Just a few days after gunmen entered Columbine High School in 1999 and murdered 13 students and adults, the National Rifle Association found itself in a situation darkly similar to what we’re seeing play out this week.
At the time, the gun group had plans to hold their annual national gathering just a few days after the school shooting that rocked a generation of Americans. And it was set to take place a few miles away from the scene of the massacre, in Denver.
As is the case today, NRA leaders ultimately opted to carry on with the planned convention, concerned that canceling it would rob officials of the opportunity to own the organization’s response to the tragedy, which was the deadliest school shooting during that decade in America.
In 2021, an NPR report revealed the tenor with which NRA officials grappled with how to handle their dilemma back in 1999. It documents the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the creation of a pseudo playbook for gun-violence crisis management — one that has defined the organization’s approach to these tragedies in the decades since, up to and including the statement the organization released today in the wake of another horrific massacre of young children in Texas.
NPR obtained more than two hours of audio recordings from NRA officials’ private meetings. At the time, there were lots of blunt remarks tossed around by officials, speculating about how the organization should go about saving face. There were frank discussions about how a substantial donation to victims might come across in the media. The organization was reportedly concerned that canceling the event entirely would lead the public to a conclusion that the gun group has gone to great lengths to combat over the years: that, in these mass killings, it is at fault.
You can read the whole piece for yourself, but here’s a quick rundown of other moments found in the NPR tapes:
- NRA officials, including current Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, are heard scrambling to justify holding the conference alongside the “horrible, horrible, horrible juxtaposition” the timing of the gathering presented.
- Officials are also heard admonishing their own, specifically the most extreme voices included in NRA membership that were considered fringe at the time. Back then, officials characterized some far-right members of the NRA as “hillbillies” and “fruitcakes” whom leaders feared would hijack the organization’s response to the deadly shooting. It goes without saying, but those kinds of fringe voices remain with us today.
- The group also discussed how to work with lawmakers on a national level, with at least one participant on a strategy call suggesting members of Congress would just play along with whatever script the NRA chose to run with. At one point a participant said that some members of Congress at the time had suggested that the gun group “secretly provide them with talking points.”
- Officials also discussed donating “a million dollars” to a fund for victims of the attack, but worried that such a large donation would be “twisted” by the media.
- The NRA ultimately went through with the event, which was met with thousands of protesters. During his speech, then-NRA President Charlton Heston aggressively delivered a familiar line to attendees — one that, in essence, abridges much of how the organization approaches gun violence in America to this day: “Why us? Because their story needs a villain. They want us to play the heavy in their drama of packaged grief, to provide riveting programming to run between commercials for cars and cat food,” Heston said in 1999. “The dirty secret of this day and age is that political gain and media ratings all too often bloom on fresh graves.”
The script hasn’t changed much over the years. Per NPR:
Over the next two decades, this unapologetic message would come to define the NRA’s tone in the wake of mass shootings at American schools. After 32 people were killed at Virginia Tech in 2007: ‘This is a time for people to grieve, to mourn, and to heal. This is not a time for political discussions or public policy debates.’ After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School: ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ And after the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., the NRA’s spokesperson said bluntly, ‘Many in legacy media love mass shootings.’
The NRA put out a statement today, confirming it plans to go through with its annual event in Houston on Friday, despite the attack in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday. The gun group pointed to the ongoing investigations into the Robb Elementary School shooting, in which 19 children and at least two adults were killed, vowing to use the gathering as a moment to “reflect” and “pray” — a deployment of the “thoughts and prayers” line that has now become a tired platitude for the pro-gun lobby and its allies.
“We recognize this was the act of a lone, deranged criminal,” the statement read. “As we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”
TPM has been tracking the fallout and its impact on the NRA convention today. Republican Govs. Kristi Noem (ND) and Greg Abbott (TX) still plan to speak at the conference on Friday, alongside ex-President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Only Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) have thus far canceled their appearances in the wake of the attack, with both lawmakers’ offices claiming they’d already decided against appearing for scheduling reasons before the devastating shooting took place.
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On the filibuster front: Sinema: ‘D.C. Solutions’ Not ‘Realistic’ On Reforming Filibuster To Pass Gun Control
And finally, in case you missed it, Bidens speech last night: Irate Biden Demands Reform: ‘When In God’s Name’ Will We ‘Stand Up To The Gun Lobby’
Catch up on last night’s coverage of the primaries here:
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