NRA members say they have survived the backlash from Columbine, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and other shooting massacres, and as they prepare to gather for their annual convention this week they are confident that the Florida shooting will be no different.
Gun control activists are determined to prove them wrong.
As the National Rifle Association gathers in Dallas, where President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will speak, those who have watched the gun debate stagnate over the years wonder whether something has changed in the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting spree in Parkland, Florida.
Corporate sponsors have withdrawn their support from the NRA, and the gun control movement has perhaps its most dynamic spokespeople yet: hundreds of high school students, including survivors of the Parkland shooting, who have made it a mission to undermine the NRA.
Members of the NRA are unbowed and undeterred. They say their leaders have struck the right tone against the renewed onslaught and mounted a firm defense of a right enshrined in the Constitution. March was one of the NRA’s best fundraising months in years.
“There’s nothing wrong with the NRA’s tone. There is nothing wrong with us fighting to protect freedom and the Second Amendment,” said Marion Hammer, a former NRA president who is helping the group fight Florida’s new minimum age requirement of 21 to buy most rifles in the state.
“I think that people have lost sight of civility, responsibility and accountability. The name of the game seems to be to blame anybody but what’s really responsible,” she said. “And the NRA is not responsible. Anybody with an ounce of sense knows that.”
If anything, NRA members say, they are being targeted by a national press and an anti-gun movement that have sparked threats and vitriol.
Vandals have targeted the Alexandria, Virginia, home of Chris W. Cox, head of the NRA’s legislative lobbying arm, multiple times this year by splashing it with fake blood.
Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and an NRA board member, said the group has become accustomed to cyclical backlashes after shootings.
“Many of us have become accustomed to having to work through when these incidents happen, and people see what they perceive to be a political vulnerability, and we’ve had to stay the course and work through issues,” he said. “That’s what we’ve done.”
Gun control advocates say things changed substantively after Parkland, where a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-15-style rifle and opened fire on former classmates, killing 17 students and faculty.
The shooting has reverberated throughout the country. Several states have stiffened laws on gun sales, and Congress has approved a bill to push for more records to be added to the national background check system.
Mr. Trump offered his solution — arming teachers — and publicly mocked a sheriff’s deputy who was on the scene of the February shooting but didn’t enter the school.
Perhaps the biggest change from previous shootings is the confluence of outraged television news anchors and a made-for-TV set of activists: students who survived the shooting and vowed to make their ordeal a catalyst.
They have directed their energy toward pushing for stricter gun controls and on calling out the NRA directly, vowing to curb the gun rights group’s massive political influence both in Washington and across the country.
David Hogg, one of the more vocal students, is a major backer of the #NoNRAMoney campaign. Cameron Kasky, another student, took to Twitter to mock the NRA after the Secret Service said the organization’s members wouldn’t be able to have their firearms during the speeches by the president and vice president.
“The NRA has evolved into such a hilarious parody of itself,” he tweeted.
Gun control advocates say the students’ ability to directly confront the gun rights lobby has helped fundamentally change the nature of the debate.
“Their work to call BS has changed the way people think about and talk about this issue,” said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Part of it is the genuineness and candor from these young people who say, ‘I don’t understand how we can accept this.'”
After the March 24 March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control, the Brady Campaign launched an initiative with local town halls and voter registration efforts to try to keep youths energized through the November elections.
Several other gun control groups, including Michael R. Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ organization, also announced a big-dollar campaign last month aimed at registering young people to vote.
With pro-gun Republicans controlling both the White House and Congress, the NRA has redirected its attacks since Parkland toward the liberal media, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill and the law enforcement personnel who have acknowledged missteps in the run-up and during the attack.
Mr. Cox said any negative press coverage of the convention won’t knock the NRA off its game.
“And you know what? We get up and we celebrate the next day and we come out of it energized and ready and go do whatever it takes to defend this freedom,” he said in a recent appearance on NRATV. “So they can have their fun; they can have their games. We’re going to have a celebration, and we’re going to come out energized with a moral purpose to take to November to make sure that we keep this going.”
Gun rights advocates also haven’t been shy about going after the Stoneman Douglas activists.
Former Rep. Allen West, an NRA board member, recently threatened to figuratively “spank” Mr. Hogg, one of the students, in challenging him to a debate.
“When I spank you ideologically and mentally, and every other way, because you’re not ready to have this debate, don’t go running off and saying I’m just a kid; I’m just an 18-year-old,” Mr. West said in a recent Facebook video chat. “Don’t step into the adult world and then try to claim you need a safe space, because we’re very serious about defending the rights and freedoms that we have.”
Mr. Hogg hasn’t been afraid to fight back. He has gone after the NRA and the outsized influence advocates say it holds over Republican politicians and called for Mr. Pence to abandon his scheduled appearance in Dallas.
“What if our politicians weren’t the bitch of the NRA?” Mr. Hogg said in a video earlier this year.
Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, another NRA board member, said the organization will continue to defend the Second Amendment. He said the NRA should be willing to take part in a civil discourse but the other side is making things increasingly difficult.
“The radical left in this country has become increasingly radical and intolerant of real civil discourse,” he said. “That does not include shouting people down in meetings or throwing artificial blood on people’s private homes.”
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