Inside NRA University: The Gun Group Takes Supporters to School

A crash course in the gun debate, taught by the lobbying powerhouse that shapes it.

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Adrees Latif / REUTERS

A woman takes aim with a Beretta shotgun at an exhibit booth at the George R. Brown convention center, the site for the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meeting in Houston, Texas May 5, 2013.

Past the oil painting of Ronald Reagan and the picture windows with views of the barges churning up the Mississippi, a group of gun-rights activists is going back to school. The class filing into a conference room for a lecture on the constitutional right to bear arms is mostly older, nearly all white, and filled with freedom-loving fervor.

This is NRA University, a crash course in the facts and fallacies of the gun debate, as defined by the lobbying powerhouse that is shaping it. The NRA often holds these seminars for college kids. This event is an abbreviated version, a one-hour PowerPoint for attendees of this weekend’s RedState gathering in New Orleans, where a few hundred conservative activists gathered at a hotel on the edge of the French Quarter to network and commiserate.

Miranda Bond, an energetic NRA grassroots coordinator in a black dress and heels, is the confab’s instructor. Her audience sits rapt. Near a pair of prim grandmothers scrawling notes is a man in a black T-shirt with a logo of two crossed guns inside the mouth of a skull. Up front, a middle-aged woman in a leopard-print top is telling a joke whose punch line involves Hillary Clinton and a bicycle.

Bond’s presentation was a sermon for the converted, stripped of context and countervailing argument. But it offered a window into how the NRA is waging its ongoing fight to prevent Congress from curtailing gun laws. Here are some of the main points:

The NRA is not the gun lobby. 

“That is the exact opposite of what we are,” says Bond, a four-year NRA veteran. “We are the oldest civil rights lobby in the country. A lot of people don’t give us that credit.” The organization was formed in New York state in 1871 in response to the lackluster marksmanship of the Union Army. But it’s impossible to deny its lobbying clout. The session Bond was teaching was sponsored by the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, which is the NRA’s lobbying arm. The organization spent some $24 million in campaign contributions, lobbying and outside spending in 2012. And much of Bond’s talk focused on why the NRA’s lobbying efforts are calibrated for maximum effect, down to the trademark orange cards it disseminates to members.

Words matter.

The English language is a strategic battleground in the war over gun control. Media, Bond tells attendees, are masters at devising buzzwords that twist the truth. “They use all kinds of terms to make us scary,” she says. Take the phrase high-capacity magazines. The better term, Bond explains, is standard capacity, because these magazine are “very common. They’re what people use. So they’re standard – not high-capacity.” Or consider universal background checks. Such a thing cannot possibly exist, she posits, because criminals won’t comply. “There’s no such thing,” Bond says, so we shouldn’t use the term. Wittgenstein might cringe, but the audience nods knowingly.

Guns are not nearly as dangerous as the media suggests.

Forget the hazards of operating an automobile. You are more likely to be killed by someone’s hands or feet, or by a club or hammer, than to succumb to rifle gunshot, the audience learns. Assault weapons, which the NRA considers a liberal smear term, are used in less than 2% of all crimes. As gun ownership climbs, violent crime has fallen.

Michael Bloomberg is the big NRA bogeyman. 

The mere mention of the New York City mayor’s name drew a chorus of boos. The class rumbled angrily during a video clip that assailed Bloomberg’s organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, for reciting the name of deceased Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev during an event in New Hampshire to mourn victims of gun violence. (The group later apologized.) Bond cited a Bloomberg fundraiser for West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to suggest that the Democrat–who holds an A rating from the NRA but recently crafted the background-check deal that died in the Senate this spring–had defected to the dark side.

Bloomberg wasn’t the only politician targeted during the session. There were video clips mocking Vice President Joe Biden, and snippets from an interview of New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, a gun-control crusader, dodging questions in a way that made clear she did not understand the fine points of firearms.  “If you are legislating things that affect our lives, you should know what you’re talking about,” Bond says. On the other hand, McCarthy knows plenty about what guns can wreak. In 1993, her husband was killed, and her son severely injured, when a deranged gunman opened fire on a Long Island commuter train.

The NRA sees young voters as a source of growth.

Bond says the NRA’s best chance to expand is to target young voters. She bemoaned President Obama’s digital supremacy, citing his dominance of Romney in the realms of Facebook likes and Twitter retweets. “Obama is kind of the JFK of our generation,” she says. “JFK learned how to use TV. Obama learned how to use social media.” Few in the class looked like digital natives, but Bond’s pitch was sinking in. “We’ve got to educate our children,” says Robert Stevens, a retired home builder from Mississippi, “and explain to them that the NRA is about supporting civil rights.”