: Why now?

QuickTake Guns in America

Why are gun-industry sales so robust, and the gun movement so militant, at this particular moment? Sure, the Supreme Court emboldened the movement with its 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which for the first time established an unambiguous individual right to bear arms outside a well-regulated militia. But that hardly explains years of record gun sales or the wave of maximalist gun legislation sweeping the South and much of the West. Heller established a (regulated) right to arms. It didn't require them in every corner bar.

The gun movement's lunar phase, and the embrace of its most radical aims by conservative legislators, follows a two-decade plummet in violent crime, a decline in household gun ownership and a decline in hunting. In effect, while leading cultural indicators point in one direction, the gun movement and its political allies are a red-hot vector racing in the opposite one.

The U.S. has been experiencing an Obama-era surge in gun sales. And that's just for purchases that can be tracked. Who knows what's happening in the illegal market, the online market, the private-dealer flea market/gun show market, the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend market.

The nature of gun marketing has also evolved, toward "tactical" weapons essentially designed for warriors or the likes of Jason Bourne. (Take a good look at the Barrett M107A1 sniper rifle. "Driven by the demands of combat," its manufacturer states, this massive rifle is "designed to be used with a suppressor." Not by Navy Seals, mind you; by your neighbor.) 

So on one hand we have a rise in gun purchases, a rise in "guns everywhere" (and guns nearly everywhere) legislation, a rise in guns deliberately suited to war zones and a rise in seriously spooky talk from the likes of NRA front-man Wayne LaPierre, who portrays a nation under violent siege.

On the other hand, we live in a significantly safer country than we did a few years ago.  

In Nashville, LaPierre supplied a way to understand these starkly disjointed developments.

For nearly seven years now, the president has forced his transformation down America’s throat, and our nation is choking on it. As he prepares to leave office, and leave his final legacy, there’s no telling how far President Obama will go to dismantle our freedoms and reshape America into an America that you and I will not even recognize.

LaPierre expressed alarm about the prospects of a dangerous presidential transition from the nightmare of Barack Obama to the horror of Hillary Clinton. ("Hillary Rodham Clinton will bring a permanent darkness of deceit," he warned.)

"I have to tell you," LaPierre said, "eight years of one demographically-symbolic president is enough."

Race has had enormous explanatory power throughout American history. It still does. In Wayne's world, only white men are the real McCoy. The gun movement is largely conservative, white and male. If your vision of America is a place where white men rightfully run the show and women and racial minorities are bit players on the national stage, and if you're fearful of the changes that are inexorably undermining that vision, well, then, it may make some kind of sense to carry a gun to the grocery store.

Most places in America are significantly safer than they were two decades ago. But time, demographics and change are more dangerous than ever.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net